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practitioners are from venus, academics are from mars?

Public relations doesn't just have the people in the field doing it. It has academics. But is it healthy that much of what happens in academia is impeneterable?

by GUEST EDITOR Sarah Williams

I have just returned from the Euprera Annual Congress in Barcelona, where PR academics from across Europe and beyond met to discuss current research into issues pertinent to the public relations industry today, or are they?

As a former PR practitioner, it struck me that, while undoubtedly valuable, much of the research being discussed at the conference would be impenetrable to many practitioners and this is not good for the academy nor the industry.

There is too much distance, misunderstanding, and indeed sometimes outright hostility, between academics and practitioners in public relations, something which was evident in comments from attendees at the recent, and excellent, PR & Disruption conference at LCC in July. There were very disparaging remarks and tweets from the conference's practitioner attendees towards academic participants; practitioners were reluctant to engage with some of the different ways of seeing and thinking about industry problems envisaged by the academics; they felt that academics were out of touch with their reality. Conversely, academics felt that the practitioners were too focused on technical issues relating to the day job; too obsessed with academics delivering 'oven-ready' graduates rather than the broader industry issues; they felt that practitioners were out of touch with their reality.

So where does this leave us? The truth is somewhere in the middle, there are both academics and practitioners who are out of touch with each other's realities; while there are others who try very hard to bridge the gap. Certainly the current situation is untenable and unique to public relations.  Other disciplines, including marketing, engineering, business, medicine and many others, manage to marry industry interests with academic interests, the one helping to set the agenda for the other, so why can't we? There has to be a way to encourage greater co-operation between the two sides.

Conferences, like LCC's PR & Disruption and the LGA annual conference, go a long way in bringing both sides together to share their concerns and preoccupations, and we, as an industry, need to do more of this kind of thing, but we also need to be discussing what kind of research is necessary to support and advance practice, and what kind of communication is necessary to promote academic ideas and critique.

I think this is where our industry bodies should come in.  PRCA and CIPR have a responsibility to represent and advance the whole PR industry and that includes academia as well as practice.  They are well placed to facilitate discussions about the future direction of research and practice, to set the agenda, to encourage critique on both sides, to bring both sides together, but this isn't happening.  This has not always been the case, 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.  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.

We are not in competition with each other, we are on the same side.  Most of the academics I know were once practitioners and share a desire to research and guide the industry; most of them are keen to share their ideas and to collaborate with practitioners.  Similarly, most practitioners I know are keen to help out with education and research, have ideas that they would like to investigate. I believe that there is the will to work together, we just need the space to do it.

We are in the communication business, and we need to start communicating with each other and fast.  We need a PR 'Relate' to help us to talk things over and repair our relationship before we drift too far apart. Let's work to re-discover the work of Alan Rawel, to build on this legacy to strengthen and unite the industry. I'm ready and willing to take part, are you?

Sarah Williams is senior lecturer in public relations and marketing at the University of Wolverhampton.

Image via Flickr creative commons

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Reader Comments (3)

You are absolutely right about the sadly widening gap between practice and academe. At the start, the hope was that the practice would use the emerging academic area as its research arm and enjoy the rich benefits that would come forth but even 24 years later, it is still clear that using research is not that simple for many who have still not done it and being an academic involves so many pressures to produce the stuff for its own sake, it is bound to churn out much that is too often irrelevant or inaccessible.
While also often disappointed with the efforts of the CIPR in this area I feel that some words are needed in encouragement. After consulting with academic colleagues, James Petre improved the accreditation system, brought in mutual exemptions with a number of universities and invited a group of all members with PhDs to come together to consider the situation. Out of that a much energized research group was created. The research group is still on its feet and has been responsible for some useful studies but it does need academics to be involved to keep up the momentum.
My theme, as president, to explore and improve the communication of science is also now starting to work and once that research is done, it will stand as another example of the value of research to practice.
It must be remembered that the CIPR is a member organization and we need to keep coming up with ideas, as we do in Euprera, to make its existence relevant. If the members don't activate these things we end up with an institute existing for its own sake, which is pointless, in my view. We came to that point in Euprera and project energizers were invented to activate the members and the results have been impressive, leading to the ECM and many other fine projects.
Phil Morgan, who is the director of policy is always amenable to helping with thoughtful member led developments. Please support the research group and influence the future in the ways that you have so clearly described above!

October 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSue Wolstenholme

As a member of the CIPR research group "still on its feet, " I'd like to echo Sue's comments and thank Sarah for the post, which emphasizes developing problems in the relations between public relations practitioners and academics studying the practice. The two groups are growing apart, and there is little incentive for either to become more involved in the others' interests. Practitioners will be unwilling to spend the time to find what might be of value in the work of academics (or worse, may be deeply prejudiced against anything "academic"), and academics now have a sufficiently developed community of interests that they can talk to each other for mutual benefit, but without much direct involvement in practice. Comments around the recent Nemo conference -- #nemoconf13 and through @wadds -- suggested the problem has been recognised --again. Question is: what to do about it?

October 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJon White

Sarah - thanks for the post. First - how much I agree with you over the inspiration that Alan Rawel gave in connecting these two aspects of public relations. It is a real shame that practitioners are not given enough opportunity to recognise what can be gained from reflecting on the practice through the lens of academic (knowledge-based) research - especially at the current time when such work is opening out into interesting directions. It was Oyvind Ihlen's social theory perspective that seemed to generate a strong reaction from practitioners at the LCC conference - but for me, this area is where we could make some real breakthroughs for practice. Much like creative thinking, we need to get outside our comfort zone (and in PR practice that is primarily the organisation/management view of our occupation) and engage with material that might be difficult (at first) but can open up new ideas and opportunities.

At the same time, I agree with you that so much academic work seems deliberately impenetrable or irrelevant. I don't believe all academic research has to have an immediate practical application, but it ought to raise some questions or insight that can be related or reflected upon in relation to practice. It also needs greater criticism - at conference, the PR academic community rarely challenges or gets into robust debate around papers. One of the things I love about teaching CIPR qualifications and knowledge-based training for clients is the challenges that come back, which make me think, justify or critique concepts that I'm presenting.

I feel my own work - in both practice and academia is enhanced by the connection I have between these worlds. I recognise what you say about the rejection of the 'other side' but also am encouraged when I do see both academics and practitioners increasingly engaging and opening up communication, co-operation and joint projects.

I'm not convinced the industry bodies are the place to inspire such developments however. Yes, they do need to acknowledge what is happening in Universities much more than seems the case, and also encourage their members to benefit from professional qualifications where they will be introduced to academic thinking. They could do much more to enable those undertaking research in the higher education sector reach practitioners - for example, by highlighting research and researchers in their communications and events.

But, there is a huge world of PR outside the membership bodies - and that's where we all need to reach out and connect. We are a single community of practice - we just need to demonstrate this rather than denying each other's existence. I look forward to the 2014 PR & Disruption conference and other interesting initiatives coming out of many of the Universities and larger agencies as a start.

October 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHeather Yaxley

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