PR practitioners and academics working together

NEMO Conference 2013 curtousy of Philp YoungLast week at the NEMO Flashpoints conference at Campus Helsingborg at the University of Lund in Sweden there was discussion both at the conference and online via Twitter about the lack of co-operation and interaction between public relations practitioners and PR academics. This was a topic that was also raised at the PR and Disruption Conference at the London College of Communication, University of Arts in July.

CIPR President Elect Stephen Waddington, who was one of the speakers and participants in the online discussion, committed to during his time as president to help work to bridge this divide.

He made one particularly strong point in his blog on ‘Academia vs practice: working together hallmark of a maturing profession’:

My view is simple: without academic rigor and a historical perspective to support practice we’re limited to craft and tactics. As a practitioner channels and tools may change but if your expertise is rooted in education and continuous learning, your core knowledge will be readily transferable.

This very much chimes with what I’ve always argued. Too many PR people are too reliant on what they believe to be their own innate talent and creativity. They enter the business without any formal PR qualifications or training, often from other professions or disciplines, and then simply learn on the job. Now I don’t deny how there are some fantastically talented and creative PR people who’ve done exactly this.

However, my personal view is that we put far too much emphasis on creativity. If you believe as I do that public relations is the management discipline that looks after reputation and relationships then there is a better way to do it.

Just as lawyers have a vast body of case law to draw upon, the public relations profession has a fantastic body of theories and research. And we have case studies, lots of case studies of what has gone before. When you start studying them you realise that frequently the latest ‘creative’ stunt is simply a reinterpretation of something that has been done before. Sometimes the original was actually better. If the PR person responsible had known of what had been done before they could have learnt from it and tried to improve on it, instead of unknowingly emulating it. Often the public relations theory provides the framework to solve your challenge. You don’t need to be constantly reinventing the wheel.

Creativity and innate talent have so much more potential if they sit on firm foundations of academic theory and reality.

More thoughts on the same theme come from Sarah Williams in a guest post on comms2point0  titled ‘Practitioners are from Venus, academic are from Mars’. Heather Yaxley also makes the case for greater cooperation in a post titled ‘Public relations in the real world’.

Sarah highlights how practitioners are “too obsessed with academics delivering ‘oven-ready’ graduates rather than broader industry issues”. As someone who has run a PR consultancy and hired PR graduates and who is now a visiting part-time lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University I’d agree with this assessment. Too frequently PR practitioners think universities should be churning out little press release writing machines. Personally I don’t want that as teaching ‘craft skills’ on the job is relatively easy and if I teach them then they’ll be done how I like them. ‘Craft skills’ are low-level and vary dramatically in quality. I’m sure many of us are familiar with hiring ‘experienced’ PR account executives or managers and then having to ‘unteach’ them bad habits such as being too willing to include marketing superlatives in news releases (please never a press release) and making unnecessary ‘follow-up’ calls.

What I want from my PR graduates are people with a thorough grounding in public relations theory. Who understand the true definitions of public relations being about behaviour, not simply communications. Who understand other management disciplines and the role that sociology, psychology and anthropology can play in public relations. Who understand how current affairs, culture and politics impact on absolutely everything and can never be ignored.

That doesn’t necessarily require a PR degree. It doesn’t even require a degree. But it does require public relations qualifications. Yes, it’s possible to read and study the best texts and thoughts without sitting for a qualification. But, why would you? If you’ve studied to the required level, why not get the qualification to prove it?

And it never ends. That’s why continuous professional development schemes such as the one run by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations are so important. That’s why I admire Stephen Waddington and others for having worked hard at achieving chartered practitioner status – and why I’m committing to do the same. Something I should have done long ago.

Public relations practitioners who question the value of public relations academics should stop and look at other professions such as law, architecture, medicine, engineering and even management where academics are held in high regard. It’s no coincidence that these professions are held in higher esteem than public relations.

One potential area where we should have more mutual cooperation is in both applied and theoretical research. Working together we can advance the public relations profession and put us in a far better position to convince business and other leaders to heed our counsel.

In 2011 when I was still MD of Wolfstar we made a small start by partnering with the Centre for Public Relations at Leeds Metropolitan University to work with the United Nations in New York on a research project. Together we conducted the world’s first research into social media use and corporate social responsibility amongst FT Global 500 companies.

I look forward to taking up Stephen Waddington’s challenge and joining with fellow PR practitioners and academics such as Philip Young, Richard Bailey, Heather Yaxley, Simon Collister and others to bring closer cooperation between us all.

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