Public relations education: our future is banking on it.
On one side is the question: How should we be educating future public relations practitioners?
And on the flip side is the related question: How should we be educating future business managers, the people on whose support public relations depends, about public relations?
In this article, we'll examine each side of the coin.
Educating future public relations professionals
The "heads" side concerns the development of public relations practitioners. The journalist-turned-PR man, who typified the profession in the early days, began fading in the late '50s and early '60s. Since then, professional college programs in the U.S. specializing in public relations and housed in communication ("C-") or journalism ("J-") schools have flourished and gained relative acceptance. But several compelling questions about public relations education remain unresolved. We'll touch on a few of them.
Can public relations be taught?
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, not all professionals agree that public relations can, or should, be taught. Doubters such as Robert Dilenschneider, former CEO of Hill & Knowlton and president of The Dilenschneider Group, and newsletter editor Jack O'Dwyer, have argued that successful graduates happen in spite of public relations education, rather than because of it. They believe that a good liberal arts education, designed to develop students' critical thinking skills and worldliness, is of far greater value than one specializing in communication and public relations. O'Dwyer has maintained that a student majoring in public relations is like having "potato chips, a hot dog and a Twinkie at a great restaurant, while paying the same price as you would for pheasant under glass."
This skeptical notion persists despite the steady growth of accredited college public relations programs. Interestingly, many critics are unaware that a public relations graduate of an accredited program takes more liberal arts courses than do students in many mainstream liberal studies programs. For instance, at California State University, Fullerton, a communication major concentrating in public relations must take 90 of 124 units (73 percent!) outside of communication. Among the 34 required communication units, only about half are in public relations.
Professor Jim Grunig, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland, reacts in no uncertain terms to the idea that students interested in a public relations career should take only liberal arts courses: "It's ridiculous to say you shouldn't study in the field you want to go into. If you wanted to have surgery on your appendix, would you go to someone who went to dental school?" In 1987, the Commission on Undergraduate Public Relations Education, of which IABC was a supporter, concluded: "The reality is that public relations is being taught."
Where should public relations
Several years ago, Indiana University's David Weaver, then president of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC), stirred up a hornet's nest when he suggested that public relations (and advertising) might be more at home in business schools than in communication or journalism schools. His unexpected statement angered and disappointed many public relations educators. But his words triggered a healthy public discussion about public relations' roots and the realities of university politics.
Historically, public relations in the U.S. has resided within J-schools and C-schools. As the major has gained popularity, other related college programs, such as those in speech communication, have begun offering courses in public relations.
At first glance, some might wonder why B=schools aren't the natural site for public relations programs. After all, most entry-level practitioners begin their careers in a business organization. On a conceptual level, this argument carries weight. However, on a practical level, it is less defensible. For one thing, public relations and communication are largely misunderstood by B-school faculty and administrators. Most would strenuously resist making room for courses of faculty they believe are irrelevant to management education. For another, public relations faculty would probably occupy the low position on the B-school totem pole, thus limiting access to resources and restricting their voice in curricular decisions.
What topics should be taught
in public relations programs?
This question is asked and re-asked by educators and professionals alike. And as might be expected, the answers vary. Employers have their views. Educators have theirs. And accrediting agencies have theirs. And the twains don't always meet.
Certain themes, however, are heard repeatedly: "...lots of writing courses ... at least one internship ... business-focused courses in marketing, organizational behavior and economics ... a computer course, for sure ... can't forget about a graphics and desktop publishing class ... gotta have some public speaking and small group communication training ... a research course is mandatory ..." And so on.
Indeed, the generalist nature of the profession creates almost a smorgasbord of "must know" topics. Many public relations educators feel hampered by course-credit constraints imposed on them by universities and accrediting agencies. They'll almost always argue that students need "an least one more" writing or economics or graphic design class. But how much is enough? It's debatable. Perhaps, the question of the "best" combination of courses is best left to educators and professionals.
As is true at many universities, at Cal State Fullerton, we think so. Like many other public relations programs around the U.S., we formed a Public Relations Advisory Council (PRAC) a few years ago to help us, among other things, examine the nature of our curriculum. The PRAC, comprising 15 or so senior public relations professionals from across the business spectrum who meet twice a year, functions as our in-house devil's advocate. Council members' varying "employer-to-be" perspectives influence our decisions on the content and mix of our courses.
So, on one side of the education coin are a host of issues touching on the development of a future corps of public relations professionals. On the flip side is the relatively unexplored matter of educating future business leaders about public relations' role and uses.
Educating future managers
about public relations
Public relations educators' and professionals' primary challenge has been the breeding of public relations specialists within communication and journalism programs. Those programs, while faced with a multiplicity of problems, are flourishing. In contrast, in the business schools, another challenge, less visible yet equally critical, lies unattended. Ridged with powerful implications for the public relations field, the challenge is to upgrade the public relations education of students in fast-track MBA programs, who graduate with little, if any, knowledge about the role or impact of public relations.
For years, we've been content to leave what MBA students learned about public relations to business school faculty. Unfortunately, most B-school faculty don't see the relevance of public relations to management training. After all, most of them were educated in those same business schools. We shouldn't the surprised, therefore, when top-level managers neither understand nor place much value on public relations. Unavoidably, the future of public relations is directly tied to how tomorrow's top executives (i.e., today's MBA students!) define its function and role, an argument reinforced by preliminary findings from the IABC Research Foundation-sponsored "Excellence in Public Relations" study (see sidebar).
Communication education in
Since their inception, MBA programs, affectionately called "America's management mills," have stressed such subjects as finance, accounting, management theory and operations. Years ago, those topics may have defined a manager's role in the "meboss, you-worker" business environment. But, as that landscape has undergone dramatic alterations -- driven by the wave of mergers and acquisitions and restructures, and stagnant productivity rates -- so has the manager's role. The manager of today is expected to be tough, but also accessible, sensitive and collaborative -- what Business Week has termed a "compassionate tyrant."
B-schools have often been lethargic in adapting their curricula. A 1988 study of management education, conducted over three decades, and sponsored by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business, concluded that most B-schools needed to reassess and enhance their teaching of the "human side" of management with such themes as leadership, communication, people skills and strategy formulation.
A few B-schools, mostly the "name" programs, have taken small steps in this direction. For example, the University of Chicago now boasts a debate and negotiation course. Heavyweights such as Harvard, Dartmouth, New York University and University of Pennsylvania expose their MBA students to media relations and crisis communication topics. And Yale now offers an elective course featuring issues and public policy management components.
Communication courses rare
in MBA programs
Most MBA programs do not mandate students to take a communication or public relations or human resource course. That was the central finding in our 1991 national survey of a random sample of deans and directors of MBA programs on the role of communciation education MBA curricula in the U.S. Among the 51 responding administrators, 70 percent said their MBA programs do not require any communication courses and about a third don't recommend any communication course.
Even more disturbing is that communication and public relations topics are given little, if any, treatment in other MBA courses. Considering a dozen strategic communication topics, three out of our respondents said they don't incorporate any of them into core MBA courses. Results are only slightly better concerning communication skills topics (see sidebar). Most MBA administrators said that communication skills training should be part of under-graduate business education. A good thought, perhaps--except that most undergrad programs require little more than a business writing course, if that.
To what extent are "neighbor" courses such as marketing, sales, leadership and organizational behavior required of MBA students? A very limited one. Sixty percent or more of respondents said they don't require students to take even one such course.
Why so little communication education in MBA programs? Because, as we found, B-school influentials don't consider communication to be essential in the preparation of future managers. On a 10-point importance scale, MBA administrators rated communication education at 5.3. One survey participant's written comment captured the point: "Communication is acknowledged as significant, but it is generally assumed that students will improve their skills by simply writing papers, making class presentations and interacting with others. Essentially, the college has no strong commitment to communication education."
The regrettable outcome of "communication-less" MBA programs will be corporate chiefs who don't understand--or, worse yet, who misunderstand--how to integrate public relations strategies into organizational programs. Like many journalists, business people need exposure to the often misunderstood field of public relations during their education, or their inaccurate perceptions will persist. Permitting such potentially harmful misperceptions by top managers to go unchallenged could furhter erode public relations' merit in executives' minds.
The future of public relations
Whichever way we flip the education coin, we see the need for practitioners and educators to become evangelists for more and better public relations education. Many business executives and journalists are unaware of the benefits of this education. Others just don't believe in it. Whatever the case, the time for influencing the direction of public relations curricula in communication and business schools will never be more crucial. Perhaps business schools should be our top priority, given upper management's leverage over the public relations function.
So where do we go from here? Here are our thoughts. We welcome yours. Let's just keep the discussion alive.
A theme that emerges time and again is the link between public relations and business interests in the work place. Unfortunately, that link is often missing in academina. On U.S. campuses, C-schools and B-schools tend to act like strangers waiting to be introduced. Students in each school, then, are often denied access to resources and courses in the other. This hapless scenario is often because of educators' turf wars that create chasms between related disciplines. Bridging this gap may be as simple as an invitation to guest lecture or collaborate on a research project.
Off campuses, organizations such as IABC, which can draw on expertise from practitioners and members of its Educator Academy, could establish a "Public Relations Education" task force. This joint group of practitioners and educators might not only spread the gospel, but also counsel MBA administrators and faculty in developing communication and public relations courses. The credibility and international scope of IABC could rivet attention of communication education issues in ways no faculty alone could ever hope to do.
Teaching public relations
Which public relations topics to communication business students need to study" That's the $64,000 question. What seems clear is that today's beginning public relations professionals need to possess both technical (e.g., writing and graphics, research, interpersonal) and strategic (e.g., business-media relationship, organizational theories, planning) capabilities.
C-schools, the major feeder programs, generally merge both skills and strategies education into curricula, yet employer's complaints persist of public relations graduates' weak writing skills and little knowledge of business practices. B-schools that do teach communication subjects emphasize basic writing and speaking skills, and underplay strategic topics essential to a management-oriented appreciation of public relations.
Public relations courses, however they're configured and wherever they're taught, should be re-examined regularly for their adequacy and relevancy. New and innovative approaches should be pursued. Along that line, we've begun conceptual groundwork on a new introductory public relations course which treats the function from a business-driven perspective.
An area we weren't able to examine here, but which deserves considerable attention, is the continuing education of practitioners. A professional in this eclectric field can never afford to stop learning. Such needs offer enticing opportunities for both universities and professional groups such as IABC.
While conferences and seminars are valuable on multiple levels, they can't provide the in-depth training demanded by certain subjects, such as research. That's precisely why many public relations practitioners today are enrolling in graduate programs. But some are unable to commit the time required to complete such intensive programs. Recognizing this fertile market segment, a number of schools now offer tailored "professional-academic" graduate degrees (i.e., no thesis) or more streamlined alternatives, such as six-month certificate or executive programs. In San Francisco, for example, a coalition of corporate public relations directors realized the need to build leadership continuity into their programs. Recently, the group launched a 12-month executive development program exclusively for public relations professionals with superior management potential to become a "DPR" (director of public relations). Faculty include educators and professional practitioners.
In summary, the education coin is complicated, puzzling and exciting all at once. Its potential value to the future of public relations is massive and inescapable. As public relations moves toward legitimacy as a profession, and the practice becomes more management-based and strategy-driven, the proper education of both communication and business professionals will be our major currency. Heads or tails, you can take that to the bank.
J. David Pincus, Ph.D., and Robert E. Rayfield, Ph.D., are professors in the public relations sequence of the comminication department at California State University, Fullerton.
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|Title Annotation:||Section 3: Communication in Transition - From Art to Science; includes related articles|
|Author:||Rayfield, Robert E.|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1992|
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