Friday, February 09, 2007

Public Relations in Service to Society

Since I started monitoring blogs a little over a year ago, I’ve been surprised and disappointed at the level of criticism aimed at public relations education. I was well aware of the public beating PR as a profession takes, but I didn’t understand the degree to which practitioners feel our students are unprepared for, or even incapable of, participation in the work world. This realization has forced me to reconsider what I do, and why.

In evaluating this criticism, I have come to realize that it is often based on a false premise, one most obvious in Bill Huey's recent attack on PR education but apparent in other places, too. I do not share these critics' assumption that public relations research and education should work solely in service to the profession.

I approach public relations education with the idea that while in school and after graduation, my students should first serve society. Whether they go to work at an agency, corporation, nonprofit, or government agency, whether they go to law school or graduate school, whether they never "work" a day in their lives, my goal is to teach them to think critically, being mindful of their impact on society. I’m not the only one who feels this way. One of my colleagues, Betty Jones, tells her students that they’re public servants.

The concept of service plays out in a number of ways in PR education. The most obvious is service learning. In many of our classes, students are asked to work for actual clients, putting their talents and skills to use for the benefit of an organization. Over the past few years, I have learned to choose clients, especially for the Campaigns class, with great care. I began this semester’s Campaigns class with a lecture on corporate social responsibility and how its aims can be applied to all clients--even the volunteer organization (see this post on responsible advocacy). Again, I’m not the only Grady PR faculty member who uses this approach. Carolina Acosta-Alzuru's students have done wonderful things for our campus and community, especially relating to diversity, but encompassing even an anti-littering campaign for football fans. Lynne Sallot wanted to promote university energy conservation last semester so she found the right department to help launch a campaign, and another of her classes helped to develop Partners for a Prosperous Athens, a volunteer organization that has identified major poverty-related issues and is now working on solutions. Essentially, rather than serving clients, she’s creating clients to fit the needs she sees in our community. (Update--April 30, 2007: here's a story on Lynne's energy conservation project.)

I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t have any obligation to the profession. Several Grady PR faculty members regularly conduct research that advances public relations practice. Bryan Reber’s work on practitioners’ influence and activism within organizations stands as a model of how research can benefit the practice. Jeff Springston is part of a research team that’s working to overcome barriers that prevent people from getting the medical help they need--it's not an exaggeration to say that his work has saved lives. Ruthann Lariscy’s research on political advertising and Kaye Trammell’s on political blogs can inform political candidates as well as creating a deeper understanding of the democratic process.

But PR research is not and should not be based solely on advancing the profession. Our scholarship serves the academy by contributing to theory buildin--about how public opinion is constructed, for example, or why people don’t seek medical attention--and we also have an obligation to look at public relations practice with a critical eye. I did research on the history of tobacco industry, for example, not to help today’s manufacturers figure out better ways to manage their PR, but to analyze its impact on society. (Watching the recent battle among scientists regarding global warming is in many ways like seeing a rerun of the fight over tobacco in the 1950s.) Practitioners can learn from this research, too, but its primary purpose is to serve the academy and society, not to help PR people do their jobs better.

At Grady, and presumably many other schools, we teach that good public relations serves society in the firm belief that doing so benefits our students, other scholars, and the public... as well as potential employers.

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My article was not an attack on PR education, but a critique of a very flawed report (which I doubt you’ve read) from the PRSA Commission on PR Education, which concluded that no one without a doctorate should be teaching public relations.
That is not only absurd, it is intellectually dishonest, because it relies on the claim that universities are being pressured by accrediting agencies to hire only Ph.D. candidates.
You are misrepresenting the tone and tenor as well as the substance of my article, and I challenge you to prove that any of its statements are untrue.

I appreciate your concern over the criticism, and have not yet read Bill's article, but I think the criticism is more that students aren't as prepared as they should be, especially in the areas of writing and critical thought. I think what you are doing with your campaigns class, and others, is addressing this problem. However, not all schools are turning out students with skills. PRSA's slogan is advancing the profession AND the professional. The later is where a good education comes in. Those are my thoughts anyway.
Bill, from your piece:
"PR education is in desperate straits, and the whole enterprise is in danger of collapse from its own dead weight" and "Maybe PR shouldn't be taught at universities at all." In the comments section: "silly little research papers." If I misrepresented the tone and tenor of your piece, or if I took it to be an attack on PR education, it was because I misinterpreted statements like these.
In any case, I was not attempting to respond to your piece per se but on an overall feeling I've gotten from reading blogs and other criticisms in the past year or so. I do apologize if you believed I was accusing you of lying.
Kami, thanks as always for your input. I do want to emphasize that my post is neither official Grady policy nor a response to any one particular article or blog. Rather, I viewed it as a chance to clarify for myself what *I* think the role of PR education is and should be.

A lot of folks in the academy got their feathers ruffled by Mr. Huey. But I think he made some good points that may have gotten lost in the harsh tone of the piece.

If we're to prepare students for the profession, it makes sense to have some of those courses taught by folks who've not only been there, but been there at a senior level. But we ALSO need faculty who bring the background in theory and research, which usually means PhDs who don't have as much background in the practice.

We can do both, and we should. But few schools seem willing to embrace such an approach.

Of our four full-timers in PR at Kent State, only one holds the PhD.
Jeanette Drake is one of those rare PhDs who has a good bit of experience (14 years), and we're lucky to have her.

Sadly, university administrators are increasingly unwilling to consider faculty members who don't have the doctorate. And I worry that our own associations of public relations educators are adopting a similar stance.

Thanks for bring this debate out in the open. We need to talk about it more. I'll be checking back to see what develops.

I understood his larger point and commented on it in a previous post (

I agree that professional experience is valuable. I disagreed with the underlying premise of his and other articles/posts I've read recently, that the primary function of PR education is to support the industry. I do believe that is one very significant function, but my point is that if we only wanted them to have a specific set of skills, we could send them to a portfolio school of the kind he mentioned in his article.

I think it should be more than that.
P.S. Bill, what ever happened to your week off from blogging?!
Agreed, Karen. If we hope to be accepted as "professionals," then our first duty is to serve the public interest. If work for your client or employer doesn't coincide with the public interest, then you aren't a professional at all.

This doesn't change the reality that the employers expect students who hit the ground running -- like those from the portfolio schools. We have a heavy hands-on focus here at Kent as we try to live in both worlds. We like the model, and it works for us.

As for my blogging vacation -- I tried. I'm hopelessly adicted to this medium. And now I've connected to one more blog I enjoy. Thanks ...I think!
Karen; I see your point and I don't think that education should be solely in service to the industry, but it should be in service to the students. And students have to someday be employed.

I like Bill's comments about living in both worlds, and I know it is hard. However, a few years ago, we had a major national comms educational conference here in San Antonio (to remain unnamed). A few professionals were asked to serve on a panel, and when we made the comment that students needed better writing skills, it wasn't met with much interest. In fact, I think the comment was made that the professors didn't have time for all of that, that this was an issue for the English department (or something similar). So, my feelings were always in opposition to that reaction, that skills training had no place at all. My personal feeling is that they are essential, as are the more noble goals that you have outlined. I went to George Mason University and was lucky to get both - instruction from well-known and respected PhDs as well as from amazingly qualified adjunct professors.
Hi Karen, this post reminds me of the best about blogging in that you provided a fresh perspective to an old issue. You have broadened my view and I am greatly appreciative. I think sometimes practitioners, such as myself, have lost sight of the larger picture about PR education in our frustration at the quality of basic entry-level hire skill sets. More to the point, why do graduates from the liberal arts consistently provide the PR profession with better writers, broader readers and more logical, analytical thinkers? Is the solution as simple as increasing the standards of matriculation and graduating less students with PR degrees? Perhaps this would increase the profession's confidence in PR degree graduates. I look forward to future exchanges. Thanks again, Marcel.
Marcel, I have been thinking about your comments, and the others, for a couple of days now and realized what's wrong with this picture. My statement starts with the assumption that skills are a given and that what Kami calls "the more noble goals" are what's more difficult to strive for. But you all are saying the skills are NOT there. I am planning a follow-up post, after I do a quick review with our students to try to find out what skills they actually have been taught in our program. Thanks to all of you for moving me forward!
Good Morning.

I am very much enjoying your debate!
I know the skills are not there. As a journalist with more than 20 years experience in newsrooms and PR consulting, I've been a primary target of many PR efforts. I recently jumped to the University setting and am teaching. I do not have a PhD, but I do have a great understanding of the real world and what is expected. Is it easy? No. I am spending an entire semester differentiating strategy from tactics, possessive from plural, eliminating clichés and lousy writing formats from news releases and helping them identify appropriate target audiences and best technology to reach them.
Hiring a college graduate with lofty service goals and no writing skills just doesn't cut it. Face it. These kids need to eat and pay the rent. Times are tough. They cannot pitch their service to society and the PR profession without critical thinking, spelling and grammar skills. And they don't have years of life experience behind them to know how to serve quite yet. They do have enthusiasm, however.
I believe the best mix of learning comes from theory and real-world experience. Let the PhDs research and strategize. Let the real-world professionals add to it with experience from the trenches. I do believe the hybrid approach will prepare these kids to hit the ground with a much better chance of enhancing the PR (and any) profession. In the sciences they have clinical experience. PR students need to write. They need to understand history, government and community. Their deficiencies aren't born in college-that road begins in Kindergarten. Perhaps the US educational system should rethink its obsession with "math and science for all" at the elementary/secondary levels and develop the best and brightest students in each area (arts, social studies included) according to their identified aptitudes.
Regardless, as a professional who hires and a teacher who instructs-I believe we should focus less on ourselves and more on the students. I remind myself every time I enter the classroom that they soon will inherit the earth. And anything I can do...
Thanks for allowing me to comment.
Danielle, thanks for joining the discussion. I want to reiterate I don't believe it's either-or. Students need skills like writing and pitching. But I'm unwilling to stop there. I want them to think about who they work for, what they believe in, and how they go about doing their work. Are they making a contribution, or making things worse?

And BTW, you'll want to jump over to my new blog, because this one's no longer active.
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