A Common Vision: Fast Forward to Public Relations Future State

Kathleen Rennie, APR, Fellow PRSA;
Commission on Public Relations Education Board


A Common Vision: Fast Forward to Public Relations Future State
2017 Commission on Public Relations Education Report Focuses on Future:
Core Tenets, New Course Content, Technology, Diversity, Ethics, Industry/Educator Dialogue

NEW YORK NY April 12, 2018 — After three years of research in the U.S. and abroad, the Commission on Public Relations Education has released a major report of findings and recommendations with clear, consistent and compelling direction for public relations students, those who teach them and those who hire them.  (Download at www.CommissionPRed.org)

The report’s title, “Fast Forward: Foundations and Future State, Educators and Practitioners,” reflects the research-based recommendations from 60 Commission members who conducted research, formulated observations and developed more than 80 recommendations  to enhance public relations education.

The report was presented Thursday (April 12) at The Bridge Conference of the Institute for Public Relations in Washington D.C., a two-day event for senior public relations executives and leading educators.

The report’s often repeated core words – writing, ethics, diversity, global, technology, faculty, research, liberal arts, and practitioner-educator dialogue – roll up to describe a need for momentum, carefully grounded in the roots of the profession.  Fast forward to the future state of public relations undergraduate education, by building on the foundations of public relations while mastering emerging and predicted skills and knowledge, with educators and practitioners working side by side to prepare the next generation of public relations professionals.

Rob Flaherty, chairman of Ketchum, who hosted the 2015 CPRE Industry-Educator Summit that kicked off research for the report, said, “The exciting possibilities unleashed by new technologies and profound social change are matched by the learning challenges they present to talent entering the field. I applaud the Commission for their recommendations and commitment to break the inertia that can slow change in education. The findings will help educators ensure that PR students are learning skills that will help them be successful and help the agencies and companies they work for do great work for clients and communities.”

Key take-aways:

  • Speed is essential. There is universal agreement among practitioners and educators that the ability for educational efforts to move, be nimble and adapted, is critical. Public relations education mirrors the industry, which is in a time of incredibly intense change.  Observed at the 2015 Commission Summit: “Half of what we do now didn’t exist ten years ago.”
  • Writing, for all platforms, is the core competency that practitioners and educators agree must be improved.
  • Ethics, ethics, ethics – always the critical tenet of our profession is now more than ever a commitment that begins in the classroom, with a required ethics course added to the existing five CPRE-recommended required courses (principles, research, writing, internships, and campaigns).
  • Diversity is essential to a profession that helps organizations relate to their worlds, and it must begin on campus and in the classroom, not just as a business strategy, but because it is the right thing to do.
  • Core qualifications, identified by practitioners who are hiring public relations undergraduates, are a liberal arts education, and knowledge and skills learned from courses that cover topics including strategic communications, measurement and evaluation, social media, publicity and media relations, and content creation.
  • Practitioners and educators remain committed to the foundations of public relations including research, theory, and required paid internships for real time learning. There is also agreement that a global perspective must be acquired by undergraduates, and that outside-the-classroom experience in campus activities, student-run media and public relations agencies and The Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) also develop needed knowledge and skills.
  • Simultaneously, change is everywhere and is critical. Examples: new technology is both used and taught in the classroom, online programs must produce the same level of learning as in the classroom, and an evolving faculty model is emerging, with Ph.D. educators, professors of practice and adjunct faculty who all need to be prepared to teach effectively and to have some level of professional experience.
  • And the critical success factor to achieve the Report’s recommendations is ongoing dialogue and partnership among practitioners and educators so that industry needs can be translated into curricula and experiential learning, and educators can receive the support necessary for their work and for their students’ development. Educators and practitioners, industry and the academy must work together.

The report from the Commission, the authoritative voice on public relations education since its founding in 1975 and comprised of 18 U.S. and global public relations organizations, will be used by university public relations departments and programs to develop curricular and out-of-classroom experiential learning for thousands of undergraduates studying public relations at more than 1,200 universities.

“What was striking about the research findings was the consistency across borders, and among public relations practitioners and educators, on what is essential to prepare undergrads for successful careers,” said the co-chairs of the Commission, Kathleen L. Lewton, M.H.A., M.S.J.  principal of Lewton, Seekins &Trester, and Elizabeth L. Toth, Ph.D., professor and former chair of the department of communication at the University of Maryland.  Both are Fellows of the Public Relations Society of America.  Lewton is past president of the Public Relations Society of America and Dr. Toth is past chair of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

“There was universal agreement that writing is more important than ever—even in a digital world – and students need not only be better writers, but to be able to write for all channels,” said Lewton.  Toth noted a similar profession-wide agreement that “In today’s environment of declining public trust and challenges such as ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news,’ ethics must not only be taught as a foundation of the way we work, but also be a personal commitment.”

“Another major theme was strong support from all sectors that our profession must become as diverse as the worlds we serve,” Lewton noted.  Dr. Toth agreed and said, “This begins with student recruitment and continues in the classroom in terms of how faculty prepare them for being part of an inclusive work force serving clients and organizations that are equally diverse.”

Most Extensively Researched Report in Commission History

The 172-page report was developed by 60 public relations practitioners and educators in 16 teams who served as subject matter experts. Research began in 2014 with focus groups among practitioners and educators in the U.S. and abroad, and was followed by a “mega focus group” in 2015 when 50 public relations agency CEOs and chief communications officers from corporations gathered at the Commission Summit with leading educators, discussing and debating the most needed knowledge, skills and traits for entry-level practitioners.  A follow-up focused survey of practitioners who hire for entry-level positions found points of agreement and disagreement with the Summit recommendations.  Finally, a comprehensive omnibus survey sought input from several thousand practitioners and educators primarily in the U.S. but also globally, for quantitative data that was used to develop the Report’s findings and recommendations.

Major Recommendations: Writing, Ethics, Diversity, Dialogue and More

Following is a topline of the Report’s ten major recommendations; more detail is included in the Report’s Overview/Executive Summary.  The report may be downloaded at www.CommissionPRed.org

  1. The Commission continues to endorse the five-course minimum first recommended in 2006 (“The Professional Bond”) and recommends the addition of a sixth course in ethics.
  2. Related Curricular Recommendations:
    1. Public relations majors must have a liberal arts education.
    2. Writing must be a key part of every course. Writing is the core skill identified by survey respondents, and cannot be seen as an isolated ability, unrelated to other courses.
    3. Practitioners must recognize that theory is not only important, but also will always be a work in progress as the practice of public relations evolves continuously.
    4. Internships must be paid and there should be specific pre­requisite courses taken prior to beginning an internship.
    5. Extra­curricular and co­-curricular involvement should be seen as an integral component for student development, with a particular focus on leadership skills.
  3. Dialogue among industry, practitioners and educators must be sustained.
  4. All faculty must be prepared to teach effectively AND to have experience or at least be exposed to the practice of public relations.
  5. Educators and administrators must play a significant role in diversification of the public relations profession.
  6. The Commission must take a leadership role in enhancing the perceived value of a degree in public relations.
  7. The Commission must help educators enhance the presence and value of public relations programs and departments within universities.
  8. With the growth of online delivery of public relations education, attention must be paid to specialized pedagogical training for online teaching, program quality control and assessment.
  9. Since technology does not “stand still,’ educators and practitioners must stay current on emerging communication tools, platforms and other information.
  10. Students need to be aware of how the practice of public relations differs throughout the world.

Industry Support Made Report Possible

“This report and the work that led up to it could not have happened without financial and in-kind support from the public relations industry,” noted Dr. Toth.

The Commission’s research and report development were supported by donations from:
Ketchum (Rob Flaherty), Wells Fargo (Oscar Suris), Weber Shandwick (Andy Polansky), The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations (Karla Gower), The Arthur W. Page Society and the PRSA Foundation, which has long supported the Commission’s work.

Additionally the Public Relations Society of America has provided decades of in-kind support for CPRE including staff support and administrative services.  The Institute for Public Relations and its President and CEO Tina McCorkindale have also provided in-kind support for the 2017 report development and launch.  Ketchum also sponsored the Commission’s 2015 Industry-Educator Summit at their offices in New York.


The Commission on Public Relations Education is the authoritative voice on public relations education. Since its founding in 1973 by the Public Relations Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and joined by co-­sponsor the Public Relations Society of America, the Commission has provided recommendations on public relations education for universities and professional associations across the globe. These recommendations have been adopted and adapted to positively impact undergraduate and graduate public relations education. The Commission’s work also produces essential data and recommendations informed by research and honed by experienced practitioners and educators, and used by educators, educational administrators, students, practitioners and industry leaders. The Commission’s recommendations throughout the years have also included criteria for creation of Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapters, standards for PRSA Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) and the work of practitioner and educator associations around the globe. The Commission seeks to establish benchmarks for teaching public relations that are current, research-­based, sensitive to culture and language, and applicable to preparing public relations students for careers in practice, research, teaching, or a combination of all three. The Commission chooses projects from the full spectrum of activity in the education field including researching and identifying factors that help students understand the expectations for a career in public relations.