PR education – getting the theory-practice balance right

Public relations: theories practices techniques
Short-term pain for long-term gain 

There is widespread if not universal agreement that education and training are important to advancing a field and helping it gain legitimacy and recognition as a profession. But what is not agreed, and often controversial, is the balance between theory and practical skills. Public relations is no different, with theory often being thought of as esoteric, remote from practice and, even, dangerous.

From 30 years working in public communication practice, I am very familiar with frequent calls for educational institutions to produce graduates with relevant practical skills. My ears resonate with the regular lament that young practitioners “can’t write” and don’t understand day-to-day business practices.
[This is a guest post written by Professor Jim Macnamara, an experienced public relations professional and educator.*]

As Kate Byrne from the University of Canberra reported in a review of the value of academia, a number of research studies confirm perceptions of a theory-practice gap. For instance, studies by Cheng and de Gregario, Okay and Okay, and several others, suggest that both practitioners and academics believe that what is taught and researched in universities does not adequately reflect and meet the needs of professional practice.
In 2010, Brooke Liu and Abbey Levenshus concluded from a study that public relations academics “should be mindful of closing the gap between theory and practice”.
From my many years in practice, I am sympathetic to these demands. But here’s where I am likely to stir up debate and even provoke calls for my public lynching. In recent articles and in a comprehensive 600-page PR text just published (Public Relations Theory, Practices, Critiques, Pearson Australia), I argue that PR practitioners need to know MORE THEORY.
More theory? Macnamara’s lost the plot, sold out – I can hear the disbelieving mumbles.
But let me explain. There are a number of points that need to be made and considered in relation to the alleged theory-practice gap. Here’s two key ones.

What’s theory?

First, we need to understand theory. There is widespread confusion in the community and in even among professionals between theory and the hypothetical. In daily discussion, theories are confused with hypotheses – that is, ideas, hunches, conjecture and unproven notions. The exact opposite is the case. Theories are proven explanations of concepts and processes based on rigorous research and usually testing.
Theory is one of the major forms of knowledge we acquire as humans. Other sources of knowledge include practical experience and tradition – ideas and understandings handed down from generation to generation. Theory does not compete with or replace practical experience and other forms of knowledge – it supplements them.
Do we need theoretical knowledge? You betcha. Let me prove this.
If you were going into hospital for brain surgery, you would want the surgeon to have practical experience – learning from trial and error over many years. But would you want the surgeon to only have practical knowledge? What happens when the surgeon encounters something that he or she has not personally experienced before? You would hope that they have read numerous medical books and journal articles and can draw on the vast knowledge of others that has been documented over many decades. That’s theory.
Theory is not hypotheses, or abstract esoteric notions on little consequence to daily life. It is a body of knowledge discovered by others through rigorous research and testing and documented so it is available for us to draw on. Centuries of knowledge about how humans communicate – or don’t – is documented in texts and courses on psychology, sociology, rhetoric, semiotics, cultural studies, media studies, and so on.
PR practitioners will regularly encounter situations that they have not personally experienced before – particularly younger practitioners. Having practical knowledge of every possible circumstance is simply not possible in today’s fast-changing world – not even for the grey-heads among us. To not avail ourselves of such knowledge is short-sighted and even foolhardy. Lack of respect for and engagement with theoretical knowledge results in practitioners with a limited and sometimes narrow range of knowledge in communication and management.

Debunking myths about PR academia

Second, the claim that PR academics are out of touch with practice is just plain wrong – a myth. Here’s why:
  1. Kate Byrne’s 2008 study found that 81% of academics teaching PR in Australia have previously worked as practitioners.
  2. At the beginning of 2011, 45 undergraduate and postgraduate courses in public relations at 17 universities in Australia were accredited by the Public Relations Institute of Australia which requires them to meet standards set by the industry.
  3. Most of those PR courses include internships as part of their subjects and assessment.
  4. A content analysis of 14 widely-used PR texts and reference books conducted in 2010 found that each contained 30-60 pages of case studies – more than the content devoted to theory.
  5. Byrne’s study based on interviews with both practitioners and academics found close alignment between the practices and activities most discussed in academic texts and those that practitioners rated as most important.
So much for academics with their heads in the clouds and no clue about practice.
The alleged theory-practice gap in PR education is, to a significant extent, ‘anti-intellectualism’ that raises its heads in all industries and fields and presents a challenge to their professionalisation. For instance:
Anti-intellectualism has been identified in management studies (e.g. a study by Porter & McKibbin, 1988), in management research (e.g. a report by Starkey & Madan, 2001) and in public administration (see Bolton & Stolcis, 2003).
Significantly, all of these fields – as well as law, accountancy and other recognised professions – have progressively accepted the importance of developing and teaching theory as well as practical skills and integrating theory with practice.
In my next and concluding post on this topic, I will give some specific examples of how theoretical knowledge can contribute to strategic thinking and planning and propel PR to the next level.
Public relations 2011 free report
What do you think of Jim’s primary assertion – that there should be more theory in PR, not less? Do you think there is a culture of anti-intellectualism within public relations practice? Is it any different in public relations to other business disciplines in this regard?

*Jim Macnamara, PhD, FPRIA, FAMI, CPM, FAMEC became Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney in 2007 after a 30-year career working in journalism, public relations and media research, which culminated in selling the CARMA Asia Pacific media analysis firm which he founded to Media Monitors in 2006. Jim can be networked with on his LinkedIn profile, on Facebook and on Twitter @jimmacnamara.

[This post is included, with many other posts, in a free strategic PR report that can be downloaded from this blog by email subscribing to it. The report – Public relations 2011: insights ideas issues – features professional practice-adding value from 10 global PR leaders (and me).]
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