What is the PR profession doing to support University education?

image There doesn’t seem to have been any response from the professional bodies PRCA or CIPR to the publication of Lord Browne’s report from the Independent review of higher education & student finance in England: Securing a sustainable future for higher education in England.

But given that University degrees are considered increasingly important for those entering public relations, the implications of the proposal to raise the costs for students quite significantly should be discussed.

Despite the fact that it is over 20 years since the first degree courses in PR were introduced in the UK, the industry still seems largely ambivalent to those who dedicate their time and money to obtaining a specialist qualification. 

Indeed, the argument that journalists make the best PR practitioners is still evident in trade publications and job adverts – hardly endorsement of a professional career path.

Those who are critical of PR degrees often focus on the fact that they are not 100% concentrated on practical skills development.  Somewhat ironic when another debate in PR centres on ensuring it is institutionalised as a board level function.  Specialist degrees should be the basic building block of ensuring practitioners are prepared for lifelong development in their chosen career path.

As those embarking on a PR degree will face investing tens of thousands of pounds in higher education, isn’t it about time that the profession started to support its academic foundations more publicly.

There are five things that I’d like to see:

1. Financial support for Universities teaching PR – this includes better funding of research and partnerships with the best institutions which offer PR higher education.  Although practitioners do build relationships with Universities, this is often only in terms of presenting case studies, guest lectures or unpaid assignments which are often little more than attempts to get fresh ideas for free.

2. Respect for PR graduates – as well as paid internships and graduate training programmes, I’d like to see consultancies and organisations offer industrial sponsorship and scholarships which are common in other sectors.  An end to the bad mouthing of PR graduates as seen every Autumn in PR Week would also be welcome.

3. Commitment to continuous professional developmentI’ve already called for qualifications to be included in job adverts, but studying for a post-graduate PR qualification should be recognised within organisations much as a CIPD qualification is rated as a benchmark requirement in personnel management.  Sabbaticals or secondments to study at Masters or Doctorate level should be more common and given greater credit rather than the superficial activities found in industry CPD schemes.

4. A campaign to recruit more male PR undergraduates – there is a need for much greater diversity amongst those working in PR and this has to start with educating parents and other influencers in schools about the value of a career in PR.  Around 90% of PR undergraduates are female in my experience – however, the feminisation of the profession at entry level is still largely counterbalanced by senior male managers “encroaching” from journalism and other disciplines – or by a reduction in respect for the discipline.  A more balanced starting point is necessary if PR degrees aren’t always to be seen as only for girls.

5. A higher profile for academic PR research – there is a phenomenal body of knowledge underpinning public relations which often seems unknown in the wider profession.  Ensuring that the results of studies are publicised beyond academic journals would benefit the profession – and could lead to a better linkage between theory and practice.

When I started working in PR there was very little understanding of what it involved – now it regularly makes headlines; although not always for the best reasons.  If PR is to gain a better reputation and deserve a place not only in advising strategic management, but in producing future CEOs and other organisational leaders, it will be at the hands of those who will start their careers with the baggage of considerable University debts.  Surely they deserve more support from the profession which they are looking to make their own.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

7 thoughts on “What is the PR profession doing to support University education?”

  1. Heather — great post, and not just because I wear the twin hats of practitioner and adjunct prof. The fascination with ex-journos tends to limit the practice to media relations, not the most strategic focus of the profession and an output-orientation that can limit our perception of value.

    Regarding research, it’s supposed to be the first step in campaign creation — remember the RACE and ROPE acronyms? The quality of research is outstanding, as anyone who looks at the Institute for PR website will tell you (disclosure: I’m a member of its Measurement Commission, and my own research is published there). It just needs additional visibility and financial support. By the way, the IPR-published research is free.

    Practicality is essential — at Kent State University, we pride ourselves on that orientation, and our faculty (both full time and otherwise) reflects the connection to the practice. We also study theory here, the absence of which in PR people makes us less able to explain our courses of action. All other support functions have a solid grounding in the theoretical foundation of their professions; most PR people who haven’t studied it don;t. I know I don’t have enough theory, which is why I’m concentrating on that aspect in my current graduate studies. You don’t hear many students of management, or finance, or law complaining about having to study theory. We should embrace it as a means of educating ourselves and a means of explaining why things work and don’t work in communication.


  2. Heather, although it’s not in our job descriptions (or at least not in mine), sometimes we as faculty members just need to ask. Porter Novelli, Edelman, and Jackson Spalding have all supported conferences at UGA.

    Professionals need to know what we need. Your post is spot on in telling them.

  3. Here in the states we’re lucky to have the student-led PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) raising the profile of PR in higher education. In addition to providing scholarship opportunities for students, the PRSSA also increases awareness of PR as a viable profession in both high schools and undergraduate institutions. The PRSSA is supported by the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) and I was very impressed by the PRSSA representatives that attended the PRSA International Conference in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago. There are a number of graduate and undergraduate PR degree opportunities for students here in the US – this number is increasing thanks to the growing prevalence of online education offerings, which are rapidly becoming more acceptable by mainstream employers as the cost of traditional education continues to climb.

    I find it interesting that you specifically call out the lack of men entering into the PR profession – I’ve always thought that the case as well. However, I’ve heard from women who have been practicing PR for decades that PR is still a male-dominated industry. (I’ve never felt that was the case but who am I to argue with the seasoned pros?)

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