Researchers

MindthePRGap_Twitter_Banner_TextMind the PR Gap is a new initiative that aims to bring together research and practice in the field of public relations. It is open to PR practitioners, academics, researchers and students.

As I’m involved with the event taking place on Wednesday 12 July 2017 at Birmingham City University, this post is partly promotional. With tickets at £10, it will be a great opportunity to look at some critical issues. More details here:http://mindtheprgap.com/.

Topics for the inaugural Mind the PR Gap event include developing an academic-practitioner PR research agenda, update on the Global Capabilities framework, employability and a series of talking points with action plans that are being finalised.

Besides my own role in the employability session, what I’m most interested in is positioning research as a common denominator between PR practice, academia and scholarship.

Here are five reasons why I think that viewing ourselves as researchers is important, as it encourages us to:

  1. Demonstrate commitment to building knowledge and understanding
  2. Underpin our work with an informed evidence base – and linkage to scholarship
  3. Remain open to innovation and continuous improvement
  4. Develop competencies in critical thinking and problem solving
  5. Apply reflexivity as a professional practice

Far too often there is a failure to foreground the importance of research. For instance, the recent endeavours to change evaluation practices in public relations championed by AMEC, do not overtly indicate how research is required to inform objectives that in turn support measurement and evaluation.

In this regard, the work by Jim Macnamara is a welcome focus on creating an ‘architecture of listening’ in organisations.

Further, it is a weakness in the PR occupation that many practitioners – and too often the occupation’s professional bodies – make assertions and sweeping generalisations that are totally unsubstantiated or supported by research that frankly lacks rigour.

From my perspective of having studied career strategies in public relations in my PhD, I am particularly disappointed to see a tendency to present career advice based on little more than anecdote, individual experience or personal opinion.

Indeed this seems to be the norm in relation to careers, rather than an exception. A recent post published on the CIPR Influence blog is just the latest example.

Its argument that “talent comes second to character in public relations” is lacking on so many levels. From a career studies perspective, it is laughable to see emphasis on the “right attitude”, which is presented as an inherent and somewhat fixed personal trait. Indeed, based on her own research, Professor Anne Gregory has criticised work that lists the personal qualities required by public relations practitioners as “lacking precision”.

The idea that individual characteristics are inherent and unchanging was evident in the career studies field over a century ago. Initially such concepts were developed to help young job-seekers find a lifelong career, not to judge them. We no longer accept that career decisions made in early adulthood are irreversible. Yet other concepts dating from the twentieth century continue to be part of everyday career thinking. This is surprising given that they were derived from studies of the experiences of US males in white-collar corporate roles. Career thinking, Mad Men style!

To then tie fixed trait theory to ethics, trust and respect without any evidence is redolent of the types of attitude that can be found in the historical records of the CIPR held at the History of Advertising Trust in Norfolk.

The historical context reveals tensions and divisions between who was deemed to be the right sort of chap to work in public relations. Those in central and local government looked down on those employed in industry. Consultants were excluded if they worked in divisions of advertising agencies.

Women in PR were commonly discriminated against. In the 1950s/60s, not only were they viewed as dolly-birds but they were expected to have secretarial skills unlike their male colleagues, according to Dr. Jacquie L’Etang’s published research. She also found intergenerational tensions, echoed in my own research into female career experiences in the 1970s/80s, where one participant recalled dismissively that:

“a whole lot of young girls getting into PR roles ran around with Filofaxes and champagne glasses.”

Discrimination is just one of the problems arising from an emphasis on character as a proposed criteria for recruitment, let alone as a marker of ethical behaviour.

Judging character in this way commonly relies on indirect inferences and conjecture. The ‘right attitudes’ seem to be defined as characteristics held by those doing the assessment and hence only people like them match this ‘standard’.

It also leads to absolutist approaches that seek to include some people and exclude others. It creates a narrow cultural base of righteousness, and indeed, suggests a limited understanding of the nature of ethical decision-making. In comparison, Dr. Jo Fawkes’ (one of the speakers at #MindthePRGap) has written extensively on value based ethics.

I am reminded of the Channel 4 programme, The Trial: A Murder in the Family. Despite being reminded that assessment of guilt or innocence should be based on evidence, jury members were influenced by legal spin, personal experience, bias and whether or not the defendant reflected certain behaviour, body language or personality traits that they as individuals deem appropriate.

To return to the Mind the PR Gap initiative, I’d like to see this mark a shift to recognising ourselves as researchers regardless of whether we identify most as academics or practitioners.

A continuum between pure academic practice at one end and functional research at the other is, for me, a loop where the middle is of most interest. This encourages practitioners to draw more on robust academic research. Likewise, it helps academic researchers to realise the potential of their work to connect directly to practice and practitioners.

More research that connects those working in academia and those working in practice would improve our scholarship base, and reduce the reliance on ‘gut feel’ and anecdote.

If you’ve not already booked a place at the Mind the PR Gap event, please check your diaries and come along if you can (http://mindtheprgap.com/). We will also be using social media before, during and after the event. Please follow or like at:


References:
Fawkes, J., 2015. Public relations ethics and professionalism. Abingdon: Routledge.
Gregory. A., 2009. The competencies of senior communicators in the UK National Health Service. Journal of communication in healthcare, 2 (3), 282–293.
L’Etang, J., 2015. “It’s always been a sexless trade”; “It’s clean work”; “There’s very little velvet curtain”, Journal of communication management, 19 (4), 354–370.
Macnamara, J. 2015. Creating an ‘architecture of listening’ in organizations. Available from: http://www.uts.edu.au/about/faculty-arts-and-social-sciences/what-we-do/research/reports/creating-architecture-listening
Yaxley, H., 2013. Career experiences of women in British public relations (1970–1989). Public relations review, 39 (2), 156–165.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.