Working towards a community of practice in public relations

Working towards a community of practice in public relations

A healthy working relationship between academia and practice makes good business sense. There's plenty of opportunity in public relations. This is the text of a report that I've written for the CIPR based on an online conversation exploring the opportunity for cooperation between public relations academia and practice. A full copy of the document is available via Slideshare.


#1 Project outline

The response to the conversation about a community of practice, kick started in September 2015, has been overwhelming. We sought to explore the potential for mutual cooperation between public relations academics and practitioners.

The plan for a neatly curated conversation quickly broke down as people joined the Facebook community of practice discussion group and noisily debated the opportunity for cooperation.

The CIPR Community of Practice discussion is a public Facebook group created by me on behalf of the CIPR to explore collaboration and cooperation between practitioners, teachers and academics in public relations.

More than 300 people have shared their views candidly and openly. Thank you to those that have participated in the discussions.

The conversations have been mainly focussed on the UK-market reflecting the CIPR’s membership. There is a bigger opportunity in time to make the conversation truly international.

A close working relationship between academia and practice is a hallmark of any professional discipline – enhancing real-world practice with research, reflection and theory.

In public relations this relationship is limited, and without the historical perspective and insight provided for by academics, practitioners lack rigour and are limited to trading in simple crafts and tactics.

As a business in the midst of rapid fundamental change, bringing these two communities closer together will be crucial to us realising our future potential.

#2 Executive summary: next steps

I’ve summarised the main points of the discussion and proposed some practical next steps. My goal is to work with the various stakeholders outlined over the remainder of the year to deliver these.

Proposals fall into two areas.

  • There are some quick fixes that could bring about an immediate and significant improvement in collaboration such as cooperation on awards, conferences, industry schemes and media.
  • There are also some structural issues that need longer term attention. Critically the conversion for students between teaching and practice and the basis on which academic performance is rewarded and recognised both need to be tackled.

I’m working to develop a panel discussion and workshop around this topic at BledCom in July 2016. The subject of the conference is Engagement, so it is fitting and timely.

#3 Vision for a community of practice

The community quickly identified the barriers to close cooperation between academia and practice.

Many practitioners view universities as a one-way, work-ready graduate production line and otherwise see the work of university colleagues as having limited relevance to practice.

Public relations academics may have the opportunity to engage in practice but aren’t recognised or rewarded for their efforts. There are clear lines of delineation and limited opportunity for two-way engagement.

Once a student has completed a university degree there is little formal opportunity for further interchange between practice and universities.

Andrej Drapal elegantly summarised the challenge. He said that academics follow a path of specialization that is forced by university silos and specialized grant schemes. Practitioners tend to understand what they do from the point of tools, different publics and industries.

Drapal set out a very clear vision for collaboration that makes an excellent basis for the purpose of a community of practice.

“All human social practices like language, business, economy, marketing and last but not least public relations should be understood as complex entities. One can understand a part of a complex system only through simultaneous reflection of a system as whole.”

#4 Research accessibility

Sarah Billings shared an article from The Guardian titled Academics are being hoodwinked into writing books nobody can buy. It describes how the market for publishing academic books works.

Academics are writing for their own community, publishing in publications read by a handful of colleagues, rather than for the broader public relations community. It’s the antithesis of democratic knowledge sharing.

Under the Research Excellence Framework, universities are allotted grants on a points based system. Publications benefit from peer review rather than reach and influence.

Martin McGrath shared a guide to the Research Excellence Framework. He said that it will continue to be the primary motivation for researchers in the next few years.

Peggy Simcic Brønn said that when an academic writes an accessible book, such as a textbook, they don’t get work performance recognition. This situation is repeated in many markets

Several community contributors cited accessibility of research as a barrier to cooperation between academics and practitioners.

Google Scholar is a good tool to find relevant research, however most academic journals charge hefty subscriptions or $30 per article. Academics will usually share their work if contacted directly by email.

#5 Conversion from theory to practice

A common refrain of practitioners is that graduates studying public relations aren’t ready for the workplace and need a period of conversion. This is consistent with other disciplines. Employers and practitioners need to have realistic expectations.

Public relations is a practical subject. The value of theory lies in its application to make the practitioner more effective. Yet practitioners frequently fail to see the relevance of theory and rarely value critical thinking.

Comments such as this from Jason Mackenzie are typical. Like me he has retro-fitted formal training on his practice.

“I came to public relations theory late in the day. I had an unsubstantiated suspicion that it was irrelevant. I think lots of practitioners feel that way. I did the CIPR diploma, followed by a Masters in public relations.”

“The challenge for us as a community is to show the intersection between the two and the relevance. We need to break out from our silos,” he said.

Michael White celebrated the ongoing relationship he has with teachers, such as David Phillips and Richard Bailey. He said he has appreciated the opportunity to develop a relationship in his role as a practitioner thanks to social forms of media.

There were several debates about the value of job swaps between academia and practice, such as the scheme hosted by the PRCA. This needs to be sustained and already happens informally in many areas outside London.

#6 Opportunity for shared media

The CIPR Community of Practice discussion has shown the huge potential for dialogue between academics and practitioners in public relations.

A lack of shared media and events has frequently been cited as an issue. I’ll leave the community open for as long as people want to continue to post, share and discuss content. Beyond that here are some potential opportunities for shared media.

  • Behind the Spin - Richard Bailey is the founder and editor of an online community called Behind the Spin. Its purpose is to help prepare students for work and link employers to talent. Here's an invitation explaining how students, practitioners and teachers can contribute.
  • Stockholm Accords - Toni Muzi Falconi cited the Stockholm Accords as an example of an online platform that was developed by the Global Alliance to illustrate the value of public relations.
  • BledCom Symposium – More than 2000 academics and practitioners met in Bled in the past 22 years (approximately 70% academics and 30% practitioners). It has published academic books, special issues of research journals and conference proceedings, and two pragmatic pamphlets.
  • PR Conversations – reflects a wide variety of voices beyond its three principals - Judy Gombita, Markus Pirchner and Heather Yaxley - and regular contributors, including in-house executives, managers and practitioners, consultants and independent practitioners, academics and students and others with information and opinions to share about public relations.Besides shining a light on deserving individuals and new experiences, it offers a platform for robust and informed discussion. A differentiation from other blogs is looking at public relations from a global-local context.
  • Public Relations Educators Forum – PREF is an email list hosted by JISC for people working as public relations educators in the UK higher education system.
  • Wag the Dog FM – Philippe Borremans produces an excellent audio podcast in which he interviews a European academic or practitioner each week.
  • Comms2point0 - this creative network is a mix of awards, training and content focussed on the public sector. It welcomes both academics and practitioners.

This notwithstanding there remains a clear need for a better exchange of information between the two communities.

Donald Steel said that he gives a lecture once a year at the London School of Economics. He said that he is always stunned by the quality of the post grad dissertations based on research but has failed to get someone to publish them.

Susan Kinnear proposed a website repository where universities can upload the best dissertations for practitioners to access. Heather Yaxley suggested organisations and consultancies could offer bursaries for the best work.

Ann Pilkington said academic work needs to be accessible and called on the CIPR’s new publication to publish research.

Both Andy Green and Paul Simpson suggested that there is scope for researchers to write some texts with practitioners in mind and inform debate in the profession.

David Phillips suggested scraping content related to communications management and public relations from and using tools such as Google Scholar to source relevant research for practice. He proposed the development of a community of media to serve this in a practitioner-friendly format.

Johanna Fawkes said that she recently presented a webinar for the PRIA at which 60 practitioners signed up for a presentation discussion on PR and ethics. She suggested that the CIPR could do the same.

Peggy Simcic Brønn leads a practitioner-supported research center on corporate communication at the Norwegian Business School. She regularly holds breakfast meetings and shares work with practitioners.

#7 Best practice and potential areas for mutual cooperation

Several practical opportunities for mutual cooperation have emerged from the group.

  • Awards and conferences – Heather Yaxley called on industry award schemes and conference organisers to invite a balance of academics and practitioners. It’s an obvious and very clear opportunity for cooperation.
  • Access to papers - Google Scholar is a good tool to find relevant research however most academic journals charge hefty subscriptions or $30 per article. Academics will usually share their work if contacted directly by email. The hashtag #icanhazpdf is used to share copyrighted papers.
  • Barcelona Principles - Ann Pilkington cited the development of the recently published Barcelona Principles 2.0 as an example of how academics and practitioners can work together for the greater good of the profession. This provides a good blueprint for future industry initiatives.
  • Continuous Professional Development (CPD) - Steve Shepperson-Smith suggested that reading papers and understanding the theory should be recognised as part of continuous professional development. CIPR members can submit bespoke activities for points but standard activities would be helpful.
  • Case study for undergraduate programme - Michael Blowers has been asked to try and find a suitable case study for 70 UK PR undergraduates to work on later this year. It requires an idea/brief and some sort of feedback on the best submissions. Please contact Michael if you can help.
  • Networks - Paul Simpson has established the 'PR Fraternity' at the University of Greenwich to help students network with industry and alumni from their degree. This maintains a dialogue with graduates who have gone on to become practitioners across a wide range of sectors. This could be repeated by other universities.
  • Practitioners teaching in universities – Sarah Billings said there are many examples at a local level of universities welcoming practitioners to lead guest lectures or workshops. Contact your local university or Higher Education College if you’d like to offer your services.

#8 Reading list/literature review

This list remains a work in progress.

Communication Monitor An eight-year pan-European 41 country academic project on public relations practice in Europe 2007 - 2015

The rewards of collaboration Jon White, CIPR Conversation 12 October 2015

Time to reinvent the wheel for PR education Dr Mary Welch, Institute for PR 4 September 2015

Academics are being hoodwinked into writing books nobody can buy The Guardian 4 September 2015

Citations are not enough: Academic promotion panels must take into account a scholar’s presence in popular media Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr, London School of Economics 9 April 2015

Public relations needs to be rhizomatic – academic, scholarly, professional and practical Heather Yaxley 22 June 2014

Worlds apart - the distance between academics and practitioners Johanna Fawkes 30 September 2014

It’s time for T-shaped communication professionals Dr Mary Welch, Institute for PR 2 July 2013

#9 Contributors

The CIPR Community of Practice discussion is a public Facebook group created by the CIPR to explore collaboration and cooperation between practitioners, teachers and academics in public relations. You can access the community via Facebook.

More than 300 people have shared their views candidly and openly. Thank you to everyone that has participated in the discussions. You’ll find all of the named individuals quoted in this report within the community.

I’d like to acknowledge the work of Jason MacKenzie in helping build the Facebook community and for helping to start and develop many of the contributions. Thank you Jason.

I’d also like to thank Dr Jon White for his mentoring and support throughout this project and my term as President and Past President of the CIPR.

#10 Further information

For further information please contact me by email at or by phone on +44 (0) 7771 851407.

Stephen Waddington October 2015


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