22 December 2010

Some PR academics need to "get real"

Following a recent mention of my research in a PR journal I have come to question the value of PR as an academic discipline.

First, to give my comments some context: I worked for 17 years as a journalist on daily newspapers, then another 15 in various PR roles. I completed a Masters in Communications in 2004, then obtained my PhD in 2007. I taught PR for two years at two universities.

A recent article in this "junior" journal misrepresented my research. It a few sentences it primarily drew conclusions which were based on preliminary research, and not the completed work. The comments made not only were flawed, but also made me out to be somewhat of a PR chauvanist, which I am not (if the full thesis had been read). The referencing said the work was unpublished, when it is not. It is available on Amazon.

The writer, a long-standing academic, wrote as only an academic can: in waffling prose. I find this strange in PR, as we teach (or I do) students to write English as it's spoken. I sometimes wonder who these writers and journals are trying to impress? It's probably just their miniscule readership, all of whom are other academics. A mutual admiration society. Really, who will read this material, other than a few PR academics? I wouldn't have known about it, except that someone tweeted the subject.

Interestingly, the issue in question had as its theme, the subject of my research. I suppose I should be pleased I was quoted at all, given that the other half dozen authors didn't give me a mention, despite my research being the most recent. Most were content to quote material from the 1980s, which in itself is lazy research.

When all's said and done (pardon the cliché) "PR's not rocket science". In fact, PR's a soft subject, which, after all is why so many women do it (the topic of my research). Now, I said "subject". I don't mean it's soft when you get out in the real world. It's "soft" when taught at university, where in most cases, the course content doesn't reflect what's going on in the business world.

From an academic perspective, it's all very well to teach Grunig and Maslow (though I must say Grunig is getting irrelevant) but that's not going to cut it when Miss Jones is asked to write a 10-paragraph media release in 15 minutes. Academics will argue that university is there to teach you "why". If you just want to learn "how", then you go to TAFE. But knowing how is more relevant in today's environment than why. Isn't that what it should be about: relevance.

PR is attracting too many sub-standard students, because it's such an easy Degree to pass, and is a money-spinner for the universities. All this does is devalue the Degree, and the profession. Hundreds of graduates are churned out, with only a few likely to have any prospect of being employed in PR.

Academics, meanwhile, are cloistered in their vacuum, oblivious as to what the requirements of business really are. No wonder, when many of them are writing this waffle that is unintelligible to all but their closed circle.

I recently caught up with the head of news for a metropolitan TV station, who said that no university had ever approached him about having students come through to take a look at how the news is put together. Astonishing.

There's a group of PR academics who really need to wake up and "get real". Perhaps they should be given an assignment: apply for a PR job and see how far they get. I wonder.

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The PR Lab is a consultancy, specialising on research, reputation management, social media, media relations and the development of measurable strategies that produce results. It is run by Dr Greg Smith, a former journalist and PR professional. Greg worked on daily newspapers in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. He held senior PR positions in the Australian Defence Force, Sydney Olympics and national not-for-profits. He has also lectured in PR at Edith Cowan University and the University of Notre Dame Australia.