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!

 

ICA Pre-Conference: ‘Power through communication technology’

I sat in on an interesting ICA pre-conference session earlier this week that sought to identify and address a series of questions around the issue of power and communication technology in a globalised society. There were a good range of speakers and topics up for discussion, including:

  • Michael L. Kent, University of Oklahoma, USA – Taking a Critical Look at Technology in Public Relations: We Have an App for That
  • Dean Kruckeberg, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA – Another Inconvenient Truth
  • Erich J. Sommerfeldt, University of Maryland-College Park, USA – Social Media Silos and Civil Society: A Role for Public Relations in Contemporary Development Communication Efforts
  • Katerina Tsetsura, University of Oklahoma, USA – In @ We Trust? Public Relations Realities of Fake Online Personalities
  • Chiara Valentini,  Aarhus University, Denmark – Social Mediars: The New Online Stakeholders for Public Relations?
  • Stephen Waddington, European Digital Social Media Director at Ketchum and President-Elect CIPR – Public Relations and New Communication Technologies – A Professional Perspective

 


I’ve embedded a Storify stream above for tweeted highlights but it’s I’ve added my own post-event reflections below:

  • Stephen Waddington remarked that many of the academics there were notably pessimistic about the potential of social media. I think this was partly due to the way the session was framed – and there were some definite critical perspectives explored, but there was also a number of pragmatic questions asked about social media which is needed. Some, such as whether communicators are measuring their organisation/client’s ‘sociability’ or building small, deep networks around customers/stakeholders, are being realised in certain areas; meanwhile other critical questions, such as attempting to unpick  social media’s role in driving a deeper marketisation of society, are worth exploring further
  • There was some agreement that scholars need to move beyond existing models of PR and communications when exploring social media. Stephen Waddington highlighted the apparent unsuitability of Grunig’s work to social media (despite Grunig’s protestations to the contrary) while Erich Sommerfeldt highlighted the centrality of technology and technological affordances in mutually shaping personal and organisational identity and behaviour among activist groups. I mentioned Bruno Latour and Actor-network Theory which offers a really interesting account of the role technology plays in mediating society. These are issues largely far from PR and communications scholarship and need rethinking as a matter of urgency
  • It also occurred to me how many participants – certainly those from US-oriented universities – have read their Marx. There were two particularly impassioned critical accounts of technology and its potentially negative role in society from Dean Kruckeberg and Michael L. Kent. But some of the most pertinent points and questions raised (e.g. technology’s role in creating social and economic precarity; in further reorienting social relations around capital/the market, etc) are squarely addressed – or least acknowledged – by Marx and groups of contemporary Post-Marxist scholars, including Terranova, Beradi, Negri… even Castells
  • Finally, speaking of Castells… while he had his name dropped a few times there was a definite dominance of interpretive research. Giddens’ Theory of Structuration was covered extensively by Erich Sommerfeldt and Chiara Valentini invoked Alan Kirby but a bit more theoretical underpinning of some of the ideas discussed wouldn’t have gone amiss (but then again, I am a bit of a theory fan)

 

CIPR Summer Social: is the PR industry falling behind SEO?

I’ve been very remiss in failing to mention and big up the CIPR’s Summer Social.

The Summer Social is a series of informal meet ups organised through the CIPRs Social Media Advisory Panel (DISC: of which I am a member).

So I'm making amends as of now and urging anyone in the PR, marketing and social media sectors to get along to this week’s event as it tackles an oft-debated and really important issue: where do the lines between SEO and PR blur? When is it right and where does it put your clients at risk?

The event takes place from 5pm – 7pm at the CIPR HQ, 52-53 Russell Square, London, WC1B 4HP. and is hosted by Speed Communications' Stephen Waddington who asks: "Has the PR industry failed to reskill for SEO – and will social media be the next missed opportunity?":



“Search agencies are increasingly packaging planning, content development and analytics, into a payment-by-results model. It’s a compelling proposition for a marketing director that is seeking guaranteed outcomes.



Now search agencies are starting to use PR tactics such as press releases, by-lined content and wire distribution to drive their campaigns prompting the scrutiny of the role of PR versus SEO.



This week’s CIPR’s Social Summer 2010 workshop will ask what the PR industry can do to regain ground on SEO. And whether social media, like SEO before it, will be the next missed opportunity for the PR industry.”

The idea of Summer Socials is to offer PR and marketing professionals the chance to learn and find out more about social media and a host of related topics.

It’s less formal and structured than traditional CIPR events or workshop which is a good thing as for the £10 cost we serve beer and nibbles and you get to quiz experts and fellow practitioners about the emerging media landscape.

Looking forward, future Socials include sessions from Wolfstar MD Stuart Bruce, MD of Tweetdeck, Iain Dodsworth and Julio Romo with guests form Channel 4 and the BBC.

WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?