Is the research rather than education based trend in american universities good or bad for the profession? An interesting debate with implications for all scholars, educators and professionals in the world

Jack O’Dwyer’s web site has brewed, in these last few days, a very interesting discussion sparked by a caustic and titillating op-ed authored by Bill Huey under the title ‘Sorry State for PR Education’ Huey jan 18.doc

 The piece begins with a brief and caustic critical analysis of the ‘Professional Bond’, the recent Report of the Commission of Public Relations Education, and goes on to argue that US universities are becoming too focussed on achieving a perceived research-rather-than-education based identity to help them attract more funds and students ….  

Professors with phd’s are therefore being disproportionally favoured versus professionals with hands-on experience. With the end result that graduate students arrive to the market with only a faint and often unrealistic idea of what public relations practice is all about.

This Huey piece has already attracted some ten comments (Responses.doc), all from US based educators and professionals, with the exception of our good friend Brian Kilgore who gives a radically different picture of the situation in Canada. I have little reason to doubt that by-and-large Huey is correct in his analysis, but I might like to add some elements by playing devil’s advocate, in the hope of contributing to a less US-centric perspective.I must confess that my admittedly stereotypic view of American public relations education is one of being mostly practice-oriented (!) and less focussed on giving students that general cultural, historic, ethnographic, organizational as well as current events related backgrounds which I believe are so essential to comfortably enter into our ever changing and daunting profession.

Also, this research-based vs education-based university debate is very lively in every country and, not surprisingly, while Italian universities (to cite but a case) are making a strong effort to transit from their elitist past of being mostly research-based, to a more professionalised education-based platform, I learn from reading the Professional Bond report and Bill Huey’s piece that the opposite trend now seems to be prevailing in US campuses!It is the usual pendulum movement between two extreme poles of a dilemma which moves back and forth according to specific circumstances, periods and events.

There seems to be, from my limited perspective, a growing feeling amongst the academic community, but also amongst more attentive professionals in various parts of the world, that it might be better for students arriving on the labour market not to have a hands-on picture of the profession they are going into. And -again this is my personal view- probably because the perceived identity of the profession in society is so dismal just because of its day-to-day practice as well as because of the failure of its associative representations to influence that practice.

The hope of this group is that, if students come into the practice with a solid and well conceptualized idea not of the profession as it actually is, but as it is slowly becoming and should be, this can only help the improvement of the practice itself. In other words a ‘push’ approach. To this, one might also add that -in parallel with the dismal state of the perceived identity of our profession in society at large, and with the more attentive professionals complaining they are not sufficiently reputed in organizational management circles- academic circles in turn, and possibly because of that very perception of the profession in society, appear to discriminate public relations educators, considered insufficiently research-based and too oriented towards the practice…. Hence, maybe, another reason for the new trend detected by Huey and the Report.

Professional associations and public relations news publishers, whose marketing mission is to gain new members and readers, should make every effort to ensure that students are kept well aware of what is happening in the market (for example, , the Italian association’s website receives more than two thousand single visits per diem by issuing a weekly home page with some thirty, forty new national and international news items, and a recent research indicated that some 50% of these visits are from students). On the other hand, educators should promote intense relationships with associations and publishers, as well as private, public and social organisations in order to expose these to their students and facilitate an intense interaction.

I have been teaching in public relations undergraduate, post graduate and masters courses in these last ten years in various Italian universities and more recently in a master’s course at NYU in the United States, which by the way is very much hands-on as most (if not all) professors come from a very solid and intense professional base.

To be totally candid, if I had a say in moving the pendulum today, I would gladly orient it towards a more research-based approach also for a public relations reason: i.e. as a source of improvement for our perceived identity in society.

This, as long as we agree that: a) research does not necessarily imply being performed by phd’s who have no relation to the marketplace; b) that the research agenda, at least in its major part, is determined by the needs of the profession as they are interpreted by the professionals, and not by the academics.

I am afraid that a more hands-on approach would only reinforce my stereotype of American public relations education which, in turn, could deteriorate the already complex relationship between our educators and the rest of academia, while frustrating the very exciting developments in every corner of the world towards a new global public relations model.

Yes, it is true, as Bill Huey argues, that public relations, like architecture, is defined by its practice….but unfortunately this is the stigma we carry!

An approach to the increasing public relations education demand in every country, based on the principles indicated in the Report of the Commission of Public Relations Education, with much more emphasis on organizational and business culture and systems, would certainly add significant value added to the profession.

Your opinions?    



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4 Replies to “Is the research rather than education based trend in american universities good or bad for the profession? An interesting debate with implications for all scholars, educators and professionals in the world

  1. this comment had just been posted by Odwyer’s (friday 26 January) and I thought it would be of interest:


    By Linda P. Morton, Ed.D.

    I have read Bill Huey’s article, “The Sorry State of PR Education,” and have followed the comments by Rene Henry, Toni Muzi, Mike McDermott, Prof. Nancy Snow, Jim Wallace, Prof. Vincent Hazleton, Brian Kilgore and Joe Honick.

    Holders of Ph.D.’s seem to be getting the worst of this argument but my belief is that obtaining a doctorate is not only the best preparation for doing research and publishing articles and papers, it is also the best preparation for teaching at the college or university level.

    Doctoral candidates learn to do research, to systematically analyze techniques and potential solutions based on the experience, opinions and actions of many people.

    Research sets up perimeters to objectify findings so that they can be generalized to advance a field and build a body of knowledge. It replaces assumptions, biases and myth with knowledge.

    I used to attend PR conferences where one PR pro would state his or her approach to a problem only to find that at the next conference another expert would propose a totally different technique or solution. I soon realized there had to be a better way to determine what works than just the experiences of individuals.

    Ph.D.’s Learn More than Theory

    Candidates learn more than theory and research principles and practices. They also learn how to be teachers. The student normally teaches as part of a graduate assistantship. I’ve known many practitioners who mentor an intern or new graduate. They like the experience and assume that they will be good teachers.

    But mentoring is not at all like teaching. Mentoring is informal, personal, and usually a one-to-one relationship. Teaching is a formal, less personal relationship between the educator and students. Teaching requires its own set of skills, processes and procedures that must be learned.

    Most doctoral degrees require at least one course in teaching, and all provide much mentoring between professors and graduate students about teaching.

    Degrees of PR Profs Analyzed

    Educators with doctorates account for just over half of those teaching PR, according to a study I did with Prof. Fred Beard of the University of Oklahoma.

    We studied the resumes of educators submitted to the Accreditation Committee for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. For this study, 103 programs were representatively sampled and 18 were selected to represent programs ranging from major research universities to small four-year colleges. The selected programs had submitted 223 faculty resumes as part of self-studies for accreditation.

    Basic research techniques taught in the doctorate programs were followed to acquire the following information from the 223 resumes.

    Degrees held: we found that educators with Ph.D.’s comprise 52.5% of the faculty positions. Educators with master’s degrees comprise 35.4% and those with bachelor’s degrees hold another 6.3% of faculty positions.

    The remaining educators either didn’t report their degrees (8) or had just not completed their dissertations (5).

    Teaching: we found that educators with master’s degrees teach more credit hours per week than those with doctorates, but both teach more than educators with bachelor’s degrees, who allotted the most time for publishing.

    Professional experience: educators with bachelor’s degrees have the most professional experience with a mean of 29.14 years, followed by those with master’s degrees with a mean of 18.97 years. Those with doctorate degrees had a mean of 12.15 years.

    Publications and presentations: educators with doctorate degrees not only publish the most research articles, but also the most professional articles. They also present more to professional organizations.

    This research should put some of Huey’s claims about PR education into perspective.

  2. In yesterday’s O’ site, Fraser Seitel posted this comment which enriches the conversation….. (tmf)


    The patron saint of PR education ought to be Rodney King.
    King, the late lamented philosopher and perpetual police Taser target, once famously said, “Why can’t we all just get along.”
    Oh that this was the case in PR education.
    The question of whether or how to teach PR in college has become a lightning rod – perhaps not at the magnitude of “to troop surge or not to troop surge” – but controversial nonetheless.
    In one corner are the pure academics, focused on theory and research and communications process and models. To this group, the Ph.D. is king or, more likely, queen, and teaching budding PR minds is a mission, not an avocation.

    In the other corner are the practitioners of PR, focused on press relations and crisis communications and news release writing and all the other tactical skills that comprise this strange, little profession. To this group, the seasoned professional is queen or, more likely, king, and teaching college PR courses is more an avocation than a life’s work.

    Typically, in this profession built on compromise and constructive communication, PR protagonists on either side of the issue refuse to budge an inch. Taking their rhetorical cues more from Donald Trump than Ivy Lee, academics rail against the “lack of scholarly breadth” of the philistinian practitioners, and the practitioners warn of the “desperate straits of PR education” facilitated by block-headed theorists.

    So who holds sway in this face-off? Should PR education be principally practically oriented, or should it heavily theoretically laced? Are the academics right or are the practitioners?
    The answer is that both are right. (Sorry, but I’ve always been a coward.)

    On the one hand, PR students do desperately need training in writing. The fact is that most PR people are miserable writers, and a steady stream of neophytes, equally unskilled in expressing themselves on paper, is the last thing this field of “professional communicators” needs.
    So those who argue that writing skills and speaking skills and communications skills ought to receive greater emphasis in college PR courses are absolutely correct.

    On the other hand, PR students also must be taught to think strategically. Being a good writer isn’t nearly enough. PR professionals must “stand” for something; they must understand the historical framework and theoretical underpinnings upon which this profession is based. The principles that PR practice should represent must be clearly articulated to those who will ultimately carry the profession.

    Stated simply, PR professionals, in addition to being skilled communicators, must also be knowledgeable enough to answer the key question, “Why?”
    Why do you counsel me to take this action? Why does this make sense? Why should I listen to you and not my attorneys?
    A knowledge of theory, research, and strategic thinking is every bit as important as skills training in preparing future public relations professionals.

    Fair enough, the critics say, but can students really gain by studying PR in college?

    My answer, unequivocally, is yes. (And that would be my answer, even if I wasn’t shamelessly peddling a college text book!)

    The training in PR theory and communications research, provided by the learned likes of Larissa and Jim Grunig, Todd Hunt, and my former professors W. Barnett Pearce and Keith Stamm, among many others, is important in building PR as a credible and legitimate profession.

    Those who pooh-pooh the publication of scholarly articles in our field ignore the reality that there are still those in society who categorize PR as little more than a “Mickey Mouse practice” performed by anybody “who likes people.” Academic theorists in our field help to disabuse disturbing notions like these, primarily through publishing thoughtful research and building a sophisticated PR body of knowledge.
    Equally important – for the field’s reputation and future – are the PR professionals who teach.
    I’ve seen this first-hand the past two years, as a member of the part-time faculty of the New York University Graduate Program in Public Relations & Corporate Communications. This master’s degree program, part of NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, was the brain child of John Doorley, a former Merck PR director-turned-full-time academic.
    The NYU concept was to attract as instructors, experienced and knowledgeable PR pros (with one obvious, unfortunate ringer!), who could impart their years of knowledge and enthusiasm for the field to graduate students. With teachers of the caliber of former Manning Selvage CEO Lou Capozzi, crisis management guru Fred Garcia, not to mention former Merck officer Doorley, himself, it’s no wonder the two-year old program is booming.
    The impressive enrollment growth of the NYU program is a testimony to the importance and value of PR practitioners serving as college teachers.

    The real point is that there is ample room and value for both academics and practitioners in our field to teach college courses. The best PR instructors – people like Maria Russell at Syracuse and Gayle Pohl at Northern Iowa – are dexterous enough to combine both strong theoretical and heavy practical knowledge in their teaching.

    Moreover, the competent teaching of PR subjects is not only extraordinarily worthwhile to a growing number of college students, but also can prove immensely important in enhancing the reputation of the PR field itself. (And I’d conclude that even I weren’t flogging my cockamamie book!)

  3. Indeed, doing meaningful research does not require a Ph.D. In fact, I have authored two papers published in refereed publications myself. The most recent was the first new persuasion model in more than 20 years. For a brief summary, just Google, “Bill Huey, Advertising Double Helix.”
    The problem is that so much of public relations research is either too trivial or too esoteric to be meaningful. Sample sizes are usually too small and homogeneous (i.e., students) to be significant, and findings too limited for anything but publication in journals nobody reads or papers delivered at AEJMC.

  4. Toni,

    Like most sensible people in our field, you understand the need to balance the research and the practical aspects of public relations education. I think Mr. Huey probably does, too, but his remarks in O’Dwyer are too combative to create any meaningful discussion on the matter. Too bad, because he makes some very valid points.

    As a former practitioner who now teaches public relations (sans the PhD), I understand Huey’s frustration. Too many people teaching public relations courses have little, and in some cases, no hands-on experience in the discipline. But as long as the PhD is a required credential to teach at most universities (at least in the US), that isn’t going to change.

    Here at Kent State, our public relations students learn from a mix of scholars and practitioners. We understand the necessity of having professionals teaching in a professional program. And we value the contributions our scholars make to the program. Most of us engage in some level of academic research that we hope contributes to the betterment of our professions. As you correctly point out, doing meaningful reseach doesn’t require a PhD.

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