The Commission on Public Relations Education said in its October, 1999, report, A Port of Entry, “The changes in public relations practice since the 1987 Commission on Public Relations Education report are numerous and profound… By any measure, the growth of the public relations profession over the past decade has been astonishing.”
This is an understatement when the growth and changes occurring since the 1999 report are examined. This growth and five major areas of change inform this 2006 report.
This report began as an interim effort on the way to a new full report in 2009, 10 years after the last report. Commission members soon discovered, however, that the practice of public relations has grown and changed so much since 1999 that an interim report would have been inadequate. For example, in a field that was once predominantly male, females now constitute almost two-thirds of all practitioners and as much as 70 to 80 percent of undergraduate enrollment in some university programs, an imbalance that has been increasing since 1999.
Growth in public relations education is not just a matter of raw numbers, such as those reflected in ever-increasing classroom enrollments. It is also occurring relative to other areas within communication, journalism and related fields such as marketing and management. For example, the May 2005 AEJMC Newsletter of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication [AEJMC] reported that in just the 197 universities responding to a survey, there were “281 programs— 133 in public relations, 95 in advertising and 53 advertising-PR joint programs. Since 1992-93, the number of public relations programs increased by 14, while advertising dropped 25.” On yet another and very important front, the Public Relations Student Society of America has grown to more than 270 chapters.
Another sign of growth: journalism as a profession appears to be losing ground to public relations as reflected in projected growth in employment. The 2006 Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook (http://www.bls.gov.oco/ocos086.htm) predicts that public relations employment will grow from 18 to 26 percent between 2004 and 2014 while jobs for “news analysts, reporters and correspondents” are expected to be relatively flat over the same period, growing only 0 to 8 percent.
One downside of such growth has been the teaching of public relations-related course content in management, marketing and corporate communication programs by faculty not experienced in public relations nor properly credentialed to teach the subject. As a result we now understand that:
- Once-a-decade Commission reports may be inadequate.
- Rather than simply reporting its growth and progress, public relations education has reached a point where it needs to develop new management strategies.
A paramount issue in the management of growth in public relations education is finding ways to answer the need for more public relations instructors trained in and committed to the field. In the past, teaching vacancies in the field have too often been filled with instructors without the Ph.D. or research and theory knowledge, without actual practitioner experience or both. Absent documented and specific public relations experience or graduate study in public relations, a degree in English, business, advertising, journalism, mass communication or other professional fields is not evidence of preparation to teach public relations. Indeed, as the field of public relations continues to grow and become more complex and professional, it is increasingly important to recruit only highly qualified faculty with both theoretical and experiential credentials.
In addition to growth, the Commission identified five major themes that characterize the development of public relations since the last report: strategic emphasis, internationalization of the practice, the importance of diversity, an essential emphasis on ethics and social responsibility, and increased questions about curricular and structural independence on some campuses.
Strategic Emphasis and Professionalism
The Commission recognizes how rapidly public relations is developing from a set of technical skills into a much more strategic, professional and management-focused endeavor. Public relations is moving up the corporate and publicsector ladders. As a result:
- While fundamental writing skills remain at the core of public relations education, business and industry have become so strategically oriented in the information age that too much focus on technical skills in a curriculum may actually disadvantage graduates who need greater research, problem-solving, strategic thinking, planning and management and counseling skills.
- Departments and programs that rely on superficial similarities in writing style by hiring technically trained journalism, English and business writers in place of credentialed public relations instructors are failing to provide their students with a modern, competitive public relations education.
- Training in research methods should now be only a half step behind writing training as a priority in the public relations curriculum because sophisticated research is central to strategic planning and evaluation. Both quantitative and qualitative approaches should be taught as required core skills in all public relations programs, but the most advanced programs will emphasize multi-methodological research for both planning and evaluation.
Public relations has become increasingly international and intercultural in the last few decades. The Commission’s 1999 report was mostly silent on international practice and education in public relations, partly to avoid Commission members being seen as arrogant Americans. Today, public relations educators readily acknowledge how much they have learned, individually and collectively, from practitioners and academics from other cultures, and the Commission recommends an ongoing and expanding exchange.
Current curricula must be updated to reflect the international and intercultural reality that is modern public relations today:
- Public relations educators in the United States should integrate the experiences of practitioners and teachers in developing areas of the world into their curricula, including lessons learned from portions of non-Islamic Asia, the Islamic world, sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.
- An emphasis on globalization, intercultural studies and international programs can now be found in the strategic plans of most universities. No academic field on a campus, except perhaps international studies, is more inherently international than public relations. Public relations curricula should reflect this fact, and public relations academics should play an active role in helping to internationalize their campuses.
- Because strategic communication campaigns are one of international terrorism’s primary weapons, public relations academics have a special responsibility to contribute to anti-terrorism initiatives on their campuses and to use opportunities to educate colleagues on the requirements of ethical public relations campaigns.
To lead strategic communication efforts in an increasingly diverse society, public relations must meet three diversity challenges. First, public relations must become more diverse in the composition of its student and practitioner populations. Second, public relations must become more sophisticated in meeting the communication needs of diverse communities. Third, public relations must draw on the diversity of the nation as a resource to strengthen corporate, governmental and nonprofit communication. Therefore:
- Public relations education programs should reflect in their faculty and student composition the racial and ethnic makeup of the society and the campus to which they belong. In some cases, this might require new approaches to recruiting, while in others, innovative course offerings may be needed, and in still others, changes in policies or practices may be needed to attract and retain good minority students.
- Major issues in diversity, such as the unique economic, employment and health-risk issues confronting minority communities, should be addressed in the public relations curriculum so that public relations students are better equipped to understand the needs of diverse publics.
- Public relations curricula also should help students develop a sophisticated understanding of the particular communication channels, strategies and customs of minority publics to facilitate more sensitive and effective campaigns in both minority and majority communities.
Ethics and Social Responsibility
As public relations evolves into a more strategic and international practice, it affects more people more profoundly, does so in more countries and cultures and does so more quickly than ever before. As a result, public relations practitioners and academics alike have elevated their concern for ethics by, for example, impanelling a National Ethics Commission and authorizing a major revision of the PRSA Code of Ethics in 2000.
- Revisions of the PRSA Code (first adopted in 1951), as well as the wording of the Code of Ethics of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), reflect an increasing concern for the social, as well as the economic, role of public relations.
- Much of the tremendous expansion and acceleration of public relations practice over the past decade can be traced to new information technologies, such as the Internet. As a result, public relations curricula will need to develop more sophisticated ethical analyses to help guide practitioners in ethics and the use of new information technologies throughout and within other cultures.
Curricular and Structural Independence
The Commission found an amorphous but growing sense that public relations might benefit as a profession and in its educational development by sometimes being taught outside of journalism/mass communication and (speech) communication units, the traditional academic homes of public relations education. One concern of public relations educators and students is that the Commission’s recommended curriculum revisions, intensive writing training and practitioner links that are needed in public relations may not be feasible in combined journalism, mass communication or communication departments where public relations’ large enrollments often are used to fund other subject areas. As a result, funds generated from public relations students often do not get used to hire well-qualified public relations faculty or to offer needed writing, research and practicum courses. This means in some cases that public relations programs have been, or may be, unable to fully implement recommendations in the 1999 and 2006 Commission reports.
The Commission recognizes department and university administrators have to make resource- allocation decisions based on a variety of student needs so that using public relationsgenerated resources to support other programs is sometimes appropriate. Nevertheless, when tuition dollars of public relations students are used to fund other subject areas, the effect is to give public relation students a smaller return on their tuition dollars than students in other areas of journalism, mass communication or (speech) communication. Thus:
- Decisions to use tuition funds from public relations students to help fund other areas of a program should be formally and periodically reviewed and disclosed to the public relations faculty and students involved.
- The Commission takes no position on whether independent departments of public relations are desirable. Such decisions should be based on careful consideration of institutional missions and program goals as well as an evaluation of how to achieve quality public relations education and professional preparation of students. Independence might offer great opportunities in some cases and great risks in others.
- In this era of decreasing tax support for public education, the level of practitioner support an occupation enjoys is viewed as a major indicator of the social value of the field. Public relations has succeeded in building several effective bridges between the practitioner and academic communities, although still more are needed. For example, this Commission is a joint academician-practitioner body. Public relations practitioners need to substantially upgrade their level of financial and other support for academic programs, however, if they are to assure adequate university program support for their profession.
A Call to Action
Finally, the Commission wishes to note two critically important subjects of significance to today’s—and tomorrow’s—public relations practitioners. The Commission suggests that practitioners and educators pay special attention to the “A Call to Action” section of this report which presents a range of initiatives that individuals and organizations can undertake to strengthen the bond between public relations education and the practice. Frankly, practitioner support of public relations education has been inadequate. It is time to remedy this shortcoming!
Too, the Commission notes that, as in all professions, continued growth and success in public relations requires lifelong learning. The opportunities for such professional development, too many to be identified in this report, are as varied as they are vital—with many such opportunities provided by the professional societies that are represented on the Commission. The Commission urges every public relations professional to commit to such study, not only for personal achievement, but also for further development of the public relations profession.
Recognizing that Commission reports often are used more as reference works than as texts, this report is divided into 17 sections to facilitate finding the specific content a reader may need. These sections are:
- Executive Summary
- Communication Technology
- Global Implications
- Undergraduate Education
- Graduate Education
- Supervised Experience
- Distance Learning
- Governance and Academic Support
- Faculty Credentials
- Pre-Professional Organizations
- Professional Certification and Accreditation
- A Call to Action
While this report benefits greatly from the overall editing of Judy VanSlyke Turk, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, the reader will note that the sections of this report vary somewhat in writing style and structure. This is intentional, both because it gives the reader some flavor of the variety of practitioner and academic bodies that comprise the Commission and, we hope, because it helps reach a spectrum of public relations- related audiences with a variety of voices from both public relations education and practice.