During my first semester of grad school I took a highly regarded course called PR Theory. My fearless professor thrust upon us the academic versus practice debate that has long since caused tension in the public relations field. Here’s the rundown:
In the world of academia, students, professors, and researches spend immense amounts of time trying to understand what public relations is, how it’s perceived, and most importantly how to improve how it is practiced; the ultimate goal being to make PR as effective as possible. This means writing articles, books, tips, conducting lectures, etc. Academics feel they’re understanding of PR is somewhat more holistic because it is rooted in the communication theories and studies that created the field.
Practitioners, or those who are actively working in the field have a unique perspective setting their philosophies about PR apart from those of academics. Because they are on the ground, in the trenches so to speak, their attitudes, decision-making process, and choices often differ from what academics prescribe for effective PR. Practitioners argue that academics couldn’t possibly know how to truly make the field better because they aren’t actually working with or dealing with any of the situations faced by practitioners. Practitioners don’t work “in theory” they actually work.
So where does that leave me, a six-year PR academic trying to break into practice? In a troublesome transition that’s where. I find myself faced with situations that my theory and ethics classes couldn’t truly teach me how to navigate. Situations that I’ve been taught to handle one way, and in practice been told to handle another. I hate to say it kids but your employers will probably ask you to throw out some of the things you’ve learned in school. It will suck, but it you want to keep your job, you’ll probably do it. It’s an interesting dynamic, one that makes me wonder where the middle ground between the two lies?
Ultimately I think it’ll come down to collaboration. A meeting of the minds, where academics will come to listen, and practitioners will help explain the realistic way PR is being practiced. In turn academics will provide some support through researched solutions to help meet the determined PR landscape. Another component might be practitioners turning into academics! When PR people are ready to hang up the hat, they should instead consider teaching based on their rich experience and practice. This funneling from practice to academia could be an effective way to modify PR education making it more operative and less theoretical.
…That’s what I plan to do at least. Get lots of PR experience and then return to school for a PhD program that will allow me to effectively teach future practitioners how to be successful , based on the academic research and real life lessons…it could happen. : )