Master’s degree curricula across journalism and communication programs in the United States show little consistency in the content and coursework offered as was also the case in 1999.
The typical curriculum gives a hodge-podge appearance of adding public relations courses to existing journalism and communication programs. Educators have reported, however, a growing number of integrated advertising and public relations master’s degree programs.
Inconsistencies, hodge-podge and integration will not be enough if graduate public relations programs want to achieve accreditation. Beginning in 2006-2007, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications will examine more rigorously graduate master’s programs for a focused knowledge experience. Professional master’s degree programs will be reviewed separately from undergraduate programs, using the same nine standards applied to undergraduate programs. To achieve accreditation, professional master’s programs, such as public relations, must also demonstrate how their master’s graduates attain, in addition to practice skills and expertise, the additional core competency of “contributing to knowledge appropriate to the communication professions in which they work.”
Progress and Change Since the 1999 Report
Research for the Commission’s 2006 report included a review of public relations program graduate Web sites, telephone interviews with 18 public relations leaders and a quantitative survey of educators and practitioners. The PR leaders supported several types of graduate public relations programs rather than endorsing the MBA degree or dismissing public relations graduate education as unnecessary. They felt that graduate education should be interdisciplinary, combining public relations, communication and management courses.
The Commission’s quantitative study tested several options for graduate education. More than 60 percent of practitioners and educators sampled agreed that graduate public relations education should be an academic area of study with interdisciplinary focus (communication, management and behavioral science), or an academic area with a management focus. The survey participants’ opinions reflected three different, but also overlapping, profiles that the Commission labeled the academic disciplinary focus, the academic focus and the professional focus. Few participants said that no graduate education was needed.
In 2006, practitioner respondents in the Commission’s qualitative survey recognized trends that were driving public relations that were not as important in 1999: rapidly changing new media; transparency and accountability demands; recognition of PR’s increasing value by top management; the need and demand for measurement; globalization; diversity; ethics issues and credibility crises; more multi-disciplinarity and integrated communication; and the need to align public relations with business strategy and social demographic changes. This research suggests that graduate education should move toward understanding business, management and public relations as strategic management functions.
Therefore, the Commission’s 2006 recommendations for graduate education provide revised content areas and three different graduate curriculum models.
Master’s Level Education
- Revised Content AreasThe following content areas should be the focus of advanced, intensive study at the graduate level. The expectation is that students will develop abilities to critically analyze and synthesize the body of knowledge in strategic public relations management by producing critical essays and original research projects that will enhance their professional performance.
The student should master the following content areas beyond undergraduate competencies:
- Public relations theory and concepts. This area should familiarize students with the leading theories of public relations scholarship (e.g., public relations, rhetorical, communication and management). Content should address such topics as the four dimensions of public relations, public relations roles and strategic management of public relations. This area should include public relations history, contemporary issues and trends (e.g., encroachment, feminization of the field, diversity, integration) and practice challenges (e.g., social, political and economic and global influences).
- Public relations law. This area should address regulations and laws that affect the practice of public relations. Content should include constitutional restrictions on freedom of expression and federal and state laws and regulations dealing with such matters as copyright, defamation, privacy and commercial speech. Understanding of contracts, affirmative action and Equal Opportunity laws and other regulations affecting the management of public relations also should be addressed.
- Public relations ethics. This area should address the philosophical and practical aspects of public relations ethics. Content should include such topics as philosophical foundations, principles and codes, professionalism, accountability, divided loyalties, responsible advocacy, social responsibility, global ethics, political correctness and truth and transparency.
- Global public relations. This area should address public relations practice in the international and transnational environment, covering global trends and topics such as multicultural communication knowledge and skills, public diplomacy, multiple cultures and diversity within nations, international legal and ethical codes and political systems.
- Public relations applications. This area should familiarize students with public relations practice in corporate, government and nonprofit settings. Content also might provide for specialization in practice areas such as health care, politics, business, technology, environmental and multicultural and global public relations.
- Public relations management. This area should cover all aspects of strategic public relations management, including principles, planning, organizing, evaluating, staffing, counseling, leadership, leading in inclusive settings and budgeting. Content should include reputation management, integrated practices, concepts of organizational effectiveness, organizational policymaking, issues and crisis management, relationship-building with internal/external publics, activism and mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution. This area should consider how public relations is managed in a diverse world of politics, economic systems and distinct cultural voices. Diversity management involves human resources, staffing, team, vendor and personnel functions. It requires knowledge of global and local social, political, economic and historical frameworks, policies and laws. Content should include theories and principles of diversity such as power and identity; international, intercultural, multicultural and cross-cultural communication; and multicultural marketing.
- Public relations research. This area should include the application of social science research to the planning, implementation and evaluation of strategic public relations practices. Students should gain familiarity with quantitative and qualitative research methods, experimental design, sampling, data analysis, report writing, research ethics and challenges of researching minority groups.
- Public relations programming and production. This area should include advanced principles and practice techniques, particularly those related to the use of new technology, the Internet and telecommunication. Students should become proficient in research-based strategic planning, audience analysis, message development and design and distribution channels.
- Public relations publics. This area should include studies of publics and their relational interests in and consequences on organizations. Students should learn the situational theory of publics; activism theory; and theories of power, risk communication, crisis communication, relationship and relationship management, identity, gender, culture and other dimensions of diversity.
- Communication processes. In this area, students should learn theories and practices of communication (organizational, interpersonal, intercultural, small group, persuasion, rhetorical and conflict resolution).
- Management sciences. This area should include accounting, finance, management, marketing, diversity management and strategic integrated communication applications.
- Behavioral sciences. This area should acquaint students with social psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology and political science. Content should be designed to help students develop an understanding of group behavior, behavioral change, organizational culture and relationships.
- Internship or practicum experience. Graduate students should obtain and build their strategic management skills through project assignments as well as in internship and practicum experiences. Whenever possible, assignments requiring students to work in environments different from their own social group should be completed. They should receive supervisory mentoring and also appraisals of their work. They also should produce academic work, such as papers, journal entries or essays about their experiences for review by their academic advisers.
- Thesis and/or capstone project and/or comprehensive exam. The thesis should represent scholarly research to test public relations theory, with the assistance of a faculty advisory committee (6 credits). The capstone project should also include original research but with a “deliverable” to advance the practice of public relations (3 credits). A comprehensive exam generally asks the student to provide closedbook essay answers on course content in a four-hour time period. No credit hours should
be awarded for comprehensive examinations.
- Master’s Program ModelsThese three program models assume that the master’s student has an undergraduate degree in public relations or a substantial skills-andknowledge foundation in public relations. Students who do not have requisite undergraduate preparation should complete foundational undergraduate coursework before entering public relations master’s programs. The Commission highly recommends that students entering master’s programs in public relations have professional public relations experience.
Courses are listed for each model that provide the requisite content.
(This model focuses the student on preparing to enter a doctoral program.)
- Public relations management
- Public relations publics
- Global public relations
- Ethics and philosophy in public relations
- Research methods in communication
- Research design in public relations
- Theories of communication
- Two electives (recommended that these be management courses)
(This model provides advanced career preparation through coursework in public relations and management disciplines.)
- Public relations theory
- Public relations law and ethics
- Public relations research methods
- Public relations management
- Strategic planning
- Two electives
- Thesis or capstone project
(This model provides studies for a specialization in public relations. It provides an interdisciplinary course of study by bringing in content from other disciplines into public relations courses and through collateral electives.)
- Strategic PR in a digital environment
- Strategic PR research and evaluation
- Strategic PR management
- PR law and ethics
- Organizational communication
- Strategic media relations
- Strategic PR in global, multicultural and diverse environments
- Strategic PR campaign design and implementation
- Collateral Electives (two courses in one area such as nonprofit/public sector management, environmental policy, business/management, corporate public relations, international marketing or management, sports management, public affairs, educational institutions management, entertainment, health communication or other appropriate area)
The Commission’s research findings that show a preference for graduate education that is interdisciplinary and management- or business-focused will require public relations programs to work with different academic units, such as business schools, to deliver these curricula. Faculty and practitioners agree on the importance of supervised experience. However, the ability of the student; the nature of the program and its home institution; the availability of opportunities within a reasonable distance from the college/university; and other issues have contributed to a great variety in students’ experience.
The production of doctoral graduates has not kept pace with the need, either in education or in the practice. Many teaching positions at universities where educators are required to have doctoral degrees remain unfilled. Since the 1999 Commission report, the scarcity of public relations professors with Ph.D.s has only increased. Hallahan (PR Tactics, 2003) reported that “a Ph.D. is required at better universities for both hiring and tenure. Colleges are under increased scrutiny from their regional accrediting agencies to demonstrate institutional quality. Two frequently used metrics are the percentage of Ph.D.s on the faculty and the quantity and quality of faculty research in scholarly journals.” This trend suggests that public relations educators will be sought for their academic credentials first with less interest in their professional experience. But faculty also need to know how public relations is practiced. The Commission recommends seeking increased partnerships with professionals and professional organizations to help educators stay current with the practice of public relations.
Here are some of the challenges to be confronted in graduate education:
- Lack of understanding of public relations on the part of society and within academia, creating disconnects in communication and interdisciplinary cooperation, particularly in relation to the understanding of ethical requirements and social responsibility of public relations performance.
- Growing complexity of a behavioral, communication and business management knowledge base that requires time and resources to research and access before connections can be accurately identified.
- Need for greater interaction among practitioners and educators to foster unity and identity and to facilitate mutual understanding of the profession’s evolving educational and research needs.
- Limited visibility of the profession within academia due to lack of economic support for the profession’s research and educational needs.
To meet these challenges, the Commission recommends:
- The development of additional doctoral programs where undergraduate and master’s degree public relations program strength and faculties exist.
- The identification of Ph.D. degrees specifically in public relations, particularly in colleges or schools with existing graduate program strength in public relations.
- The creation of additional endowed chairs in public relations that will allow increased graduate student direction and research productivity.
- Continued progress toward the development of interdisciplinary graduate programs.
- Professional encouragement of the development of specializations within public relations through financial support where institutional and program strengths exist for the specialization.
- The creation of “distinguished visiting lectureship” positions that will enable the employment of top practitioners in public relations programs.
- Increased financial support for research that will enable more qualitative and quantitative research.
- The creation of “faculty fellowships” at corporations and public relations firms that will enable practitioners to increase their knowledge of research and education needs and that facilitate cooperative research between educators and practitioners.
- The creation of competitive management level traineeships for master’s and doctoral students of public relations within public relations firms, corporations, nonprofit organizations and governments.
Hallahan, Kirk, (http://www.prsa.org/_Publications/magazines/0803spot4.asp,
accessed May 9, 2006).