As public relations practitioners strive to be recognised as professionals, there is a worry that the industry is becoming increasingly detached from academic research, one of the essential elements of a recognised profession.
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Having spent the last six months putting together an argument for public relations academics’ need to engage with other academic disciplines, I now find myself ready to start again! Since settling into my first public relations job, on the back of an MA in the discipline, I have learned of a small gulf between the books and the practice. However, I am not here to extol the virtues of the noble theorists and lambaste the practitioners for not engaging in a meaningful dialogue with them.
Unacceptable in the 90s
Talking in the late 1990s – when Twitter sat as Mark Zuckerberg‘s un-germinated seed of an idea, as he tried to master Atari BASIC programming, children stared at Tamogotchis rather than smartphones, and Take That were still split up along with every other so-called reunion band resurrected by the desire to ensconce nostalgia for a decade when the Union flag wasn’t racist for a while – Gregg Philo promulgated:
It would be a sad irony if communication studies researchers only communicated with each other, and that if communications itself failed to lead a productive dialogue. (Philo, 1999)
I wrote in my MA dissertation that it is my belief that public relations becomes a stronger academic discipline when it is transgressive; cross-cutting sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science and media studies. Public relations theory gains a great deal when it engages with questions which concern other fields – this can be extended to the art of PR practice.
Many other disciplines have happily espoused academic theorem and the nuances of everyday practice to their benefit. Think medicine, business, and teaching.
What’s the point in educational institutions and personnel researching, debating, hypothesising and proving if it does not directly feed into the way the discipline is practiced? (Answers on a postcard).
The simple point is; the best theory is not informing most practice. The scary fact is; there doesn’t seem to be any knowledge of this in the sector, and no way of bridging the gap. The CIPR and its senior members would be the obvious solution. But they don’t seem to be doing enough.
The doer alone learneth
Sarah Williams, Senior lecturer in public relations and marketing at University of Wolverhampton, wrote this month on comms2point0: “The CIPR’s education division, under the direction of the wonderful Alan Rawel, was proactive in its support of academic endeavour and sought new ways of marrying education and practice; it supported the development of courses, books, journals and conferences aimed at creating a strong and united academic underpinning for the industry.
She has concerns that the institute has taken backward steps in recent years, and many others around the PR blogosphere tend to agree.
“Much of this good work has been undone in recent years and many in the industry, both academics and practitioners, will be unaware of the work of this passionate and committed man. This is a great shame, and bad news for the industry; I regret that his legacy was not more carefully guarded and maintained.”
Alas, lest we not dwell on the past, like those who fill our cities arenas hoping to recapture their youth singing along to, Blue, Five and Atomic Kitten.
Let us engage with one another and hear what each other have to say.
Many in the ‘profession’ are not academically trained, or are trained in an alternative discipline such as journalism.
Education and academia is often a culture, in the sense of a way of life, and many do not and have not had such a background. Will these individuals be less likely to embrace a theoretic influence, or dare I say, might their reluctance stem from the fact they are unable to understand it? Maybe the academics need to stop sounding clever and start acting clever – showing a little more pragmatism.
Let’s start a dialogue in terms that include everybody. If we understand the theory, we should be able to discuss it, or teach it to anyone, regardless of their academic background or the depth of the vocabulary.
On the other hand, as a former teacher, I am only too aware of the frustration of trying to teach something to people who aren’t willing to learn it. Those with all the experience – but perhaps with a book shelf reserved for Jackie Collins, rather than Anne Gregory – could be more accepting and less defensive about learning.
Let’s just be friends
If we all want PR to be recognised as a profession, we will all have to accept that the practitioners need the academia, and the academics need to understand that the academia is futile without anyone to practice it. If our discipline doesn’t find a way to work together in a meaningful way it is never going to be recognised, nor will it be worthy of recognition as, a genuine profession in the same league as medicine, teaching or any other.