Bridging PR practice and academia: a BledCom addendum

CIPR President, Stephen Waddington, gave his keynote presentation at BledCom this morning. He covered how PR academics and practitioners must work more closely – principally to develop PR’s professionalism project.

In creating his presentation Stephen canvassed the views of a range of PR academics and practitioners, including Richard Bailey, Heather Yaxley, Liz Bridgen, Stuart Bruce as well as myself.

Bridging the gap between practice and theory in PR and communication is something our research hub, the Network for Public Relations and Society, has been thinking about for a little while – see Sarah R-B’s recent post here. To respond to Wadds’ questions I called on the expertise and insight of fellow network members, Sarah Roberts-Bowman (who also co-founded the Network) from London College of Communication, UAL and Sarah Williams from the University of Wolverhampton.

Together we shared our collective vision with Wadds – some of which he used in his keynote. In the interests of sharing and adding to the debate I have posted our complete thoughts below:

Q. Which other management professionals in your view benefit from a positive interchange between academia and practice?

Most – if not all – of the major ‘professions’ develop through a very close, symbiotic relationship between practitioners and academics/academia. The obvious ones are medicine, engineering, the law where a ‘holy triumvirate’ between practice, governing bodies/institutes and academics/researchers seem to operate. The obvious benefits of this set-up is that it enables – and ensures – that such professions continue to evolve strategically, identifying changes in the external and internal environments of the sectors and then creating new, adaptive regulations, practices, approaches, etc. It means that they can stay ahead of the curve in an age that moves fast and in wholly unexpected directions.

If you’re looking to management sectors then I’d argue that the management consultancy field is one obvious area that is not afraid to engage with academia – and has arguably created an academic field of study to maintain a strong market position as well as client efficacy! It’s interesting as you could argue that in many respects these consultancies are – on some levels – the closest to PR when PR can operate at the level at which it should: strategic business consultancy.

At a more granular level, we only need to look at a more direct competitor to PR, the marketing sector, to see how much more closely academia could be integrated within PR. For instance, at the CIM the work of academics and practitioners is much more closely aligned. Both practitioners and academics are involved with curriculum development at the CIM, so the training/education curriculum for practitioners is designed and managed by academic tutors and practitioner examiners. The CIM also funds academic research projects to explore, develop and understand emerging issues in the sector.

Drawing on personal experience from Network members, the CIM’s process of bringing practitioners into the qualifications and education section of the institution seems to work well. But this works because the CIM’s education division is sizable and, perhaps more importantly, organised in accordance with standard university academic practices so it seems to work as a forum for bringing practitioners and academics together to share ideas, knowledge and foster greater understanding about the benefits both sides bring to the industry.

Q. how might we practically go about improving relations between the two constituencies within the public relations business?

Part of the problem with the relationship between PR academics and practitioners can, perhaps, be linked to the industry-industry bodies-academia framework:

1) there is a general misunderstanding, lack of awareness or even mistrust between practice and academia

2) there is a lack of leadership among industry bodies

3) academia has arguably not engaged as much as it could with the industry/industry bodies – or, at least, engaged on terms that industry / industry bodies have shied away from, e.g. critical accounts of diversity, power, etc.

Looking at each of these separately in more depth:

1) For whatever reason the PR industry has mostly not felt the need to explore the wider world through academic research in the way other professions/industries have. This could be due to a lack of clear identity due to the diversity of roles, tasks, departments PR is spread across, a lack of engagement by academia or perhaps a short-term focus on driving results/revenue (due to a high volume of low margin work – particularly among agencies) which has meant losing sight of the bigger economic, business, societal, etc picture (and I, personally, would err on the latter)

2) This situation among practitioners hasn’t been helped in recent years by the PRCA and CIPR. Speaking from our experiences of the CIPR (sorry, Wadds – we don’t have as much insight into the PRCA but they’re as guilty I would imagine!) as far as we know no – or very little – new research is funded and tends not to be advertised widely to academic institutes, rather a smaller network of established (dare I say, often ‘on side’) friends. The CIPR used to hold an academic conference but this is no more and I can’t recall any dissemination of the resulting materials within the industry. Training is good but isn’t aligned – as far as I can tell – with wider academic institutions.

3) Academia has been developing some really interesting and innovative insights into PR int event years – but these have been emerging in areas that go beyond the standard, 80s/90s management approaches that informed practice. Rather, much contemporary work has challenged the industry on a range of issues, from the ethics of practice, PR’s wider societal role, critical accounts of diversity, etc. These need to be seen as useful/friendly challenges for PR to improve/adapt its position and operation to grow and thrive, rather than misinformed criticisms by academics

So….. if that’s the current situation, what’s the solution? Well……

Industry Bodies

Industry bodies need to implement support for existing examples of academia/practitioner collaboration form other sectors., such as aligning training/education curricula and outcomes with academic insights and best practice; funding research or building a research fund from third-party sponsors to proactively and strategically create opportunities for academics to develop and explore new areas for the industry. For the CIPR this sort of stuff was done under Alan Rawls, so it’s more a case of resurrecting than reinventing activities.

But it’s also about fostering and promoting greater relations/dialogue between the two fields and this will involve changing the PR industry’s mindset towards academia and academic research. This could be done by highlighting the benefits of engagement, such as adapting the industry to become more relevant and resilient to wider societal challenges; becoming more strategic; delivering better value for clients; winning bigger budgets,; etc. This is obviously a longer-term project/campaign that would require industry bodies such as the CIPR and PRCA in the UK to become involved, but it could be helped by lower-level activity to initiate and foster dialogue between the two constituencies… see below…

Practice

It’s hard to tell practitioners what they should be doing but they could definitely get more involved in academia. A number of opportunities exist with a range of benefits and on different levels of involvement. this could include: guest talks and lectures; offering work placements partnering with local universities to develop practitioner-in-residence schemes and even exploring / getting involved in more formal Knowledge Transfer Partnerships where both industry and academia get help to innovate with Government funding.

But I recognise that all of this is not seen or is not seen as a primary concern over winning and delivering fee-paying work! That’s where changing attitudes is so important (see above)

Academia

Likewise, academia needs to recognise the importance of industry to academic work – both in terms of teaching and learning and research – and not be scared of engaging with and addressing the day-to-day realities of the industry head on – i.e. recognising the commercial imperative or imperfect organisational set ups, practice, etc. Academics need to proactively seek to build relationships with industry beyond work placements. Where this happens real benefits can be observed. For example, at last year’s ‘PR and Disruption’ conference at LCC we targeted practitioners and academics for attendance and had great feedback from the benefits both found in meeting and ‘demystifying’ each others’ attitudes, ideas, etc, etc. There were some criticisms too – but that’s good to help bridge the perceived academic/practitioner gap. We’re hoping for the same at this year’s event.

Taking learnings from these results we (the Network for PR and Society) are planning on developing a more formal scheme to help bridge the gap based on creating an ‘Academic-in-Residence’. Many universities have ‘practitioner-in-residence’ to bring practice into the learning environment but we feel it should work both ways. This project is in development but we see it working as a sort of ‘adopt-an-academic’ which we discussed the other week whereby we collate and maintain a database of international academics listing their interests, publications, and desires to work with specific sectors, types of PR, etc.

The idea is that we can start building mutually beneficial relationships between academia and practice – academics get to share their findings/knowledge and industry gets to learn and even have bespoke research completed for their area of practice. Most PR practitioners don’t have the luxury of being able to step back from the day-to-day work to think about wider developments in the sector so this scheme seems like a real opportunity to start building relationships between the two and yield practical benefits for the industry.

It would be great to have such an initiative supported by industry bodies to help reach key practitioner constituencies with the Network for PR and Society tapping into it’s academic network. I could certainly see it being a really strong, initial tactic in a wider, strategic approach to bridge the academia/practice gap!

 

Comments

  1. Having lectured in PR (to 2nd year degree students at West London Uni) and been a PR practitioner for something like 13 years, this topic always catches my attention.

    It’s a well-framed issue … after all who would disagree that higher standards, more professionalism, etc are a good thing?

    But I wonder if it’s the right issue. Where are the clients in all of this? They’re hardly mentioned at all in the piece above.

    PR is a service, like many others. In much the same way that garrison towns develop, PR has been shaped by the clients it serves. Therein lies the key to it all. Forget it at your peril.

    I agree that we’d all prefer a doctor with the very best of qualifications to be the one who treats our loved ones when they fall ill. Similarly, we’d all prefer that bridges and skyscrapers are designed and built by the very best engineers. And in a legal spat, we want our barrister to be the one with the very best knowledge of case law and precedent.

    Yet, how many businesses do you know where PR falls under the responsibility of whoever is in charge of marketing? How often have you encountered marketing people with no experience of, or exposure to, PR? It gets worse … we must, surely, all have come across businesses where marketing is handled by the managing director’s PA/wife/son/daughter, etc.

    In short, it matters a lot less what the service provider wants, and a whole heap more what the customer wants.

    Another rat hole I can see is the issue of demarcation.

    You can’t get general medical advice and treatment from your dentist because the law won’t allow it. And because it’s easy to define where a dentist’s remit lies, this is easy to enforce. But the lines are now so blurred between all the PR-adver-markeing services that it’s often hard to say precisely where one stops and another begins.

    Only a fool would argue that higher standards are not a good thing, and I am no such fool. But a joint-effort between industry bodies and academia to implement what is in effect a membership club with a professional code of conduct and a licence to trade, is very top-down in outlook. While we are, broadly speaking, happy for that to be the case with medicine, law, and so on, you can’t really put PR in the same bracket.

    Unless clients actively want and support such a development in the PR industry, I’m not sure how it can succeed.

    It won’t be hard to convince universities to get on board with this sort of initiative. Anyone with a passing knowledge on how universities are funded will instantly see what’s in it for them. It will be harder, but not terribly difficult, to convince a good many PR practitioners that they’d look much better with a professional accreditation. After all, there’s no shortage of ego in our sector, and plenty of people will see the genuine benefits it could confer.

    The hardest battle will be in convincing clients that they ought to be paying higher fees for the services of a professionally qualified PR consultant.

    Get that right and you’ve nailed it.

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