practitioners are from venus, academics are from mars?

Public relations doesn't just have the people in the field doing it. It has academics. But is it healthy that much of what happens in academia is impeneterable?

by GUEST EDITOR Sarah Williams

I have just returned from the Euprera Annual Congress in Barcelona, where PR academics from across Europe and beyond met to discuss current research into issues pertinent to the public relations industry today, or are they?

As a former PR practitioner, it struck me that, while undoubtedly valuable, much of the research being discussed at the conference would be impenetrable to many practitioners and this is not good for the academy nor the industry.

There is too much distance, misunderstanding, and indeed sometimes outright hostility, between academics and practitioners in public relations, something which was evident in comments from attendees at the recent, and excellent, PR & Disruption conference at LCC in July. There were very disparaging remarks and tweets from the conference's practitioner attendees towards academic participants; practitioners were reluctant to engage with some of the different ways of seeing and thinking about industry problems envisaged by the academics; they felt that academics were out of touch with their reality. Conversely, academics felt that the practitioners were too focused on technical issues relating to the day job; too obsessed with academics delivering 'oven-ready' graduates rather than the broader industry issues; they felt that practitioners were out of touch with their reality.

So where does this leave us? The truth is somewhere in the middle, there are both academics and practitioners who are out of touch with each other's realities; while there are others who try very hard to bridge the gap. Certainly the current situation is untenable and unique to public relations.  Other disciplines, including marketing, engineering, business, medicine and many others, manage to marry industry interests with academic interests, the one helping to set the agenda for the other, so why can't we? There has to be a way to encourage greater co-operation between the two sides.

Conferences, like LCC's PR & Disruption and the LGA annual conference, go a long way in bringing both sides together to share their concerns and preoccupations, and we, as an industry, need to do more of this kind of thing, but we also need to be discussing what kind of research is necessary to support and advance practice, and what kind of communication is necessary to promote academic ideas and critique.

I think this is where our industry bodies should come in.  PRCA and CIPR have a responsibility to represent and advance the whole PR industry and that includes academia as well as practice.  They are well placed to facilitate discussions about the future direction of research and practice, to set the agenda, to encourage critique on both sides, to bring both sides together, but this isn't happening.  This has not always been the case, the CIPR's education division, under the direction of the wonderful Alan Rawel, was proactive in its support of academic endeavour and sought new ways of marrying education and practice; it supported the development of courses, books, journals and conferences aimed at creating a strong and united academic underpinning for the industry.  Much of this good work has been undone in recent years and many in the industry, both academics and practitioners, will be unaware of the work of this passionate and committed man.  This is a great shame, and bad news for the industry; I regret that his legacy was not more carefully guarded and maintained.

We are not in competition with each other, we are on the same side.  Most of the academics I know were once practitioners and share a desire to research and guide the industry; most of them are keen to share their ideas and to collaborate with practitioners.  Similarly, most practitioners I know are keen to help out with education and research, have ideas that they would like to investigate. I believe that there is the will to work together, we just need the space to do it.

We are in the communication business, and we need to start communicating with each other and fast.  We need a PR 'Relate' to help us to talk things over and repair our relationship before we drift too far apart. Let's work to re-discover the work of Alan Rawel, to build on this legacy to strengthen and unite the industry. I'm ready and willing to take part, are you?

Sarah Williams is senior lecturer in public relations and marketing at the University of Wolverhampton.

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