Gen Y graduate still kangarooish about PR theory in practice

Perhaps atypical of my cohort, but continuing to find a place for PR theory in my agency’s practice

Guest post by Katie Sheppet

PR practitioners of Generation Y, including myself, often are pigeonholed as the “I want it right now” generation (The PR Practitioner). We’re criticised for thinking we know everything or for wanting “it all” too fast.

Whilst this can ring true for some, it’s unfair to say we’re all the same.

That was then….

At my Australian university I studied a bachelor of arts in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne and graduated with honours in 2009. At uni we learnt about public relations and media theory, as well as journalism practice, including how to write for traditional and digital media (note: just three years ago it was website and blogs only)—but nothing about other social media platforms and tactics.

Grunig’s four models of public relations were taught in our curriculum, but appeared to be soon forgotten or put aside when we PR students joined the workforce. We made a big jump from the classroom where students consider theory and literature, devise methodologies, critically analyse case studies and discuss the findings before making a point or reaching a conclusion, to the workplace.

…this is now

In our workplaces—in my case, a global PR agency with a focus on digital—we’re often encouraged to search the web for research without drawing on academic articles (unless practising in certain areas such as healthcare PR). This is a definite transition from textbooks to real life, where some flourish and others flounder. One day, you’re writing your thesis, the next, trying to source a high striker for an event in rural Australia. This is no small feat for a young intern, as you can’t really compare the two concepts!

However, even after a few years of distance, looking back to the theory from university suddenly makes much more sense once you’ve had some practical experience for underscoring purposes. In PR, we seek to create meaningful stories to engage the relevant audiences or stakeholders and hopefully make a difference in some way (i.e., be it political, educational, social, environmental or economic impact).

Theory to practice

For example, we’re instructed in modern society that Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model of public relations is the ideal outcome or best practice of a communication program or campaign. This model allows for two-way communication or open dialogue between an organisation and its publics, rather than one-way persuasion.

I’ve learnt a wide range of methods of communication, particularly for PR campaign activation, however the two-way symmetrical model often is not employed in traditional media campaigns.

Among the many communications materials I’ve come across and collaborated on, some fit Grunig’s public information model, which is one-way communication that distributes organisational information (through a media release, for example), without much room for public commentary or debate.

However, a construct that does allow for a free flow of information from organisations to its stakeholders and back is found in social media. It’s a platform for companies to disseminate information or to receive stakeholder feedback and engagement very easily (which can be very good or bad for a company or brand, depending on how it manages the flow of information, inquiries, complaints, etc.).

There were many social media platforms in existence whilst I was a university student, including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and others. How to use these platforms for a brand or company wasn’t taught in tertiary school; it’s something you learn on the job.

My take on adapting social media practice to PR theory

The world of social media is evolving quickly, and with it a range of influencer measurement applications and programs are emerging.

Some would assume that Gen Y automatically and willingly adopts influencer and sentiment metric programs, but this isn’t always the case.

In August 2012, an online shopping site was launched in Australia with a novel barrier to entry for the website opening, possessing a Klout score of 50 or above. Klout uses your social media profiles to evaluate your level of influence.

Klout defines “influence” as:

“… The ability to drive action, such as sharing a picture that triggers comments and likes, or tweeting about a great restaurant and causing your followers to go try it for themselves.”

The online shopping site’s launch made news, but not everyone thought it was a great idea.

I certainly didn’t, nor did the majority of my agency colleagues and peers.

Looking at Grunig’s communication models, the company used the one-way symmetrical model of PR, defined as using persuasion to influence an audience to behave as the organisation desires, without using research to find out how its publics felt about the organisation.

To me, using social media elitism for this store launch made no sense at all.

It seemed obvious from the designer brands stocked at this online boutique that the store’s target market is affluent, young- to middle-aged women. What if a woman working at a bank, communication firm or still studying isn’t active online? She might very well check her emails, visit Facebook once or twice a day and shop at designer e-boutiques to save a trip to the mall, but not be on the sites Klout ranks most consistently, such as Twitter.

Yet isn’t she the ideal person to be invited to the store launch?

The campaign was targeting influential consumers, but influence doesn’t equal affluence. The campaign blocked potential customers due to a barrier designed to create media interest and challenge its target market.

Theory would consider the potential barriers

Influencer metrics are important to PR consultants, as high follower numbers will generally put a person on a target list. However, this campaign turned marketing on its head by erecting a barrier to potential customers.

I’m not interested in ongoing monitoring of the site, which makes a case for why the one-way symmetrical model for communication won’t work, because it isolates or alienates people like me. And it’s for this reason I won’t shop there, not because of my Klout score!

A new-found appreciation for PR theory, for the long term

From the 18 months I’ve spent working in the industry, I can see how—at least initially—PR theory in the throes of PR practice takes a back seat. When your primary resources are web browsers, media contact databases and surveys it can leave you wondering why you spent so long in front of the books studying the academic version of public relations.

But when I stop and think about it, it’s the research skills, the attention to detail, meticulous writing, presentation and interpersonal skills that all come into play even at the beginning of one’s career. I even had the opportunity to make use of these skills when I did an interview with esteemed, senior PR practitioner, John Paluszek, here on PR Conversations!

And as I’m in this occupation for the long term, I’ve realising that being involved in the strategy elements of campaigns and programs are when my theoretical backbone will really kick in, such as thinking about what the core messages are, how you’re trying to communicate it in a way that’s interesting and relatable to your audience, as well as the overall reputation of client companies. This is when the learned PR theories creep back in, probably without one even noticing, providing a reference point in important PR decision making.

I wonder how many of my Gen Y colleagues feel this same way: that our PR academic studies were indeed a great investment for long-term, practical careers in this field?


Katie Sheppet is an account executive at Edelman Melbourne where she has experience across marketing, digital and organisational communications. Katie is also contributing articles to the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management (GA) monthly e-newsletter on a volunteer basis. Contact Katie by email, follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

On behalf of Edelman, long recognized for its sponsorship of PR education, Katie volunteered digital support to the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), the GA member/national PR association host of the 2012 World Public Relations Forum (WPRF), which took place in Melbourne from 18-20 November 2012. Her efforts include initiating this earlier interview with John Paluszek from Ketchum PR, and formulating the questions for first-publication on PR Conversations.


Notes: “Kangarooish” was chosen as a culturally distinct play on “bullish.” And Katie and I extend thanks to Heather Yaxley for creating the “bouncy” PR Theory graphic that accompanies the post.


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17 Replies to “Gen Y graduate still kangarooish about PR theory in practice

  1. I’ve been meaning to comment for quite some time to say that this guest post by Katie Sheppet happened quite organically.

    I first got to know Katie when she volunteered to help me with “interview” background information with John Paluszek, prior to the World PR Forum. I, of course, suggested she conduct the interview herself, and I was very pleased with the end result.

    Since time the WPRF took place and Katie was able to meet in person several of our PR Conversations regulars. We’ve also kept in touch one-to-one and like to compare notes about things like theory into practice and the impact of social media on our industry/craft/profession.

    Katie volunteered the Australian Klout story to me as an example of wrong-headed thinking. I had never heard of artificial influence being measured and judged as a ways and means of accessing a commercial website.

    Ergo, I put together a few strands from various discussions and invited her to guest post here on PR Conversations.

    I know Katie undertook this with a great sense of responsibility and even a bit of trepidation. That’s why I’m delighted that several people have weighed in, unasked, and carried the conversation into a few other directions.

    I had committed last year to inviting more females to post on PR Conversations, from different parts of the world. In having both Rachel Miller and Katie Sheppet guest post, I’m also pleased to provide a platform for a younger generation of communication practitioners to share their employment and volunteer work experience, as well as thoughts.

  2. Hi Katie,

    Given your positive attitude you’ve a great future in PR. Liked your pun about influence not being the same as affluence.

    I suggest you google some critricism of Grunig’s two-way-symmetrical comms. The most relevant criticism focuses on the theory presupposes a balance of power between an organization and its various stakeholders. This is not neccessarily the case, thus contradicting the idealism embedded in Grunig’s notion of symmetry. The question then arises whether you can communicate symmetrically in an asymmetrical relationship.

    1. Hi Don,

      Thank you for your thought-provoking comment!

      On reflection I agree that there is a challenge of communicating symmetrically in an asymmetrical relationship. Another interesting question, though, is who has the power? The organisation or its publics? I think social media is a great platform to even the playing field.

      A good example or case study of symmetrical communication in action is in Judy Gombita’s post: “Audacious Byte: McDonald’s Canada Makes “Food Quality” Its Social PR Hero” – where McDonald’s Canada becomes accountable for its food quality to stakeholders through social media.

      Thanks again!


      1. Hi Katie, good post!
        Hi Don, good suggestion!

        One thing that surprises me often in the ever more popular ‘bashing the dominant paradigm’ game is that once the bashing is over one is left with very little that is new, and then this happens again and again and again.

        Not that I think that the so-called dominant paradigm is free from criticism.

        Regular PRC readers know well how the same authors of that paradigm, and this in my view is their number one value, have bowed and agreed to many criticisms and revised their positions.

        For example, I have often argued that the generic principles and specific applications theory needs to be revisioned in the sense that specific applications (that I interpret as the public relations infrastructure of a given territory) are just as, if not more, important than the generic principles, that in turn need to mirror the specific and peculiar traits of the organizations characteristics somewhere along the lines of Anne Gregory’s contribution to the Melbourne Mandate, instead of focusing only on the results of the 1984 Excellence results.

        Also I think it is time to review the same categories of those specific applications.

        Besides, many findings from the recent surge of interest in the international history of public relations stemmed from the Bournemouth group, have evidenced the naiveness of some generalizations implicit in the four models (yet so tempting and easy to teach..).

        Finally, I am more and more convinced that critical and postmodern theorists highlight some of the best thinking. The concept of public relations as activism, for example, is very strong and con-vincing.

        I liked Katie’s question about ‘ who has the power’ before deciding with which hat you analyse if the relationship is symmetric or not.
        Undoubtedly in a relationship there is always one party that decides it is important and attempts to relate with the other one(s).

        This active party, however, is not always the organization, and more and more often it is the other.

        So the question becomes ‘who decides if the relationship is symmetrical’?

        Empirical research often shows that the perception of symmetry in a relationship is highly subjective according to who is replyig to the question.

        A recent research I was involved in showed that while subject A (the managers and employees of a huge ngo) gave a 6 (from 0 to 10) score to its perceived power balance with its volunteers, the latter in average gave a 3 score.

        Thus the following question: how really important is it for the ngo to undertake a serious effort to make the relationship more symmetrical when, as in this case, the other indicators of relatiosnship quality (trust, satisfaction, committment) came out very high?

        I really don’t know and I wonder…

        I hope that Katie will take up your suggestion Don, and I hope that the same suggestion will be taken up by many an intelligent dominant paradigm basher.

        Let’s move on and capitalize as much as possible from the support of students like Katie so that they may flourish in a cleaner and more rewarding intellectual and social environment.

        1. I agree that Katie does offer up some interesting insight in terms of the utilisation of PR theory in practice, but there are a few points that I’d like to raise, which also pick up on Toni’s point.

          The first is that PR education has to be more than simply training – and especially not just about training graduates for their first job. One of the most important things about studying theory is not just what we learn about the models/concepts/research itself, but the intellectual rigour that comes from the educational process. The ability to reflect on what we’ve read, consider its validity, debate counter-viewpoints, look back at history and forward on the basis of trends, forecasting and disruptive thinking, test ideas using academic research principles and so on.

          That also means being able to order our own thoughts, justify our position and make recommendations (and offer counsel) ourselves as informed public relations practitioners drawing on a body of knowledge.

          My second point is that this process should be lifelong – and particularly as the body of PR knowledge continues to develop, alongside the positive steps where we are increasingly connecting with theory, models, ideas, etc from outside the PR academia. We need to also use this ongoing reflection and education to connect the great work being done by a lot of those within academia and those who are similarly reflecting on practice and its underpinnings within consultancies, organizations, professional bodies, communities of practice, and so on.

          PR is often not seen as intellectually robust (with practitioners focused more on doing – how to rather than why to), and that belies the extensive knowledge base we can in fact draw upon, and continue to create.

          My third point relates to how often theory is only considered in respect of how practical it is. So often the focus is on planning models, possibly communication and persuasive theories (although in my experience few practitioners are really informed on any of these to any great depth), and then the classic ‘dominant paradigm’ with its emphasis on the role of PR as a strategic management function and the utilisation of two-way symmetric communication.

          As Toni indicates, there are many other promising areas which (without bashing the dominant paradigm) offer great opportunity for PR practitioners/theorists/hybrids to gain from greater research, reflection and application. I agree with him also that we need to help practitioners move away from looking at training and education about equipping them with the magic solution but recognise the complexity of modern operations and how we need to be able to apply specific not generic principles. For me, this is particularly evident in risk, issues and crisis management where too much of the academic and training world emphasises simplistic and universal approaches rather than the intellectual ability to diagnose and respond appropriately to the actual circumstances.

          If PR is to be fully recognised as offering value then it cannot simply rely on habitual practice, gut instinct, intuition, personal experience and ‘suck it and see’ approaches.

          I think that a University PR degree can be a good foundation for a career in the field, but it is only a starting point. Katie and her cohort of Gen Y graduates shouldn’t be disheartened if they are not applying all the theory they studied, but I would hope they appreciate the specific and transferable skills they gained from engaging with the body of knowledge, ideally in a critical way.

          They also should not see the degree qualification as an end point but a platform on which they will continue to add knowledge (and experience). Recent graduates, like all practitioners, should continue to engage with academia perhaps by taking further qualifications, self-education through blogs, books and courses, or any other route which is increasingly available to us. Likewise, academia needs to learn and reflect on what goes on in practice – as well as extending our thinking more conceptually. That’s the best way for new avenues such as activism, power and so on can all be explored – whether or not we connect that to two-way symmetrical communications, social media, chaos and complexity theories, neuroscience or any other intellectual fields.

          1. Dear Toni and Heather,

            I thank you both greatly for increasing the breadth of this PR Conversation and providing additional interesting points for discussion.

            Toni – I’m not familiar with exactly which part of the Melbourne Mandate Dr Anne Gregory made a contribution to, however I agree that the Melbourne Mandate and future documents of its kind should be included in University curriculum. The Melbourne Mandate provides a current reference for those in the industry as well as studying, and makes for a great and relevant update on the Excellence Results of 1984! (A little birdie has told me Anne is the incoming first female chair of the GA – I’m very excited to see what’s to come!)

            Some of the other studies you mentioned including post-modern theory were not taught at my Australian University, so you’ve given me some wider reading to do (as has Don).

            Heather – I completely agree that there’s great value in the ‘intellectual rigour’ that comes from studying (rather than just training for the job), which enables you to transfer your skills form studying to practical application as a consultant.

            I also agree, as I’m learning right now, that University shouldn’t be the end point of study but a platform to build your knowledge upon; I love this idea. Initially I thought PR theory education at University was for learning as well as entry to the field, but I now know this is something that continues to evolve over time, more than I could’ve imagined. I’m certainly enjoying this learning curve and it’s rewarding to see, through the comments in this post, that many are sharing the same journey.

            Thanks again!

  3. You’ve got an interesting point of view, Katie.

    I’m not familiar with the Grunig’s theories, but I agree with you that it’s making no sense to establish barrier for potential customers. They were probably hoping that these VIP guests (with Klout score over 50) will become their ambassadors after this party, by doing their job on social media, disseminating the message (in two ways conversation process) in their own networks, and convincing new potential customers.

    In practice, this kind of strategy is working for certains specific targeted market (as luxury, travel, car), but don’t for the others. And, I still agree with you ; influence don’t equal affluence. As well as a buzz don’t means success.

    Personally, I believe that is certainly not the best way to use social media measurement by building an elitist distinction between customers. I prefer focusing on all the connected consumers, from the baby-boomers to the generation Z (including X and Y), and trying to understand what’s brought them together. For brands, each generation of users-consumers could represent potential customers, and should be considered as this.

    The social media measurement tools (as Klout and the others) is just to be used to identify the first line power users-consumers (the social media influencers) that could eventually become the ambassadors on the different social platforms. And, they are just a part of the whole market that should be developed by the brands marketers and PR practitionners.

    Thanks for sharing your point of view Katie, as to Judy for sharing your article, and including me in the conversation.

    1. Hi Raymond,

      Many thanks for your thoughtful response.

      I’m familiar with targeting power users to become brand ambassadors, however in this case I didn’t find it well thought out once you consider the product and the target market.

      I agree that social media measurement tools should be part of an integrated approach, rather than used on their own for a campaign.

      Thanks again and best wishes,

  4. This is highly entertaining. And I quite agree: I never buy from places that use the one-way symmetrical model of communication, unless they are selling a hundred golf balls for $12.95 on eBay. At least you’re out of the high striker sourcing business, Katie. Good luck and keep progressing!

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