PR professionals are from Venus, PR scholars are from Mars: How shall the ‘twain’ meet?

In 2004, the Dutch scholar Prof Betteke Van Ruler referred to PR professionals as being ‘from Venus’ while PR scholars are ‘from Mars.’ UK academics Fawkes and Tench found traces of anti-intellectualism amongst PR practitioners/employers in their recent research study. An editorial by Wood in a leading academic publication in the UK, ‘Journal of Communication Management’, challenges academics to communicate their research more effectively rather than “languishing comfortably in an ivory tower.”

The great divide between PR practitioners and PR academics was once again brought to the fore by Canadians in recent comments on this blog in a post titled PR resources, about or by, Canada and Canadians. Practitioner Brian Kilgore thinks that newspapers are as good, if not better, than any postgraduate text book. Craig Fleisher (Professor of Business Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the Odette School of Business, Univ of Windsor and a Public Affairs guru) sees one of PR’s larger problems as getting practitioners and researchers/scholars to recognize what each can offer the other, as well as getting their superiors to recognize the value in interacting with the group to which they don’t belong. He says that academics have a responsibility to disseminate knowledge, but asks how often academics attend/speak at practitioner conferences? On the other hand, when was the last time a corporate PR practitioner (not currently enrolled in a PR graduate program) has read a scholarly journal? Fraser Likely, President and Managing Partner of Likely Communication Strategies, says that there is no demand on community college professors to do and publish research, and suggests that they should publish more – in practitioner publications.

I myself entered this discussion by stating that once my master’s students at the Cape Peninsula Univ of Technology in Cape Town are exposed to theory, they are enthralled by it. Why then are practitioners in general so scared of theory and research or anything faintly academic? Might it be that academics lack an intimate understanding of the practical problems facing the profession? Does their theory not guide research toward crucial questions to enlighten the profession? Or do they not apply their knowledge to the practice of the discipline?

On this blog, we have been talking a lot about the strategic role of PR (and also here and here and here) and/or its institutionalisation (also  here and here and here). It is my contention that neither of these goals will be reached if academics and practitioners do not form close relationships. This post is therefore an open invitation, especially to practitioners, but also to academics, to voice their opinions on what is wrong in this relationship and how can it be improved. What needs do practitioners have that academics can fulfil (and vice versa). Do you want to share examples of where Mars and Venus came into close orbit, even for a while?

To start the conversation, I have extracted a few relevant comments from the Canadian post.

Brian A. Kilgore August 14th, 2008 | 3:09 am

If anyone wants to study PR in Canada, read the Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star and the occasional copy of the Toronto edition of The National Post, and a Sun or two, every once in a while. Add in the daily papers in the cities where your employer or clients have major operations. No need to do this every day, but at least once a week for an overview. And think. I know thinking is the hard part. Do the above, and you’ve taken care of the after graduation need for PR texts. …As for a Canadian text book — one, go buy a calculator. Do the math on a text book, and see if you want the students to pay $200 a copy or the author to blow his brains out.

Benita Steyn August 14th, 2008 | 11:30 am

Brian, I am going to agree with Craig with regards to the value of post-graduate study in public relations. I know you will say that we are both academics and have to think it is valuable. Therefore I am not going to present my arguments but provide you with the views of two of my master’s students whose work happens to be in front of me.

Here is a quote from the first assignment: “I work in a public-private partnership. Established in 2003, the organisation is an initiative by the Western Cape Department of Economic Development & Tourism and the oil & gas services and engineering support industry. It is a special-purpose-vehicle, part of the cluster of initiatives set up by the Western Cape Provincial Government to bolster industries in distress. In my capacity as the Public Relations Manager, I liaise and work with government, media, industry and international clients in areas including, but not limited to, trade development, skills development and generic industry marketing. From the onset of starting this course, the theory encountered so far has impacted on my work to such an extent that the learning has made me relook my role in the organisation, the relationships we have with our current stakeholders and how the organisation interacts with them. I am referring specifically to three theories that were covered in the topics ‘relationships as a new paradigm for public relations’, ‘stakeholder management’ and ‘issues management’.

Here is an email from another: “I am very happy to say that I have discovered a topic (for my master’s dissertation) that gives me the palpitations you told us about.” And then: “When I first read about this concept it was like light bulbs went off in my head”. This student is a PR and marketing manager in a bank. And not just a pretty face. She is one of those who wants to change things but her experience alone (which includes reading newspapers every day) is not enough to do so. She needs direction and this she is getting from knowledge. The latter comes from theory, which is based on research. And research is done amongst practitioners. (I don’t know any academics who use their colleagues as respondents). So new knowledge/theory is actually the collective thought of practitioners (academics are only the facilitators—they put the thoughts in boxes and write it up).

Why are practitioners so scared of new knowledge/ theory/ research? What it does, is not to tell them what to think, but what to think about. The insights they have to find themselves.

Craig Fleisher August 14th, 2008 | 4:26 pm

Hi Benita: Thanks for sharing those wonderful quotes from your students. Like you, I am so grateful for those abductive moments, when the “lights go on” and connections are made in our students’ minds. I can give you numerous examples of experienced managers (or our traditional university students) who shared how academic thinking changed their approach for the better and, often as a result, their career trajectory. In an ideal world, our research can play a mighty important role in helping students (of all levels) better understand and know the phenomena that they seek to study, learn and practice.

We often lament the reality that academics and practitioners appear to operate on two entirely different planes in public relations; nevertheless, it doesn’t have to be and it was/is not always that way. Individuals such as Fraser Likely are very comfortable bridging the two planes, and I have also been a frequent boundary spanner able to co-exist and make contributions in both spaces for over two decades now.

One of the larger problems we face is getting each group (i.e., practitioners and researchers/scholars) to recognize what each can offer the other, as well as getting our own superiors to recognize the value in interacting with the group to which we don’t belong. I find it remarkable that, even within our universities, we are often encouraged to publish in academic journals that no practitioners read, while receiving little to no credit (this is true at the so-called “top” research schools, at least) for presenting our research at practitioner conferences/meetings or in their publications. Even though I am a chaired, full professor at my medium-sized university here in Canada, I still find this persistent attitude on our end of the equation frustrating. Having said that, each of us in academia has a responsibility to disseminate knowledge that we must attempt to fulfill, and I will continue to try and do my little part in this meaningful and important play.

Benita Steyn August 14th, 2008 | 9:35 pm

Yes, Craig, we are also seeing how changed approaches (towards symmetrical communication and stakeholder engagement) are influencing the careers of (especially) our post-graduate students. The student in my 1st ex above has already changed jobs–only 4 months into the programme. She is now Senior Stakeholder Mgr at our very troubled electricity utility–the one who has plunged SA in darkness on numerous occasions during the last 18 months. (All I can say is that their communication and general performance can only be improved upon–to say nothing of their planning).

As a matter of fact, the rapid promotions of our masters students during their coursework are actually creating a problem in the programme, in the way that they are so busy with their new jobs and added responsibilities that they find no time to finish/write up their empirical research. I will probably be fired if my superiors hear this, but I find it hard to be despondent about this. After all, these students are mostly practitioners and I think the practical application of their academic learning is quite important (to them and to us). Some time or other there will be quiet moments to finish studies.

One success story we had at the Univ of Pretoria (where I lectured previously) for getting practitioners and academics/post graduate students together was our so-called ‘Discussion Forum’ once a month. It started after our master’s class ended in 1997. We all had ‘post-natal blues’ and couldn’t bear the thought of not having the intellectual stimulation anymore. So the master’s students continued getting together. At first it was open discussion, but that didn’t work well. Then we got an expert on a topic to set the scene with facts/new research on a topic for 20 min, followed by open discussion for an hour. It was absolutely wonderful. Everybody involved learned so much. Some evenings we had 50 people –fighting the 5pm traffic to attend (and most of them were practitioners). Taking into consideration that this happened at the same time as the Pretoria branch of one of the big PR associations closed shop and many academics/ practitioners were saying they were never going to attend another practitioner conference since they aren’t learning anything, this was quite remarkable. It just shows that most people want to improve themselves and if they are learning something, they keep on coming back for more.

I often wonder why conferences cannot work like that too. Decide on a topic and let an academic start with the latest theory/research on the matter. Then the practitioner can add ‘best ‘or ‘generally accepted practice’, and together they and the audience can decide how the generally accepted practice can be improved to even better practice. Wouldn’t that be a win-win? It would however mean throwing the two together.

Prof. Craig Fleisher August 15th, 2008 | 1:40 am

Hi Benita: Your idea to have a conference set up in the way you have suggested is a great one. I saw it done once, about 15 years ago, and it was very successful. Unfortunately, it is so rare to have conferences where academics and practitioners are in (near) equal proportion and have (near) equal responsibilities to work together toward shared goals!

I just returned Tuesday evening from the Academy of Management annual conference (the largest annual one for business school profs — about 10 000 of them attending) and I did not encounter a single practitioner in attendance in any session. My caveat is that some practitioners are doing advanced degrees –I met with about 5 or 6 part-time DBA students. This was one year after our conference theme was “Connecting with Practice.” You can see how well that one was sustained as an idea — and this is in business, not public relations! For what it is worth, I find the PR field has generally made better progress (realize this is a relative comparison — based upon the nature of conferences/meetings held over the course of any typical year) in attempting to build bridges between academe and practice than we have in business management.

Before I became a full time academic, I did several years as a corporate practitioner (I was a mortgage banking manager for a large financial institution) and also as a consultant (with the founder of the Boston Consulting Group). I often wondered as I gained more experience why academics become so distant from practitioners and vice versa. Making things stranger still, I often (i.e., > monthly) get offers to consult, which I typically turn down since my academic superiors do not value my performing this activity and actually set restrictions on how and how much of it I or any other faculty member can do. On the other hand, I often try and involve practitioners in my research, not only as participants to be observed but as active participants that can help shape and re-shape the nature of the phenomena, as well as our understanding of it, recognizing the complexity that adds in trying to maintain the integrity of the research process itself.

Having said all these things, I know too many academics who probably are “too distant” from the practical realities of the fields they profess about, and too many practitioners who have never had the opportunity to consider the value to be gained from good research, theory/conceptualization, and instruction. At some point, all we can do is to try and be “samples of 1″ in our own behaviour to try and build the bridges that we believe are absent.

Fraser Likely August 15th, 2008 | 5:10 pm

…………Given that the majority of our ‘professors’ teach at the community college level, there is no demand on them to do and publish research, and thus there is very limited Canadian research being done. But, this last point to me is an opportunity – and it goes right at your comment Craig that academics are “too distant.” I think it’s time that community college professors published more – in practitioner publications. Their students are doing internships, they run student agencies and their PR program’s raison d’etre is to be close to the practitioners who employ their graduates. Surely, there are stories to be told: case studies; reviews; experiences; etc. I find it difficult to believe that with so many great community college teachers (they must be great because their students are all finding jobs and having successful careers) there is this void in practitioner publications. It’s as if there is this wall of silence. Our university professors are being heard (you being a prime example). Where are the Canadian community college professor voices?

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3 Responses to “PR professionals are from Venus, PR scholars are from Mars: How shall the ‘twain’ meet?”
  1. Benita Steyn says:

    Craig: It is very encouraging that you think the field of PR has made some progress in building bridges between academics and practitioners. At both the Bled (www.bledcom.com) and Euprera (www.euprera2008.com)academic conferences that I have been attending over the past 6 years, there were quite a number of practitioners. Also, initiatives like Fraser’s at the US academic conference in Miami (IPRRC–www.instituteforpr.org) to offer an award for joint practitioner/academic research is a great way of building bridges. As I said in my post on the PR ‘Educationist’, never tell me that one person cannot make a difference! This is the only control one has—over your own behaviour.

    With regards to practitioners’ general aversion to theory, I must say that my master’s classes over the last 8 years have brought peace of mind about the question whether I/academics are bombarding students with too much theory. At a top research university like the Univ of Pretoria where I used to teach, there is no choice. It has to be done. But I did wonder when I moved to a university of technology (which in SA is supposed to be more practically oriented) how I was going to scale down on my fixation with theory. So I didn’t.

    Of course there was no longer a subject like PR theory, but I built a healthy dose into the subjects (more than the students were used to). And lo and behold, there was no hell and damnation and the sky didn’t fall. To the contrary, I was totally flabbergasted at the students’ reaction. They wanted MORE. Some were even angry and others felt cheated because they had never been deeply exposed to theory in their previous studies (most of them having obtained previous qualifications also at universities of technology).

    This was an eye-opener and deeply reassuring. I now knew without a shadow of doubt that all that was necessary was to expose practitioners to theory and they recognised the value instantaneously—like I did as a practitioner when I started studying again at the ripe old age of 42, turning to academia to find answers/solutions to the problems I experienced in practice and that other practitioners or my managers/CEOs couldn’t provide direction with either.

    Of course one must take into consideration that I am referring here to a select group — experienced practitioners who enrolled for post-graduate studies, probably because they instinctively realised that there was more to PR than writing a press release. But there were also a few who only came to get a piece of paper and got much more than they bargained on. So all I am trying to say is that, in my view, the aversion is there only because of a lack of exposure. But how do we get people to come and study when the aversion is already there. And they do have to come—I am convinced that most of the problems in PR can be solved by education/training.

  2. Estelle de Beer says:

    Hi Benita: Thanks for all your hard work to bridge the divide between practitioners and academics. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

    Just to let you know – the Discussion Forums at the University of Pretoria will start again soon in the same format as we used to have them. We will also work closely with the professional associations (national and international) in South Africa, to invite their members to attend. You mentioned above that the original idea came from a group of masters students – I was part of that group of students who followed the taught masters programme in Communication Management at the University of Pretoria a few years ago. There is currently such a huge need among communication practitioners to be trained in management principles, that we have decided to relaunch that masters programme in 2009.

    Staff members of our Department of Marketing and Communication Management also try to represent the University on the management committees of professional associations. I have recently relaunched the Northern Gauteng Branch of PRISA (Public Relations and Communication Management Institute of SA)(which used to be the most active in the country before it closed down a few years ago) and am currently serving on their management committee with the portfolio Education and Research. This gives me an opportunity to market our short courses and contract research capacity; as well as to do relevant strategic communication management research among a captive audience.

    As past president of the South African Communication Association (SACOMM) (an academically oriented association), I will also attend my first meeting of the Council for Public Relations and Communication Management (CPRCM) next week. This Council includes representatives of all the relevant local and international professional associations and discusses matters of mutual interest. This will give me a further opportunity to liaise with practitioners.

    O, and I have launched a very active student association, MC Experience, last year. The main aim of this initiative was to expose the students to the world of work. I encourage them to liaise with the student chapters of the professional associations and with practitioners. They thoroughly enjoy this and they arrange regular community outreaches, issue a very professional electronic newsletter, present workshops etc.

    As someone who has been in practice for 17 years, I make a point of staying in touch with practitioners through my community service (as judge for competitions, offering short courses etc). Apart from the fact that I enjoy it tremendously, I regularly find leads for research and curriculum development. Perhaps it is my strong belief in sharing the good news about the profession that keeps me involved with practice.

  3. Benita Steyn says:

    Estelle, I am very happy to hear that the Discussion Forum at UP will relive. Craig’s remark above about academics getting no or little credit for activities with practitioners reminded me of a respected colleague at UP asking me 10 yrs ago why on earth I was putting so much effort into organizing the Forum since “I won’t get anything for it”. She kindly advised me that if I wanted to get a promotion, I should focus on writing academic articles in refereed journals and supervising research (instead of running a column on research in Communika, PRISA’s practitioner magazine). It was not that she didn’t see the value of the latter, but being more senior and a life-long academic she knew from experience that I was harming my ‘new’ career. And she was right. I missed the promotion because I didn’t have a refereed article to my credit and my studies weren’t completed!!

    I am doing this self-disclosure here (referring to the hidden quadrant of the so-called Johari Window theory where one chooses to disclose those unspeakables that only you know about yourself and nobody else) so that practitioners can get a glimpse into the obstacles that academics face. It is not that we don’t want more contact with practitioners or don’t enjoy it, but our criteria for performance is stringent and we pay a personal price if we practise too much ‘social responsibility’ and do not add to our bottom line.

    The fault probably lies with the system—and I do think it is wrong. A 50/50 situation would be much more healthy, in my opinion. Or allow us to focus/specialize—there will be the academics who only want to do research, and there will be people like Estelle and Craig who also enjoy contact with practitioners tremendously, add great value to the relationship (often at a personal cost).

    Thank you, Estelle, Craig, and Fraser — for breaking the stereotype, for sharing your personal philosophy on the relationship between academia and practice and for providing some examples of what can be done. I hope we will hear from some others too?

    And Brian, “IF I WERE A RICH MAN, tra la la la la la la”, I would invite you as guest speaker in my next master’s class and let your converted theory-besotted fellow practitioners loose on you! But jokes aside, are you prepared to share some reasons for your views on (the failures of) post graduate education? Because I know there are many practitioners who think like you do. And that was actually the main reason for this post. Anyhow, nobody is saying that post-graduate education is perfect. But unless you tell us what is wrong and what you need, how can we even start trying to fix it?

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