Do PR Practitioners Hate Public Relations Theory?

public relations theoryI recently read the article Toward Pragmatic Public Relations by Bob Batchelor, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University.

Batchelor’s article suggested that there is a disparity between public relations practitioners and academic scholars. The article argued that today’s PR professionals have a dislike for public relations theory and believe that experience-based practice is more valuable and effective.

If you’re a young professional, recently graduated from college or still pursuing a degree, ask yourself this: Did your undergraduate education include a strong emphasis on communication or public relations theory?

Consider your academic curriculum.  Were you required to take one or more communication theory course to graduate?  Or did your university place more emphasis in finding internship placement in your field?

Batchelor argues that so much emphasis is put on the value of internships and practical experience during a young professional’s undergraduate career that ignoring the value of theory is almost inevitable.

With countless “gurus” and “experts” lacking academic foundations for their practical tasks, it’s not hard to understand the doubts of similar departments (like marketing and advertising) that are more “serious” about proving financial results for their activities.

As a public relations professional, I found Batchelor’s article to be very interesting and it inspired me to reflect on my only undergraduate education.  My university’s liberal arts curriculum required that communication majors take one communication theory course, but participate in at least two semesters worth of internships.

Neither of my internships stressed public relations theory.  In fact, the summer I spent in a boutique PR firm did not once include a discussion on how public relations theory could be applied to practical activities.  None of the four seasoned professionals in the office seemed to stress the value of theory and encouraged me to utilize my time networking, and developing my writing skills.

Batchelor argues that, if we all operate in this sort of office, then one can’t be surprised when management doesn’t think you’re capable of anything more than writing a press release or contacting a reporter.

During my time as an active professional, I’ve notice a heavy focus on media monitoring, press release writing, media pitching, and social media account management but a noticeable lack of interest in public relation theory. Perhaps it’s the trust in one’s “gut reaction” and experience, or perhaps it is an institutional problem?

Leave a comment answering this question: Do you think PR professionals ignore public relations theory?

Yasheaka Oakley Owens

Yasheaka Oakley Owens is the owner of YOakleyPR, a woman-owned small business that provides public relations, social media, and online marketing support services to small businesses and 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware.

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  • Hi Kathleen — I would agree that advanced learning is key to understanding public relations theory, but question why it isn’t covered in more depth on the undergraduate level. Should professionals have to pursue a master’s degree or APR certification to be “introduced” to theory after devoting four years to a bachelor’s full of shortcomings? I think more could be done on the undergraduate level.

  • Hi Carol, I greatly enjoyed your example featuring the flamenco dancer. It was spot-on! Most entry-level PR practitioners want to jump in and believe that pursuing an advanced degree isn’t necessary. That may be because so many of our professors push us to get internships that will lead to direct placement or because we believe the industry to be so experience-focused as Mark suggested. I do agree with your belief that a master’s program is advantageous once you learn how to optimize your practice with theoretical foundations.

  • Hi Mark, I agree with your statement that every case should be viewed individually, but then want to ask your opinion on the role of case studies? I mean, most PR textbooks focus on case studies and successful campaigns as models for future practitioners but lack a theoretical or sociological standpoint. How do you think that could be improved?

  • Kathleen Allenbaugh

    I have been in PR for over 30 years and didn’t take any communication theory courses in undergrad. In my current master’s program, PR Theory and PR History have been my favorite classes so far. They have offered me insight that I haven’t gotten from my years of working. Theory, in particular, opened doors to a wide variety of ideas.

    I do feel that academically there is a disconnect between practitioners and academics. Grunig’s excellence theory is fairly inapplicable in my current environment, and it seems that academics rely on this model almost to the exclusion of all others. I think as more of us participate in advanced learning opportunities we can begin to understand the academic components of PR, and in turn, create new understanding of practical application of theory.

    I also believe that theory gives us the ability to break the traditional boundaries of how we think in the workplace. As we strive more to become strategists and not just tacticians, we need to be capable of higher level thinking where current boundaries can be set aside. That is where true innovation occurs.

  • My public relations career spans 35 years. I didn’t learn communication theory until I studied for my master’s degree after I’d been in practice for 15 years. The study of theory was an eye opener for me, putting a foundation under what I’d been doing and giving me confidence going forward. Having an advanced degree meant nothing to my bosses but the theory meant everything to me in advising clients and in advancing my career.

    One year I attended an international conference on creativity. One of the speakers was a Spanish flamenco dancer, arguably the best such dancer in the world. He commented that many young dancers wanted to jump into dancing and free form it all the way. They didn’t want to study ballet or tap or flamenco or hip-hop. Just dance. He pointed out that these young people seldom became expert dancers because it was only by studying dancing theory and learning the rules across all dance forms that one could become exceptional. You have to learn the rules before you can break the rules, he said. I believe his comments apply as well to the study of public relations theory and the practice of public relations.

    Carol Bodensteiner, APR, Fellow PRSA, @CABodensteiner

  • elly1321

    I’m just starting out in the world of public relations and I have to say, as far as people being interested in hiring me for internships they are far more interested in the outputs I can produce. For example, at interviews it’s all about your writing samples, portfolio, and what ideas you can bring to the table. At this point, I have never been asked about public relations theory. Saying that, it (theory) has come up on occasion during strategic planning/creative meetings that I’ve been invited to sit in on. During these meetings different approaches are discussed and sometimes discarded and while no one is really saying “according to X theory we should…” I can see the connection.

    In my view, the theory is the jumping off point (I would have found it very hard to do a crisis communications class without the base knowledge that my Intro to PR class provided) and the experience is what pulls it together and makes it successful. After all, it’s one thing to understand the theory, it’s a complete other to be able to craft a campaign/ad/press release that takes the theory into account but also your knowledge of the client; and in my opinion, that only comes with experience.

    Ellisse Johnston (@ellissej), senior at @penn_state studying PR with a minor in French & Francophone studies.

  • I particularly enjoy seeing the difference in opinion vary between the two sides. I recently started pondering the value of theory to practical public relations when the question was posed by my graduate professor.

    As a young professional, I can honestly say that I have never given it much thought and wonder if it will noticeably improve my practical outputs or just be “a class I took” as I previously mentioned in this post.

    Do any of you have any examples on how a background in theory noticeably changed your practical activities?

  • Not just anyone can be thrown into a PR position and succeed – a proper foundation of public relations strategies and methods truly paves the road to a successful career. However, real-world experience is the driver that takes you further down that road to an effective campaign and ultimately to a level of competence within the industry. Books and theories can’t teach you how to deal with each unique situation you’ll encounter as a PR professional.

    Sara, Senior PR Student @UTAustin, @UTPRSSA Member

  • PR Theory for me as a 35-yr PR / PA professional is a good thing.

    First, it gives us a “prescriptive approach,” that is, a benchmark for performance, the “how-to.” It doesn’t mean that you must always follow the Theory, but understanding Theory gives you the big picture. And the nature of our work is such that it requires dynamic and flexible responses, so PR Theory really is the “jumping off” point for our work, but, as such, it’s a foundation. And failing to spend time on learning theory is a “lazy” approach. We work as we practice, something that’s drilled into from the days of my Vietnam-era service in the US Army to watching the Phillies in baseball, and learning / knowing / understanding PR Theory is part of our practice.

    Second, given the “low barriers to entry” in our profession, where anyone can call herself or himself a PR Professional, having Theory to rely on — and communicate to clients, whether internal or external — at least creates some differentiation from the pretenders who come into the field without knowing anything about it, and not bothering to learn. It not only gives us as professionals the Bigger Picture, but it also allows us to share that Bigger Picture with our clients / colleagues, and enhance the perception / appreciation of our value in the process.

    Sam Waltz, APR, Fellow PRSA, Greenville, Wilmington, DE

  • Mark

    PR, unlike marketing and branding, is more uncontrolled and reactive in nature. You can’t refer to a textbook for some PR problems, for example, Prince Harry’s nudity “scandal” in Vegas.

    There might be some rules you can follow in addressing such an issue, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach that you can apply. Each case needs to be judged on its own merits, which may be why experience-based practice is seen as more valuable.

  • I once wrote an article published on my mentor’s site ( http://goo.gl/Hrw0H) stressing why public relations practitioners should never sideline operating with an academic consciousness, especially when working in-house within a corporate setting. Interestingly, one of the comments on it came from a ‘senior’ practitioner noted for his radical views who stressed that PR was a TRADE, and all the talk about strategy and research was just glorification. We argued a bit and met ourselves halfway later on twitter.

    I believe there will always be the continuous gap between ‘the town’ and ‘the gown,’ but whichever way, it would favor the pragmatic practitioner to always look back with an analyses of what his practices imply.

    Most times, after working in the real world for a while, academically-minded practitioners might just become ‘street-wise,’ choosing to bend the rules once in a while, a choice that often threatens integrity and professionalism.