In responding to industry calls for more emphasis on practical skills rather than academic education which I discussed in a previous post, the public relations industry and professional bodies need to be careful that there is not an over-emphasis on practical vocational skills and too little emphasis on producing graduates who know how to think ‘outside the square’, how to question, how to challenge current practices and envision the future, and how to participate in the wider debates and discussions of society.

Creativity in public relations is paramount

In addition to two key points I made in my previous post, several further key issues are raised here to show why this broader perspective is important.

[This is a guest post written by Professor Jim Macnamara, an experienced public relations professional and educator.*]

Future-proofing

A key requirement of universities is enabling productive citizens and leaders for the future, not simply churning out entry-level practitioners to satisfy specific industry needs over the next few years. Universities are not in the business of producing industrial cannon-fodder.

The role of universities is not simply to produce commercially productive workers for the industries and professions of today; universities seek to produce graduates who will create the industries and professions of the future.

This requires universities to create learning environments in which graduates gain much more than practical vocational skills in current fields of practice. While giving graduates an applied perspective and incorporating practical skills in all they do, a dedicated focus on practical skills is the province of TAFE and technical courses, on-the-job training, and continuing professional development.

Is a futuristic, broader approach necessary and beneficial? As with the previous questions I have raised and discussed, the answer is ‘you betcha’. Let me give at least three reasons why.

Producing managers, not just technicians

US academic David Dozier and a number of other thinkers have identified a need for public relations practitioners to rise above the communication technician role in organisations to become communication managers and strategists. To gain entry to the ‘boardroom’ and the ‘dominant coalition’, which PR practitioners have long aspired to, they need much more than practical skills at writing, event management and other day-to-day tasks.

Tactics is about practice, strategy requires knowledge

Management and strategy require high-level and broad knowledge, not just practical skills. Peter Drucker famously identified that “doing the right thing is more important than doing the thing right”. In this and numerous similar aphorisms for management, Drucker was not suggesting that doing things well at a practical level is unimportant – clearly it is essential. But he was pointing to the even more fundamental prerequisite for practitioners to know the right thing to do before they set about doing it.

In a related piece of advice, Drucker noted that “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”.

‘Doing things right’ requires practical skills. But ‘doing the right thing’ requires knowledge of the broader social, cultural, political and strategic context of communication and relationships. It requires knowledge based on research, not just practice.

Critical thinking and alternatives

Theoretical knowledge also fosters critical thinking which is a vital element of advancing a field. While critical thinking is often perceived pejoratively as an exercise in negativity or undermining of the field, critical perspectives and alternatives proposed in various competing theories are important for many reasons including:

  • They offer alternative ways of thinking and acting
  • They help us think ‘outside the square’
  • They reduce trial and error which is a downside of practice-based learning
  • They help us see things the way others see them, even if we don’t agree
  • They identify weakness, contradictions, and areas for improvement and advocate praxisaction to change and improve, to do PR differently.

No industry or profession can claim that it does not need to improve, and certainly not public relations, which faces continuing challenges to its legitimacy and a chorus of criticism in media, politics, and among social reformers.

Critical thinking about public relations is essential to build a better body of public relations knowledge and practices for the future. Critical thinking and exploring alternative ideas are how we challenge ourselves, rethink, reinvent, and re-envision.

Theories allow us to consider alternatives. Even if we do not agree with all of them, theories can be used as lenses to examine issues and extend our minds in the same way that telephoto and macro camera lenses and telescopes extend our eyes.

Just as optical lenses allow us to see things that we cannot see with the naked eye, theories allow us to see things that we cannot see with the naked mind.

Increasing knowledge is the future of PR

Looking ahead, a 2005 study by William Hatherell and Jennifer Bartlett calls for PR academics and practitioners to be “less preoccupied with defensive rhetoric and disciplinary demarcation” and repeating and reinforcing existing practices. Instead, they need to combine the best of today with new ideas and thinking in the social sciences and humanities. That means engaging with a range of theories – let’s just call it knowledge that is advancing every day and shaping our futures.

Public relations 2011 free report

Where have you found the value of theory in practicing public relations? Has it been of greater value on a strategic or practical/tactical level? Has theory helped shape the way you practice public relations? Are there any theories in particular that come to mind that you have found to be particularly valuable?

*Jim Macnamara, PhD, FPRIA, FAMI, CPM, FAMEC became Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney in 2007 after a 30-year career working in journalism, public relations and media research, which culminated in selling the CARMA Asia Pacific media analysis firm which he founded to Media Monitors in 2006. Jim can be networked with on his LinkedIn profile and on Twitter @jimmacnamara.

[This post is included, with many other posts, in a free strategic PR report that can be downloaded from this blog by email subscribing to it. The report – Public relations 2011: insights ideas issues – features professional practice-adding value from 10 global PR leaders (and me).]