STRONG TOGETHER: WORKING TOWARDS A COMMUNITY OF THEORY AND PRACTICE IN PUBLIC RELATIONS Stephen Waddington
Academic colleagues are enabling greater understanding in every area of practice. Meanwhile practitioners challenged by the pace of innovation are reaching out to theory to help make sense of the changes in practice. Here we explore practical ways of improving the relationship between scholars and practitioners in public relations.
• Examples of contemporary public relations research that have an immediate application in practice
• The opportunity to advance practice and develop as a profession through improved collaboration
• A toolkit of eight practical ways to improve collaboration developed over the past 18 months from a CIPR project and BledCom workshop
If you want an immediate insight into the chasm between public relations theory and practice head to Google Scholar.
Enter a phrase or term relevant to your day job. Try agile management, crisis communications, public relations measurement, or your favourite form of social media. You’ll be presented with the headline and synopses of recent academic papers.
Google Scholar is a project built by the search giant to organise and query academic papers and content from scholarly books. I’ve set up alerts for public relations, social media, Facebook and Twitter, among others.
You now face two challenges that both relate to accessibility, in different ways.
First, many of the papers are published in academic journals and typically cost $30. My work around is to go direct to the author via a LinkedIn or Twitter search, and politely asked for a copy of their work. It almost always works.
Second, once you get your hands on a paper, the copy is usually presented in more than 20 pages of dense prose. It takes perseverance to extract insights relevant to everyday practice. It’s almost always worth the effort. In the last six months this approach has turned up numerous papers that have informed my work at Ketchum. Here are three examples.
#1 Data and ethics
In ‘Datafication: threat or opportunity for communication in the public sphere’, Derina Holtzhausen argues that public relations practitioners need to get involved in decisions on how algorithms are developed and targeted.
As we delegate responsibility for daily tasks such as search, pricing and publication to computers, this issue will become more acute. In the near future algorithms in driverless cars will be called upon to make life or death decisions.
Software developers who write algorithms must be held to account on behalf of the public. Practitioners need to work with colleagues in technology to educate themselves about the potential of algorithms and data.
#2 Investigating gender in public relations
An ongoing research project by Liz Bridgen at Sheffield Hallam University, shows that there are no easy answers to gender parity in public relations. Her work has implications for anyone responsible for hiring and the retention of talent in a public relations function.
Much of the existing research focuses on women continuing to work in the profession and has led to the broad view that they cannot combine family life with working in public relations.
Through interviews with women leaving public relations, Bridgen found the overriding reason for women leaving the profession was because they saw a lack of meaning in the work that they were permitted to carry out. She found that peers, and those outside the industry, did not take them seriously and this caused the women to suffer a lack of self-belief in their own skills.
#3 Wikipedia woe
In ‘Public relations interactions with Wikipedia’, Gareth Thompson explored the relationship between the public relations profession and Wikipedia. He found a simple reason for Wikipedia’s failure to move closer to the demands of the public relations business – it doesn’t need to.
Wikipedia is an open source community, or public. Contributors are motivated by Wikipedia’s purpose of creating a comprehensive compendium that contains information on all branches of knowledge. It consists of more than 20 million topics in 285 different languages, and is frequently the start point for online research.
Critics claim that Wikipedia has become too powerful and that it operates without the recognised processes or oversight common for more traditional media. This is the issue that often puts Wikipedia in conflict with the public relations industry. Errors in traditional media can be dealt with swiftly through well-established processes.
Changes or additions to a Wikipedia article require engagement with the community and, crucially, adherence to its rules. It’s a process that works but is unfamiliar to the public relations business.
Back to school for public relations
Public relations is practical. We should learn from the body of knowledge that academic colleagues are investigating and apply it to our day jobs.
Academics are enabling greater understanding in every area of practice. Meanwhile practitioners challenged by the pace of innovation are reaching out to theory to help make sense of the changes in practice.
A close working relationship between academia and practice is a hallmark of any professional discipline – enhancing real-world practice with research, reflection and theory.
In public relations this relationship is limited, and without the historical perspective and insight provided by academics, practitioners lack rigour and are limited to trading in simple crafts and tactics.
As a business in the midst of rapid fundamental change, bringing these two communities closer together is crucial to us realising our future potential.
Work in progress
The accessibility of public relations research by practitioners was one of the themes raised in a project I led as Past President of the CIPR last year.
An online community of practitioners explored issues relating to the accessibility of research; teaching and learning; and shared media and platforms.
A workshop at BledCom, the international research symposium in Slovenia in July 2016, explored these issues and sought practical solutions. Indeed, many of the contributors to this edition of #FuturePRoof proposed content for the project during the event.
Public relations theory and practice toolkit
The BledCom workshop concluded that there are eight areas where academics, scholars and practitioners could work better together to share knowledge and advance the public relations profession.
Invite a mix of practitioners and scholars to participate as judges on industry award schemes. Add reciprocal categories that recognise excellence in research and practice.
#2 Accessibility of research
Open source publication of a single-page summary of academic research papers for practitioners to improve knowledge exchange. Google Scholar is useful for signposting original work.
Promote a greater diversity of academics attending conferences and speaking at industry events. BledCom is a good example of the benefit of this cooperation.
#4 Industry initiatives
Improve the representation of academic and practitioner interests in industry associations and initiatives. The Barcelona Principles and Global Alliance Global Capabilities Framework both worked on this basis.
#5 Media: HBR for PR
There’s a clear opportunity for an HBR-style publication for public relations. Communication for Leaders (Norway) and Communicatie NU (Netherlands) are both good examples. Funding is a challenge.
#6 Reciprocal guest speakers
Practitioners speaking on university courses; and academics speaking at agency and community team meetings. There are lots of examples of this happening from practice-to-university at an informal local level.
A scholar or practitioner in residence would be good way to develop a working relationship, and provide a route for sharing knowledge and influencing research topics.
#8 Alumni networks
University students graduating into practice provide a potentially strong connection between theory and practice. Motivated scholars maintain relationships via a shared form of media such as a Facebook or LinkedIn group .
The business of public relations will not realise its full potential as a management discipline until practitioners and scholars work closer together. The opportunity for collaboration is clear and the project outline in this chapter signposts practical ways forward.
 Google Scholar - http://wadds.co/2aJqWAk
 Datafication: threat or opportunity for communication in the public sphere, Journal of Communication Management: Vol 20, No 1 - http://wadds.co/2aJoFVK
 Liz Bridgen: The Lady Vanishes: The missing women of public relations, Sheffield Hallam University - http://wadds.co/2aJml19
 Public relations interactions with Wikipedia: Journal of Communication Management: Vol 20, No 1 - http://wadds.co/2avnkoJ
 Working towards a community of practice in public relations, Stephen Waddington - http://wadds.co/1Gz6lLB
 Letters to BledCom: Towards a community of practice in public relations, Stephen Waddington - http://wadds.co/292TumU
 Public relations theory and practice toolkit
Stephen Waddington is Partner and Chief Engagement Officer at Ketchum helping clients and colleagues to do the best job possible engaging with the public. He is responsible for driving the integration of digital and social capabilities in client engagements across the agency’s international network. He is Visiting Professor in Practice at the Newcastle University supporting the university and students through teaching and mentoring.