Letters to BledCom: Towards a community of practice in public relations
I’m taking the project that I kick started last year as CIPR Past President to BledCom on 1 – 2 July. The goal is explore ways of improving collaboration between academia and practice in public relations.
BledCom is an annual international public relations research symposium, now in its 23rd year. Engagement is the topic of this year’s conference, so it’s fitting and timely.
Sarah Hall and Jon White will join me in leading a workshop to explore how we might improve the relationship between theory and practice in public relations.
Sarah runs an agency in the UK and is the founder of #FuturePRoof, a community-led project exploring the future of public relations. Jon White is a Visiting Professor, Henley Business School, UK.
The potential for collaboration between academia and practice in public relations has yet to be realised.
Public relations academics and practitioners are isolated from each other. It shouldn’t be this way.
More than 300 people shared their views in an online community last year. The conversations were mainly focused on the UK-market reflecting the CIPR’s membership.
BledCom offers an opportunity to make the conversation truly international. Ahead of the session we invited contributions from academics, teachers and practitioners.
Letters to BledCom
The ask was simple: in a letter to BledCom, characterise the relationship between academia, teaching and practice; and describe how we can develop it through practical initiatives.
We’ve had 21 responses from academics, teachers and practitioners; from Asia, Europe, and the US.
Here are the various contributions to the discussion. We’ve also made the content available as a downloadable PDF (1MB, opens in a new window).
The workshop at BledCom will explore three different areas.
- Research accessibility and the opportunity for shared media
- The professional journey – theory into practice
- Best practice and potential areas for mutual cooperation
We’ll be sure to report back.
|1||Alex Aiken, Executive Director, UK Government Communication Clarity of voices, and clear questions.|
|2||Richard Bailey, Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader, University of the West of England Conflict to consensus; motivation and opportunity; academics, practitioners and institutes.|
|3||Liz Bridgen, Principal Lecturer, Public Relations, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield Value exchange: relationships.|
|4||Peggy Simcic Brønn, Professor, Norwegian School of Management Opportunity and obstacles; and requirement for financial investment.|
|5||Darinka Drapal, Partner, direktorica Financial cost of academic research in practice.|
|6||Anne Gregory, Professor of Corporate Communications Progressing the profession.|
|7||James E. Grunig, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland The relationship between public relations academics and practitioners.|
|8||Jim Hawker, Co-founder, Threepipe Course correction.|
|9||Roger Hayes, Associate Faculty, Henley Business School Accessibility and relevance, and theory in practice.|
|10||Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer, Edge Hill University Participation.|
|11||Lucy Laville, Senior Lecturer, Leeds Beckett University Questionable mentoring.|
|12||Tina McCorkindale, President and CEO, Institute of Public Relations Communities, conferences and communications; and publishing for practitioners.|
|13||Dawn McLean, Head of Public Relations & Communications Professional Programmes, MOL Learn Evolving through ownership.|
|14||Ella Minty, Director, Reputation Division Conferences; and shared experiences.|
|15||Betteke van Ruler, Emeritus Professor of Communication Science, University of Amsterdam Personal and practical; and areas of cooperation.|
|16||Sarah Stimson, Programme Director, Taylor Bennett Foundation; and Editor, PRcareers.co.uk University-employer disconnect; shared knowledge and experience; and diversity.|
|17||Alison Tobin, Research Communications Manager, Cardiff University Professional commitment and exchange, and practical projects.|
|18||Elizabeth Underwood, Independent Practitioner, UnderwoodWorks Embed academia in practice; research applied to practice; and communities and media for collaboration.|
|19||Dejan Vercic, Professor, University of Ljubljana Supply and demand issues; German co-operation; lack of agency intellectual property; and Eastern potential.|
|20||Aniisu K. Verghese, Corporate Communications & CSR Lead, Tesco Bengaluru Mentoring: three creative proposals.|
|21||Jonathan Ward, Lecturer, Newcastle University and Sunderland University Mentoring and teaching; respect for theory; practice to academia; and relationship business.|
My thanks to everyone that has contributed. Thanks to Sarah Hall and Jon White for helping curate the discussion and working with contributors.
Finally, thanks to my daughter Freya Waddington for editing, proofing and managing contributions to the project. She recently finished her GCSEs and offered to help out.
“Part of the problem is academics in competition with each other, the ‘academy’ does not speak to the practice with one voice, nor do practitioners make clear demands on academics.”
Clarity of voice and questions
We appreciate the work done by academics and found them willing to engage with Government Communication Service. There is a great deal more to do in terms of collaboration.
GCS has a good relationship with University of Huddersfield, and academics made contribution to the development of work on The Future of Public Service Communication.
Part of the problem is academics in competition with each other, the ‘academy’ does not speak to the practice with one voice, nor do practitioners make clear demands on academics.
“Public relations practitioners are necessarily among the brightest and most engaging people in society… We need to foster a culture of continuous learning and sharing of ideas.”
Conflict to consensus
Conflict is dramatic; it’s often binary. It appeals to journalistic instincts. Yet public relations people seek consensus – and this can be a dull and worthy process. We have to be able to absorb the blows: to dance like a butterfly but never to sting like a bee.
So it’s no surprise that education and practice are often viewed as opposites (like journalism and public relations) when they are in reality much more closely aligned. For each practitioner berating universities for not producing ‘oven ready’ graduates, I can point to an educator horrified that you still expect students to calculate AVEs.
Can we move on from ‘us’ and ‘them’? Can I suggest some actions that all parties could commit to?
Motivation and opportunity
The funding system requires academics to publish articles in expensive and inaccessible journals, often in impenetrable language (since they are writing only for peer approval). Can academics commit to make as much of their work openly available and accessible (through Open Access journals, through blogging, through organisations like the US-based Institute for Public Relations or through ebooks)?
Let’s incentivise this by recognising those scholars who make a significant contribution to practice, and who seek to make their work accessible. I’d nominate Ron Smith from the US and Anne Gregory from the UK. Should we have an annual prize: who’ll sponsor this?
How do you cope with a changing, complex world? Public relations practitioners are necessarily among the brightest and most engaging people in society. But how do they keep up and keep ahead? Intelligent people are curious and keen to learn. We need to foster a culture of continuous learning and sharing of ideas. The #PRstack and #FuturePRoof projects are good examples of open, collaborative sharing.
Which employers do a good job of developing apprentices, interns and graduates? We need to find ways of recognising and rewarding best practice around diversity and development – as well as naming and shaming bad practice (e.g. unpaid internships).
Institutes can use annual awards to recognise best practice; can support conferences appealing to academics and practitioners; can promote open access publications; can use their publications (eg CIPR’s Influence magazine) to foster exchange of ideas between academics and practitioners (though book reviews, say).
“The community of practice needs… [to] demonstrate how academic practice can actually help public relations practice become more accountable and improve its status among senior management.”
Value exchange: relationships
As a working academic and lecturer I agree with the sentiment of Stephen Waddington's ideas but believe that the actual problem is something rather different. Let me explain.
My experience - during the ten years that I've been 'out' of day-to-day consultancy and 'in' academic life - is that academics and practitioners are not "isolated from each other." While I'd agree that collaboration between academics and practitioners could always be improved, it does exist, and it really, really, works.
Maybe my academic life - one which has always been in Britain's regional cities - is different from any London experience.
Provincial universities offering public relations degrees work constantly with the public relations agencies and public relations teams in their locality because the partnership is valued on both sides.
From a university’s point of view, these regional public relations practitioners are so much more than occasional guest lecturers. They come and present live projects for student assignments. They show students round their premises and explain how they carry out their work. They provide work placements.
If that all sounds a bit one-sided, the public relations industry gets a lot out the relationship as well - for instance in formal Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, having a ready supply of student (paid!) labour for one-off projects and having access to a bank of students that can be used for audience research.
The transaction doesn't end there. Many freelancers also work as regular part-time lecturers, and full-time public relations practitioners are doing Masters and PhDs at these regional universities. In addition, academics sit on CIPR regional committees and host CIPR events.
The exchange of knowledge on both sides goes beyond this and is ongoing, fluid, and constantly expanding. In addition, most academics are active networkers and work hard to build their networks and make sure that their knowledge is at the cutting edge of public relations practice.
Sadly, the limiting factor in these relationships is not willingness to co-operate but time. On the academic side, the networking we do and the relationships we build with industry, while encouraged, are not part of standard academic life and as a result is something we do essentially in our (finite) spare time.
However, there's more to public relations and academia working together than this exchange of ideas. And this is the application of what we’d call ‘theory’ to public relations practice.
Theory means different things to different people. For instance, I’ve always argued strongly against making business school or textbook models fit a certain type of public relations problem and using this model to dictate future decisions. In public relations, we’re dealing with human emotions and you can’t model that.
But theory, and informed critical thinking, also helps us look at the world through different perspectives and allows us to question current practice in an informed way.
Whether it’s considering exploitation of workers (hello, campaigns against unpaid internships) or thinking about ethics (when I started in public relations we did some awful things which wouldn’t even be considered now), or trying to understand why women are underpaid, academics have been at the forefront in helping the public relations industry research and understand complex problems.
The other day I heard about a well-known blogger who told his conference audience that floating stuff down the Thames was a really bad idea.
He’s right, of course – but academics have been talking about audiences, audience research, how to reach certain audiences and the importance of dialogue for years. We just weren’t very good at publicising it beyond our own research circles.
That brings me to the central issue. Academics and public relations practitioners have been working together for years. But we’re really, really bad at telling people about it. (A case in point is that the Bled panel doesn’t contain a jobbing, full-time academic/lecturer).
So perhaps what the community of practice needs is not so much a bringing together of two sides who already work together but a willingness to celebrate and develop what’s already happening and demonstrate how academic practice can actually help public relations practice become more accountable and improve its status among senior management.
Maybe this collaboration will bear fruit in terms of greater gains - such as the funding by the public relations industry of academic research which helps develop public relations practice - or will simply result in a body of practice that is more aware of the world outside the public relations 'bubble'. It will be interesting to see what happens next.
“We do a once-a-month 'look what we found for you' newsletter, holding breakfast meetings on topical subjects that are more practical…These things cost money, however, and we have to have external funding from the practitioner community to do it.”
Opportunities and obstacles
If practitioners are highly motivated and engaged it works well, i.e. they're not in it just to get tools to take back to their office to try out, or in the case of agencies hanging around to network and get business out of it, or to put on their CV that they lecture at our school. Those who have a genuine interest in learning and furthering the field (sort of a social responsibility thing) are the best to work with.
My biggest problem is the practitioner community not having a clue as to what academics do, how research is carried out, the length of time it takes to do things, the value of theory underpinning decisions, what exactly schools do, how they operate, the lack of money, the inability to spend money, the value of traditional research to us (considered boring by practitioners) versus short-term get a lot of attention projects.
That being said, there are plenty of academics who also do not understand practitioners. We (the Centre I head) have now started sending out a magazine with the research condensed into two-page articles with graphs and photos, do a once-a-month 'look what we found for you' newsletter, holding breakfast meetings on topical subjects that are more practical, and so on.
These things cost money, however, and we have to have external funding from the practitioner community to do it. The national public relations society simply does not have the academic network to provide the most up-to-date research results or thinking. We have the network but there is no way the school is going to pay for breakfast meetings, magazines, etc. for a niche area where there is no immediate financial reward.
Requirement for financial investment
If we are going to really build this bridge to the practitioner community, we need their money, and that is hard to get. Those who are really invested in furthering the field are more likely to support us. But finding them is very tough and keeping them is even tougher. They have to rationalize taking money from their department's budget to give it to our school and they need to 'prove' that this relationship has value for their organization.
Agencies are different from those working in organizations (private, public or non-profit). They have other issues, one of which is using the network to find customers. Our corporate supporters have decided not to have agencies as supporters so that they can talk more openly and freely.
“What is the price of bringing the academics into practice and who should pay this price – public relations agencies, clients or public relations associations?”
Financial cost of academic research in practice
We can discuss building bridges among academics and practitioners for ever but without any reasonable results if we are not able to put this cooperation into a financial perspective.
As a practitioner I tried several times to bring scholars into my projects (I have my own public relations agency working with some important Slovenian clients) but the major problem was that my clients were not prepared to pay a certain amount for academics as they were simply too expensive.
I succeeded only once when I convinced my client that for a very comprehensive research we should work together with the Institute for measuring public opinion at our Faculty for Social Sciences, as the preparation and execution of the research was really very demanding and there was a need to develop a completely new research model.
Academic research was ten times more expensive than a private research company.
So my point is going to the very basic questions – what is the price of bringing the academics into practice and who should pay this price – public relations agencies, clients or public relations associations?
I’m sorry to put such a fundamental question, but my opinion is that there will be much more interest for collaboration between practitioner and academics if this cooperation will be paid in accordance with the financial expectations of academics.
“The academic institution that best serves its students will be one that grounds them in a core understanding of public relations but which then rapidly opens their eyes and minds to what is actually happening in the business world.”
Don’t rip off students by taking tens of thousands of pounds and teaching them an outdated curriculum that bears no relevance to the world in which they will be entering.
Ditch the text books that are out of date before they are written and instead read relevant news sites every day that keep on top of the latest trends and thinking that should be filling the minds of the next generation.
Don’t fall into the trap of just inviting participation from the world of public relations and the contacts you made at the last CIPR event you may have attended. Public relations as you knew it no longer exists.
Media buying agencies, ad agencies, SEO agencies all now compete with public relations agencies because clients think they can get what they want from any of these contacts – siloes no longer exist.
The academic institution that best serves its students will be one that grounds them in a core understanding of public relations but which then rapidly opens their eyes and minds to what is actually happening in the business world.
“What is required is an open mind, a willingness to challenge and engage, a determination to see the value of the contribution from both sides. If the focus is the progress of the profession and a determination to see it thrive, the combination of practitioner and academic is potent and productive.”
Progressing the profession
Public relations as a field for teaching and research came into existence in the UK in the late 1990s and grew rapidly. During that period of growth there were very few academics who came up through the academic route of PhD study and then on to teaching and research. Most staff in academia came from practice and I was one of those people. I had worked as a journalist for the BBC and then held senior positions in house and was a Board Director in a major consultancy before crossing the great divide.
To have a career in academia you have to undertake publishable research and teach theoretical concepts as well as the basics of practice. It is a challenge for those new to academia to make that transition and they have to work hard to find a niche in research that will get them published (you have to have something new and different to contribute) and to establish academic credibility. You have to play by the academic rules and these are not the practitioner rules.
The rules require you to focus on theoretical insights and undertake original research work. This can move you away from the practice. You can stand back and become an analyser and critique of the practice: an observer on it rather than someone who reflects in and/or with it.
Academia is tribal. You gain recognition as belonging to a particular school of thought depending on your methodological and philosophical stance. To give a flavour of this variety in public relations there are those who pursue functional or post-modern approaches, belong to the rhetorical or critical school, ascribe to a sociological or management perspective etc. and these again can seem alien and irrelevant to practice. Intellectually and academically they are important.
My perspective is that I don't want to be labelled, although others label me. I will be functional when it seems appropriate, take a social construction stance at times, look at the business literature, and draw from economics and sociology as seems right.
I am fascinated by the practice of public relations. I will be critical of it when that is called for, for example my 2012 Public Relations Review paper on Government Communications, but I also want it to progress and thrive. I think it can make a difference to society and to organisations.
That difference can be for the good and that's where I want to see public relations heading. That's why I engage with and work with practitioners. I want to make the practice more soundly based in theory, I want to see its boundaries recognised and respected, and I want it to become socially more acceptable. These are indicators of a profession. I also want it to be more professional in its work which is why I also examine aspects of practice.
For me it was a necessity to engage with the profession and my route to that was through the professional body. One of the first things I did when I became an academic was to join the then IPR, now the CIPR. I had paranoia about getting out of touch with the practice, and to be honest, I thought there was work to be done and money to be made in developing courses for the profession and in supporting it with research and consultancy work. This turned out to be true. My area of study has become contemporary issues in the practice, first on a national basis and now globally.
There is rich and rewarding work to be done at the nexus of practice and theory and this work is eminently publishable in the higher ranking journals in our field. It is personally deeply satisfying to feel that I have in small ways “moved the profession along” by doing work and research that helps it. This includes being at the sharp end of teaching Executive Education programmes to and with the most senior practitioners who are not forgiving of those who don’t add value.
The reason I am not in Bled this year is because I am teaching one such programme in Spain at one of the prestigious Business Schools there.
I also think that the roles I have taken on as President of the CIPR and Chair of the Global Alliance show to the world that this is a serious profession recognised in academia. The pay back I get from practitioners is substantial. There are many thinking practitioners who want to engage in theory and practice development and I learn from them at every encounter. They are generous, interested and regard the academic/practitioner divide as a nonsense that holds our progress back.
Call to action
What is required is an open mind, a willingness to challenge and engage, a determination to see the value of the contribution from both sides. If the focus is the progress of the profession and a determination to see it thrive, the combination of practitioner and academic is potent and productive.
“Do research (in the case of academics) and embrace research (in the case of practitioners)…Research must produce theories that relate to problems experienced by practitioners. Failures have resulted because practitioners only wanted confirmation of what they are already doing or what they believe. Academics…[must] make an effort to explain their theories in practical terms.
The relationship between public relations academics and practitioners
I have had many good relationships with practitioners over the years. My first positive experience occurred in the 1970s when I worked as a consultant to the AT&T Public Relations Department to develop a plan for evaluating the company’s public relations programs. This relationship lasted for nearly five years. I was able to bring a theoretical perspective into the program AT&T was developing, and the AT&T practitioners brought practical questions into the discussion. As a result, the question of “will it work in practice” has been central to my research and teaching throughout my career.
My next major relationship with practitioners came during the nearly 20 years of work on the IABC Excellence research project. IABC practitioners proposed the initial research questions, and the members of my research team refined them and worked closely with a team of practitioners to design the research project. One of the team members, Fred Repper, was an experienced practitioner who brought an important applied perspective to the project. At each stage of the project, Fred would say “this is how this idea worked in my experience.” Throughout the project, members of the research team constantly interacted with the professionals on the IABC Research Foundation board.
A third successful relationship was my service on the (US) Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission. For many years, academics and practitioners have served jointly on this commission; and the result has been much improved standards for measurement and evaluation.
Throughout my teaching career, I also used professional clients as a basis for the research conducted by students in both undergraduate and graduate seminars. Practitioners suggested information they needed to know, the students and I interacted with them throughout the semester, together we designed the research, and at the end we met with the practitioners to report the results of our research and their implications for their practice. Practitioners, students, and professor all learned a great deal from each other through these projects.
I also had a productive relationship for many years with Pat Jackson of the Jackson, Jackson, & Wagner public relations firm. This included the exchange of many ideas, joint appearances at professional conferences, writing of an insert on research for Pat’s publication pr reporter, and joint work on an evaluation program for the Brookhaven National Laboratory (a US Department of Energy research facility). Pat was interested in theory as well as practice, and I was interested in practice as well as theory. The result was a productive relationship. I also have had similar productive relationships with Fraser Likely of Canada and Toni Muzi Falconi of Italy.
In both cases, the relationship has resulted in joint publications, presentations, and meetings with other practitioners.
I also worked as a research consultant for a number of clients over the years. In every case, I was able to conduct research that answered their questions about their programs and that also answered theoretical research questions that were important to me and that often led to publication in research journals.
Strong working research relationship
- Each one of these relationships involved research of some kind. In each case, I was able to conduct research that answered important practical questions of practitioners. For a successful research partnership, however, I believe two things are necessary:A practitioner with an open, inquiring mind who is not afraid to question what he or she does or is open to new ideas. I would call such a practitioner a research-minded practitioner. Such a practitioner also is open to theory, one who realizes that a theory is nothing more than a solution to a problem and not an esoteric, impractical idea. Thinking of my own theory of publics, this criterion requires an academic to know his or her public. A good relationship is possible with an actively communicating, problem-solving member of a practitioner public. It is not possible with members of a nonpublic or a public engaged in what I call routine habitual behavior. The latter types of publics don’t recognize any problems in their work and routinely and habitually do the same things for clients or their organizations day in and day out without thinking much about it.
- An academic who can articulate and explain theoretical ideas in practical terms. I believe I have been successful in this way because of my background in science communication as well as in public relations. Practitioners can understand and appreciate theory, but it has to be explained in terms that are relevant to them.
Obstacles to a productive relationship
Most often, failures have resulted because practitioners only wanted confirmation of what they are already doing or what they believe. For example, many practitioners only want evaluative research if it confirms the value of what they already are doing. They don’t want evaluation that requires them to change or to do something new. Many practitioners also do not attempt to think theoretically. Research has little value unless it results in theory. Many academics also fail in this relationship because they consider themselves above practitioners and do not make an effort to explain their theories in practical terms.
Value in research
Do research (in the case of academics) and embrace research (in the case of practitioners). If academics do not conduct research of one kind or another, they have nothing to offer practitioners. In addition to having academic value, however, their research must produce theories that relate to problems experienced by practitioners. To embrace research, practitioners must open their minds to the value of theory and be willing to think abstractly. A good theory can solve many problems, so practitioners must be able and willing to think expansively. A good theory goes beyond simple everyday experiences. An abstract theory is most valuable because it offers solutions to many problems and is therefore economical for thinking.
“In the end we have to understand that public relation is immature, especially in emerging countries and interdisciplinary, so research and teaching needs to be sensitive to that.”
I’m an examiner for the CIPR diploma, as well as teach on masters’ courses and executive education programs in various countries.
I also have 35 years’ experience in the practice internationally and did my doctorate later in life because I felt the practice could benefit from more rigour and intellectual grounding. Thus I have a 360 degree perspective on the gap between academia and practice.
Accessibility and relevance
My interpretation is that much of the practice, if not all, does not believe gaining public relation qualifications to be as important as experience. One of the major consultancies I know well believes in qualifications, including at masters level, but prefers history, languages, politics, and business studies. Many people I know in the practice believe the existing theory to be out of date and irrelevant to the internet age and globalisation.
Much of the research undertaken by academics is not perceived to be relevant to practice, or, if it is, not written up in a way that can be understood by practitioners. So the structure of academic articles and style of writing can be an obstacle to understanding on the part of practitioners.
On the other hand I am often surprised how practitioners seem to be developing ideas without any framework at all.
Theory in practice
I was at a public relation research conference recently and while some of the papers were outstanding I had to keep asking the question - where’s the relevance and how is this going to help solve this practical problem, help this country or corporate positioning? In my view, as an advocate of academia and practice becoming more aligned, there will need to be much more dialogue between the two, particularly as other disciplines are encroaching and technology is evolving at such a speed.
One positive observation is that some business and policy courses in which I am involved in are beginning to build in modules on topics such as reputation, relationships and responsibility, linking public relation concepts with business and policy concepts, such as governance, sustainability, finance, strategy etc. In the end we have to understand that public relations is immature, especially in emerging countries and interdisciplinary, so research and teaching needs to be sensitive to that.
“You’d need to create a situation in which students, academic staff and the relevant practitioners felt they had both benefits and obligations as part of the [job swap and mentoring] scheme.”
I wonder when you stop being a practitioner and start being an academic? Despite being at Edge Hill University for close on ten years, I still think of myself as a practitioner. Like many, I do public relations for local groups, I broadcast, I sit on committees advising on public relations, I represent the University as a spokesperson. However, clearly I am not turning up every day to an agency, or to an in house team and my working time is more teaching and research than anything else. I mention this as many of us in this debate are not one or the other, but somewhere along a line, and at times we move one way, at times another. My first thought then, is that we have to recognize this and realize that the divide is not necessarily that.
However, being a practical person, I wanted to make a couple of more practical suggestions. We love having guest speakers at Edge Hill. Someone giving up a few hours from their public relations role outside brings an immediacy to the classroom that can be hard to replicate. And speakers seem to love coming. I suspect however that we give them a misleading impression of academia with these short visits. Organised job swaps - with a public relations academic swapping with a practitioner for (say) a Semester may do the trick.
Both employers would have to be pretty supportive, and it would only work for certain people, but a Semester gives the practitioner a chance to experience the joys (!) of marking and admin as well as the actual classroom sessions. And I personally know I would benefit from concentrating for 12 or 13 weeks on doing the job of public relations. It may be that there are partnerships in which this already happens. If so it would be great to hear more about them.
More formal mentoring schemes might work too. Perhaps there are reasonably senior practitioners out there who would want to take on a small group of students to mentor and stay in touch with over a year. This could involve meetings and visits, but also just keeping in touch and advising. This I suspect would give more of a sense of what students do and what they experience as well as providing useful feedback to academic staff about what might need more or less emphasis. The CIPR could give CPD points for something like this and I suspect it would be pretty rewarding. You'd need to create a situation in which students, academic staff and the relevant practitioners felt they had both benefits and obligations as part of the scheme, but I can't see any losers from this.
“In the many academic papers on mentoring, across a range of disciplines, issues are explored and critiqued…Sadly, none of the public relations professional bodies consulted academic literature to understand the value of a mentoring relationship.”
Recent academic research identified that of the forty professional public relation associations across the world only ten had a mentoring programme (Kiesenbauer, 2014), which are on average ranked as moderately satisfactory, with fewer than ten mentoring pairs, by those who run them.
Other academic research considers that forms of mentoring and networking are part and parcel of the management of individual career project (Anderson-Gough, 2006), one of the key career development and advancement tools in the organisational milieu (Simonetti et al.,1999) and a critical on-the-job training development tool for career success for both men and women (Hunt and Michael, 1983).
In the many academic papers on mentoring, across a range of disciplines, issues are explored and critiqued including gender challenges and differences, peer and reverse mentoring, lifecycle, and contributions to professional development with well-informed theories and models of best practice.
Sadly, none of the public relations professional bodies consulted academic literature to understand the value of a mentoring relationship (Kiesenbauer, 2014).
Indeed I could run off a range of similar vignettes that may allow the public relation profession to see some benefit to engaging with academia based around the subject of professional development, or the red herring that is the obsession some have with public relations being a profession (Ingham, 2015).
“Many universities require professors to publish in peer-reviewed journals that are not read outside of academia. I think academics need to do a better job of ensuring that their contributions are relevant to the profession, and answer the ‘so what?’ question.”
Communities, conferences and communications
Practitioners have a misperception about academics and who they are - they need to question the epistemology of their perception (or how do they know what they know). Is it their perception of what they learned at a university years ago? Is their perception based on what they see on television? Is the perception based on an encounter with an academic? Is it based on the hires they get in the workplace? One of the challenges even academics are seeing in higher education is a decline in the writing ability of many graduates – does this translate to ineffectiveness on the part of the professor?
At a Summit in NYC in May 2015 that brought academics and practitioners together, it was clear the latter group thought professors were still teaching press kits and how to fax news releases. Rochelle Ford, Chair at the Syracuse University Newhouse School, commented that this was not the case, and many professors are teaching what the practitioners want. However, many universities also require general education/liberal arts classes to help give students a broader perspective, and enhance their critical thinking skills.
On the other hand, there are professors who don’t update the content of their classes, and they are disconnected from the profession, which is a tremendous mistake. This is why professors must stay updated, join industry groups, and do fellowships.
We need Summits where we talk and get feedback from practitioners to find out what is important to them. Additionally, practitioners should be teaching as guest lecturers in the universities. Plank Center does a great educator fellowship that is a positive step. Societies like Arthur W. Page Society. Last weekend I was at AMEC, and I can count the number of academic attendees on one hand.
Publishing for practitioners
One tremendous challenge is the structure of the university system. With the expectation to do research, many universities (especially R1s) require professors to publish in peer-reviewed journals that are not read outside of academia. Many universities also don’t require their educators to be connected to the profession – it’s the ivory tower concept.
Additionally, they don’t boil down the ‘so what?’ I think academics need to do a better job of ensuring that their contributions are relevant to the profession, and answer the “so what?” question. Publications that professors publish in are formulaic, stilted, and too long. If this system changed, it would make a big difference.
“I did little as a practitioner to engage with academics and inform them of changes in my practice and why there was a need for the change. Something no longer worked and therefore failed, we assumed it would work because it had in the past. We learned from this mistake.”
Evolving through ownership
To break the glass ceiling you need to excel yourself and sometimes this involves a lot of trial and error. Everyone makes mistakes, it is how we learn, it is how we evolve and innovate new ideas. As an academic I rarely have the opportunity to practice public relations and whilst I know of the theories and models of how public relations should work, and I have ample case studies from when I used to practice, I still need to continue reading to ensure I am as up to date as I can be for my classes.
The one item I am missing is the key element of how we have learned to adapt to our ever changing landscape, our mistakes. We offer awards to the most catastrophic mistake made this year. I often think that Britain has this over-riding fear of failure and public relations cradles this fear and has turned it into a crazed atychiphobia.
As someone with ADHD I suffered this badly until a new director came to communications department and he delivered a fancy presentation from his apple gadget, which showcased some of his triumphs and equally some mistakes he made in his career. For the first time I saw a communicator who was human, who knew he had made mistakes and would not shirk off the development opportunities his team may have from any mistakes made.
Essentially he did not expect us to be robots. From this point on I had a total different perception of what a mistake was, a learning opportunity and I think as professionals we should reflect on them more often.
As a public relations practitioner I had this opinion that academics are a little out of touch and do not understand how public relations works in the practicing world, but as an academic myself I do not think this is the case at all. I did little as a practitioner to engage with academics and inform them of changes in my practice and why there was a need for the change. Something no longer worked and therefore failed, we assumed it would work because it has in the past. We learned from this mistake and we will continue to measure the success to make sure it still works.
I am delighted that I am lucky enough to have a great network of professionals who are keen to share stories of what is working well, especially in the digital world right now but what I really want to know is what mistakes they have learned from.
Today, foundation award learners are receiving their results and I think back to the day I learned I had dramatically failed my CAM foundation public relations exam. I was so embarrassed as it was my job and what I wanted to do badly and I had studied so hard for it. My feedback said I needed to concentrate on campaigns in the media more rather than just the theories and models. What I truly learned from this was resilience - I picked myself up, dusted myself down and resat the exam where I scored a high B (merit) and here I am ten years later a Chartered PR Practitioner.
I think of all the mistakes I have made over the last ten years, some of them school girl errors, some massive catastrophes and I am happy to share each one of those with my learners to make sure they can be the best public relations practitioner they can ever be. Let’s take ownership of our mistakes and share them openly and freely.
“Learning about media relations, video production and social media engagement platforms – while very useful – can hardly be expected to represent the principle pillars of practitioner knowledge. The theory underpinning the public relation academic courses needs to expand and anticipate the current international landscape of our influence…different needs, different learning angles and different academic knowledge.”
Conferences and shared experiences
Seldom the academic objectives of UK’s public relation undergraduate and postgraduate degree studies meet the skills requirements of employers (in-house and agencies) and those of the practitioners themselves.
The theory of public relations and communications degree-taught studies need to reflect the ever-changing landscape of the profession, not just in terms of the execution skills (posting on or measuring the SM engagement level) but, also, in terms of the strategic ones.
Learning about media relations, video production and social media engagement platforms – while very useful – can hardly be expected to represent the principle pillars of practitioner knowledge.
The theory underpinning the public relation academic courses needs to expand and anticipate the current international landscape of our influence: there are practitioners who will use Google Analytics, for instance, but there will also be practitioners who’ll be advising Prime Ministers and Heads of State: different needs, different learning angles and different academic knowledge.
I believe there will never be a full alignment between the public relation academic curriculum and the constantly changing landscape of the remit surrounding the public relation profession. What can be easily achieved, though, is to have a Public Relations Academic Group – composed of various representatives of UK universities – to meet (at least biannually) with the Board Members/Councils of the UK industry bodies: CIPR and PRCA and analysis, based on the latter’s robust analysis and future predictions, where the gaps are likely to be and what would be the most suitable academic knowledge for those wishing to pursue a career in new media, public affairs, international relations, business management etc.
Having lectured for several undergraduate courses at Robert Gordon and Napier University, it is my direct observation that whilst the academic concepts are well embedded in the students’ uptake of the various issues I have lectured on, they have limited capability (almost none at all) to relate the theory to a real case/role-play scenario.
It is my view that a public relations practitioner without an academic background in a subject-matter directly related to the public relations and communication sciences will not be as knowledgeable, analytical and strategically-savvy as one who has an undergraduate or post-graduate public relations/communications degree.
“One of our fundamental universities developed a laboratory in which students, scholars and professionals together develop designs for communication problem solutions.”
Personal and practical
Scholars focus on financially lucrative subjects in order to harvest funding and guaranteed publications in scientific journals rather than fundamental research.
Practitioners on the other hand want, and need, answers to practical problems to decide on what to do in a certain situation. So, that is a bit Venus and Mars.
Some examples of how I have tried to achieve my goals:
- I developed two very serious publications with the look of a glossy magazine titled Communicatie NU (you can look it up on managementboek.nl) for which I asked practitioners as well as scholars to contribute e.g. elaborate on what they do in diverse relevant genres (interviews, blogs, 7 questions to, testimonials, etc.)
- Recently I published a book called CommTalks (look it up on the same site) with essays from 40 thought leaders: practitioners as well as scholars to tell what they see as important for the coming years and what this means for daily practice
- In a small group we helped our association of practitioners (called Logeion) to set up so called COM Labs: meetings within universities for professionals, where scholars tell them in normal words what their research is all about and what it can add to practice, and interact with professionals about their research (unfortunately this interaction is still not much more than answering questions, but it is a start)
- Years ago I wrote a booklet addressing the question: do we need to abandon one way communication? (No, of course not, all we have to abandon is Sending Out Stuff). It was a very theoretical book, but written in non-scientific language. It was a best seller and the model I deducted in that theoretical exercise is still the most used model in practice (called the communication grid). I published about it in Public Relations Review, 2005.
At this very moment I am working on a small booklet on the main communication theories with indications on which ones can help to solve what communication problem in what way. I analyzed mainstream public relations literature, wrote a scientific article about it for the new journal Communication Management Review (will be launched at BledCom, I think), and will give a short presentation at BledCom on Saturday. Overall aim: I want to help professionals to learn to see how rich communication science is and what they can learn from it.
I could not have done these kind of publications during my academic career. It takes quite some time and universities do not like scholars to develop professional publications. They want us to act in the scientific community. But I have been retired for six years now. So, make use of the older scholars and ask them to do these kinds of things.
Areas of cooperation
Some of our applied universities have so called Lectors, associated professors, who are paid by their institute to do applied research. Some of them are very active in doing this together with the teachers of their institutes so that students get involved, too, or even with professionals (who then can start to publish about this research or even write a dissertation).
One of our fundamental universities developed a laboratory in which students, scholars and professionals together develop designs for communication problem solutions. This is very exciting, I think, and very promising. Caroline Wehrmann is the founding mother of this idea.
One of our serious publishers (Boom) tried to develop a knowledge bank, like Further Education Law people have. I was one of their advisors in this project, but it failed. This had to do with the business case (nobody was eager to promise to pay for it) but also because scholars could not give their publications since scientific publishers still hold all copyrights and they are not willing to write especially for such a bank, and because practitioners could not formulate what kind of knowledge they would like to have.
Years ago, our association published a quarterly for which scholars were asked to write articles, but it disappeared because it was too expensive and too time consuming. Our association still has a special chair at one of our universities, paid by the members, but they question the costs and benefits and I agree that this is disputable. I would suggest that they should invest in practical publications with serious content.
“It’s useful not only for practitioners to go to universities to share their experiences with academics and students, but for academics to go into industry to share academic insight – and papers – perhaps as part of a formal CPD programme for practitioners. In this way students benefit from seeing how theory is applied in practice, and practitioners benefit from learning how their practice can be improved with the application of theory.”
I have the unique perspective of someone who works with graduates who have left university but not quite entered employment. Some of those graduates have public relations degrees and employers occasionally lament that the practical skills of public relations graduates are not up to scratch.
There is a role for academics to play in setting expectations of employers and their students. Many public relations graduates will find that what they have learned at university becomes useful further into their career and that can be a challenge too, as they struggle to realise that the theory they learned in lectures will not be put to practical use immediately.
There is, however, a disconnect between life as a public relations student and life as a public relations practitioner and that’s a gap that many employers find painful to fill, but the responsibility must lie with them to ensure that entry-level employees receive the training and experience they need to build relevant comms skills.
The most practical way to do that is to offer paid internships, either as part of an industry placement for a public relations course, or as a shorter placement during university holidays. Finding a good quality, useful placement is difficult for many public relations students and the industry must be more open to offering places to students with a view to building on the theory they have learned on their course.
Shared knowledge and experience
Working more closely with academics to provide placements will ensure that more public relations graduates leave university not only with a good foundation of theoretical understanding, but also with a more rounded knowledge of how to apply practical skills in the workplace.
I would also argue that it’s useful not only for practitioners to go to universities to share their experiences with academics and students, but for academics to go into industry to share academic insight – and papers – perhaps as part of a formal CPD programme for practitioners. In this way students benefit from seeing how theory is applied in practice, and practitioners benefit from learning how their practice can be improved with the application of theory.
When I launched PRcareers.co.uk earlier this year I made a deliberate choice to feature not only public relations practitioners but also academics and students. I feel it is important to close the gap between the two and I chose to put them on equal footing on my platform to encourage knowledge sharing and understanding. This could be reflected more broadly across industry media and there is an opportunity there for practitioners and academics to offer opinion and informed discussion of industry issues together.
There is also an opportunity for public relations employers to work with universities to encourage a more diverse range of young people to study public relations and then move into the industry. The talent pool will remain predominantly white and middle class unless a bigger move is made to broaden interest in communications as a study subject and career, and the industry will fail to reap the benefits of a more diverse workforce.
“It should be compulsory for public relations academics to spend time in practice. The emphasis on impact in academia is an excellent opportunity for academics and professionals to work together and influence each other’s areas of work.”
I write this from the perspective of someone who did an MA in Public Relations before starting a career in public relations, and is now a practitioner who has spent a significant amount of time working in higher education.
I chose to do my Masters at Manchester Metropolitan University, because of the blend of theory, practice and access to practitioners. We had guest speakers from across the industry, lecturers who were also working as practitioners, and each student was assigned a professional mentor.
This allowed you to learn theory and see straight away how it was (or wasn’t) applied to practice.
I think there probably exists (as there does in a number of profession based academic subjects) a slight mistrust between practitioners and academics, the attitude that ‘well they’ve obviously gone into academia because they couldn’t hack it in the real world’.
There’s also friction in academia between those who’ve only ever worked in academia and those who’ve come into academia from practice.
I work in a university but have very little contact with the people who run our public relations and communications courses and would say that this is probably the case with many universities in the UK.
This needs to change and those of us working in Higher Education should be doing more to develop these relationships and are best placed to act as initial links between academia and practice.
I have access to libraries and online journals but very rarely use them to influence my practice and I recognise that as a failure on my part and am trying to rectify this.
Professional commitment and exchange
- All professional member associations should have an academic on their governing body
- All professional member associations should encourage their various committees to have academic representatives on them
- Keeping up to date with theory should be a compulsory part of CPD
- Look at best practice that exists in other professions such as law and medicine and see if/how the public relations profession can learn from it
- Each sector/region of the UK to set up working groups between public relations practitioners and public relations academics who meet on a regular basis to identify opportunities where they can work together, collaborate on projects etc.
At Cardiff University we have a noticeboard on the intranet where researchers post when they are looking for participants for their research projects. Maybe there should be something similar public relations academics could use when looking for participants and encourage practitioners to get involved in the research process
Set up book clubs where professionals and academics can get together on a regular basis to discuss current thinking and theory, how this could be applied to practice. This could be done virtually or in an informal social setting
It should be compulsory for public relations academics to spend time in practice (maybe this should be embedded into their appraisals and/or be a part of the Teaching Excellence Framework).
The emphasis on impact in academia is an excellent opportunity for academics and professionals to work together and influence each other’s areas of work.
“If the public relations industry is serious about wanting 'the close working relationship between academia and practice (that) is a hallmark of any professional discipline', can we really endorse continuous professional development (CPD) schemes that don't demand engagement with the research, reflection and theory of academic colleagues?”
I'm starting with a confession. In the late 1980s, I began my public relations career at a small, all-female London agency specialising in construction. A sustained period in the European public relations team of a global insurance broker followed, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall.
When Labour came to power in 1997, I was in the right place at the right time and created from scratch a national communications team working in the eye of a high profile education initiative: text-book Daily Mail fodder.
Yet it was only last year, working on the essay that has helped gain me CIPR Chartered status this year that I first visited a university library to learn about the underpinning theory of best practice in measurement and evaluation.
What took me so long? And what does my experience tell us about what public relations practitioners and academic colleagues can do differently so that a career doesn’t forge ahead for a quarter of a century and more before practice and theory begin to inform one another? Here are three suggestions.
Embed academia in practice
First, grab them young - at university, when they begin traineeships at the big agencies and when they join professional bodies such as the CIPR and the PRCA.
Make it easy for practitioners finding their feet to know what to read to help them reflect on the campaigns they are planning, managing, measuring and evaluating. There are volumes worth reading and volumes of flimsily argued papers that are best side-stepped.
Practitioners need the knowledge of academic colleagues to direct us to the first and steer us away from the second by compiling lists of recommendations under themes chosen to reflect our day-to-day priorities and preoccupations.
Research applied to practice
Second, make academic endeavour meaningful by linking it to what's happening every day in offices, train stations and conference venues right across Europe and internationally. In particular, practitioners want to hear from academics when they are designing research so that we can contribute from the very beginning and be instrumental in bringing theory and practice together.
Communities and media for collaboration
Third, let's talk more and start putting an end to our mutual isolation. If we're honest, most of us see academia as an obstacle at best, an irrelevance at worst. Deadlines drive us. But for no money and not much time, we could be exchanging ideas at Skype symposia, planning research through Twitter talks and critiquing TED talks.
Once we get a dialogue going, we'll start seeing that academic colleagues can provide us with a framework for continually improving what we offer the organisations we work with. At the same time, academics will be developing networks that will give them direct access to a body of practice.
I began with a confession. I'm ending with a question. If the PR industry is serious about wanting 'the close working relationship between academia and practice (that) is a hallmark of any professional discipline', can we really endorse continuous professional development (CPD) schemes that don't demand engagement with the research, reflection and theory of academic colleagues?
“The main obstacle is short-termism in the agency sector. In business and government there is only so much that can legitimately be invested in innovation in public relations, but for agencies there is no excuse. It is scandalous that no single agency is known for its intellectual capital.”
Supply and demand issues
Public relations is labour and not knowledge intensive, it is conservative, low and slow on innovation. It has limited capabilities to work with universities and other research institutions. There were some initiatives (e.g. Fombrun-Shandwick co-operation on reputation), but far too few.
Also on the academic side, we have to admit that until very recently public relations studies were seated mainly in second or third rate universities, as they were there as cash cows for their universities and not as excellence research centres. So, there are problems on both the demand and supply side. Only recently top level universities started with studies in public relations but it will take time to develop a critical mass.
The best co-operation at the moment exists in Germany where practitioners purposefully seek knowledge (and many even higher educational degrees). There is a dual system providing highly-educated technicians (at what would in the old UK system be called polytechnics) and top educated future managers at top universities. Unfortunately, too much of that is proprietary knowledge, so we have only limited insight into what is going on.
Lack of agency intellectual property
The main obstacle is short-termism in the agency sector. In business and government there is only so much that can legitimately be invested in innovation in public relations, but for agencies there is no excuse. It is scandalous that no single agency is known for its intellectual capital (compare that to the status of McKinsey & Co in the consultancy sector and how other consultancies try to compete in respect with it).
At the same time, it is not attractive for agencies to co-operate with second or third tier universities, so the emergence of public relations studies at the top universities will facilitate new opportunities.
We live in a situation of a permanent crisis (financial, geopolitical, security…) and crises have always been fertile for public relations development. Investments of government defence structures in public relations are obvious and they may have spill-over effects into other sectors. However, I expect Asia, in particularly China, to enter the game in the next two decades and the resulting panic will benefit the sector, both academic and practice.
“My recommendations are to initiate a ‘twinning’ program, demonstrate value by solving large, practical problems and encourage practitioners and academicians to serve as mentors for students and budding communication professionals globally.”
Mentoring: three creative proposals
As an internal communication practitioner and a novice researcher in an emerging market like India it has personally been a daunting journey to understand good practice, gain insights, forge partnerships and learn from academicians and practitioners alike. The challenges are numerous and quite different compared to other parts of the world – public relations or corporate communications is yet to be viewed as strategic in nature and there is limited buy-in from leaders. Furthermore, mistrust stifles knowledge sharing and the domain isn’t a preferred choice for students.
Most multi-national companies with operations in the country bring in best practices that encourage open and transparent communication, provide opportunities for communication professionals to shape their careers and build industry-academia engagement. There are limited opportunities for academia and communication practitioners to engage apart from conferences held by groups such as the Public Relations Council of India or the IABC’s local chapter. Therefore conversations in organizations often ignore research led insights that can make communication more meaningful and business successful.
Having taught at business schools in the country, run workshops on internal communications, blogged on the topic and addressed communities in the region I feel there are opportunities to raise awareness and bridge the gap between theory and practice.
To operationalize the engagement my recommendations are to initiate a ‘twinning’ program, demonstrate value by solving large, practical problems and encourage practitioners and academicians to serve as mentors for students and budding communication professionals globally.
- #Communi-Twin: By inviting communication departments in universities and public relations research bodies across the world to ‘twin’ we can improve idea exchanges, gain from best practices and learn from each other. These relationships need to be fostered with active participation by lead institutes in their respective countries.
- #MentorOne: If every communication practitioner and academician agrees to spare an hour a month to mentor one student or aspiring communicator/researcher anywhere in the world we can make a collective difference to the community. However, this can work best when the mentors and mentees publically share their progress and learning for the benefit of everyone else.
- #BigPicture: When academicians and communication practitioners collaborate on real-life challenges by crowdsourcing solutions we can elevate our collective voice and thereby be recognized for solving issues that matter. For example, when we use the principles of influence and neuroscience and blend it with practice there is a greater chance of engaging people, changing opinions and delivering outcomes that improve humanity.
Overall, I believe there is immense value if academia and communication practitioners work together. Hope these perspectives do contribute in some way to the conference proceedings.
“The simplest way is to get practitioners involved as much as possible, be that through teaching; by providing ‘real world’ scenarios or campaigns for student projects; work experience opportunities or through mentoring and awards. But let’s not forget that this is a two-way process where the mutual benefits for both academia and practice need to be clear, tangible and sustainable.”
Without doubt, the potential for further collaboration between academia and public relations practice could and should be enhanced.
Mentoring and teaching
The simplest way is to get practitioners involved as much as possible, be that through teaching; by providing ‘real world’ scenarios or campaigns for student projects; work experience opportunities or through mentoring and awards.
But let’s not forget that this is a two-way process where the mutual benefits for both academia and practice need to be clear, tangible and sustainable. As someone who has taken the route from practice into academia, I would suggest the benefits to academia perhaps outweigh those for practitioners – and as educators of the next generation of public relations professionals, we need to be engaging in a far better and more clear way with the industry itself.
Respect for theory
In my own experience, the imbalance comes in demonstrating how the theoretical framework can provide a practical benefit, particularly at a client level.
Encouraging a waste management company to adopt Philip Sheldrake’s business of influence model into its social media strategy is likely to go down worse than a tonne of recycled bricks.
But if you are able to use the models and theories demonstrably – often by identifying the opinion leaders within the business – then the practical benefits should become much clearer.
That was the case when we used students to implement an internal communications strategy at a Teesside transport company. Once the students themselves had identified who the influencer was within the business – a recent MBA graduate – engagement with those at the top was a far simpler process.
Practice to academia
As someone who moved into teaching from a consultancy background, the theory was undoubtedly the lightbulb moment and the gel that made everything I had been doing in practice suddenly make sense. For years, I had been developing strategy somewhat in the dark, hoping and guessing that certain elements would work.
But not until I put myself through CIPR qualifications, did the public relations jigsaw pieces begin to fit together and make sense. For my own career progression, that presented a problem – I enjoyed the academic side so much, that I ended up as a teacher!
There are times I would love to go back into practice, armed with the theoretical building blocks and confidence of knowing that certain models or theories could bring efficiencies and rigour to previously fairly ad hoc campaigns. Unfortunately, I don’t have that opportunity.
But our students do - and most will. There comes a pressure, however, as soon as they join the industry to comply with existing cultures and practices within their organisation.
And thereby lies a challenge of providing students with not only the academic knowledge and understanding, but the confidence to communicate that to their future clients and employees to reach mutual understanding and benefit.
For me, that’s about forging good relationships with the industry itself and not just packing off our students armed with their theories and qualifications, but without the experience of applying their understanding in a practical context. That means more internships, more mentoring, more practical projects and certainly more practitioners allowed to demonstrate their own experience and skills to the next generation.