Public relations education has evolved within the United States largely as a part of programs in journalism and mass communication or within departments of communication studies. Programs with strength in journalistic writing were logical areas for public relations program development, as were programs with strength in organizational communication.
In organizational structures, the relationship between the manager of the public relations program and top management has long been recognized as a critical factor in the effective performance of public relations. Less recognized is the influence of where academic programs are placed within the management structure of universities on the ability of academic programs in public relations to respond and adapt independently to the needs of the public relations profession.
Public relations practitioners and educators need to understand the following relationships to understand the position of public relations education compared with academic and professional education programs within universities:
- Concentrations and sequences of study exist within academic departments. Control and administration are directed by a chair who is influenced primarily by the dominant coalition of faculty within the department. Although public relations faculty may have earned respect and consequently influence and even autonomy, public relations sequence and program coordinators may not have an official voice in the administrative hierarchy beyond what is awarded them by the chair or department head.
- Centers are frequently the next step toward becoming a department or interdisciplinary unit, and directors may have budget control, official reporting responsibilities and varying degrees of independence within the academic unit in which they are placed.
- Schools, on the other hand, are frequently the intermediate unit between development from a department to a free-standing college. They are normally headed by a director or dean, who has greater status within an institution of higher education than does a department chair. Schools may be departments (independent academic units) with budget and curriculum control within academic areas, but not necessarily. Often, departmental identification may only indicate sophistication of academic program development, rather than individual academic degree program budget control by chairs of units within the school.
- Colleges may have departments, centers and sometimes even schools located within them. If so, these academic units may have direct budget and curriculum development responsibilities and autonomy in the recruitment (and recommendation to the dean, provost or vice president of academic affairs or to the dean of faculties and vice president) for the employment and retention of faculty.
Other factors that substantially influence the development of public relations within universities and liberal arts colleges relate to institutional missions; the history of academic program development within an institution of higher education; the strength of the existing curriculum; the research and publication achievement of existing faculty; and the reputation of student and alumni achievement.
The academic backgrounds of faculty within the unit having control, and the professional and academic experiences of administrators at all levels within the chain of command, also may substantially influence the development of academic programs. These experiences may either facilitate program development or limit it. The development of undergraduate and graduate programs also are influenced by institutional strength or weakness in areas where public relations has interdisciplinary needs for the identification of courses as directed electives, as part of students’ liberal education requirements or for the interdisciplinary options that can be offered.
The dominant influencing factor at an institution of higher education will be the degree of outside funding support, or, in some cases, state legislative direction in political response to a profession. These institutional differences and variations make it difficult to prescribe a single model for the governance of public relations programs within universities. Instead, they point out two critical needs if public relations is to achieve status as a profession with generally accepted educational requirements for performance (one of the criteria for identification of a profession):
- Increased economic influence.
- Increased involvement as professionals and as a profession in influencing the development of public relations education.
Public relations programs must be responsive to the profession they are designed to serve. Following are steps that can be taken to increase responsiveness and accelerate advancement:
- Increased autonomy of public relations faculties in defining curriculum and degree requirements.
- Increased involvement of public relations program heads and their faculties in budget decisions related to their programs.
- Increased independence of public relations faculties in defining employment, tenure and promotion criteria and in making recommendations to higher-level administrators for new faculty employment.
- Increased achievements and visibility of public relations academic program administrators.
- Independent ability to communicate with and build alumni support.
- Independent professional identity of enrolled students equal to existing programs in journalism, marketing and advertising where they exist in programs of higher education.
- Greater autonomy in the control of admission standards within institutional mission guidelines.
- The ability to have independent identity and control as public relations faculties over the professional support received for scholarships, chairs, lectureships and public relations program support.
- Independent ability as public relations programs to define needs and program priorities and to direct funds in supporting student activities.
- Adequate staff and graduate assistantship support to develop and carry out programs developed by the public relations program faculty.
In view of these needs and the differences in academic institutions, the following management or governance structures are recommended to academic administrators and to professionals for the use in the next decade:
- The creation of Centers for Public Relations Research and Education within departments or schools where student enrollments mandate the need for increased professional program recognition and public relations faculty control.
- The assignment of staff or graduate assistant support to coordinators of sequences of public relations sufficient for the adequate supervision of PRSSA activities, student public relations agencies and program development such as lectureships, conferences, advisory council development, alumni and professional development and communication.
- Increased efforts to involve leading public relations practitioners as members of public relations advisory councils for academic programs that help define involvement needs, recommend supervision structures and share achievements.
- Increased recognition at the national level for practitioner contributions to advisory councils at the institutional level.
- Increased support from national PRSA in creating an annual Education/Professional Advancement Day for PRSA chapter programs with recommended areas for panel discussions designed to educate practitioners as to the status and needs of higher education as well as how PRSA members and chapters can be involved in speaking up for advancements in public relations education.