Academic research in public relations: Making it useful to practitioners

researchTwo years ago I was tasked with revising the undergraduate research course for our undergraduate degree program in public relations. A required course, it needed revision so that it could be made available at a distance via the internet for students who needed it to complete their degrees.

The way I conceived of the course was to describe research as a fundamental part of both the practice and the study of the field. In practice, research is used for program planning as well as evaluation of programs, campaigns and projects. In the academic world, research is focused on improving public relations as a discipline and a practice. It was the notion of where these two research paradigms crossed over one another that was at the heart of my attempt to provide the students with an appreciation of how academic research might be applied in the real world. That was the real challenge, because it is well known in our field that practitioners rarely (if at all) read the academic literature.

Public relations practitioners are not like practitioners in other professional fields. For example, in the medicine, clinical practitioners keep up with research, and often even participate in journal clubs on a regular basis to discuss the current research and its relevance to their practice. This just doesn’t happen in public relations. Why is that?

In my view there are several reasons for this.

First, there are many PR practitioners who did not make their way into the field through university-level, baccalaureate programs whose faculty members are required to be versed not only in the practice, but also contribute to the body of knowledge through research and publication. When neophyte practitioners are taught by those who have a high regard for both the benefits and the limitations of scholarly research, and introduce their students to both, these students may be more likely to turn to the literature to provide creative ideas and rationales for their decisions in the real world. At least they know where to look.

Second, public relations journals don’t seem to do anything to promote themselves to practitioners. Why do journals not sponsor conference presentations on the mutual benefit of research to practice? Whey do these journals not offer PR practitioners free access? Why do these journals not provide distillations of their presented research as electronic newsletters to PR practitioners and the organizations that represent them? These are all approaches that could help to bridge the gap between research and practice, and yet it persists.

In years past, and in some journals even today, we could have concluded that PR scholars didn’t do research that could be useful in any way to practitioners. That is not so much the case these days I’m happy to report. For example, the November 2015 (Vol. 41, Issue 4) issue of Public Relations Review, arguably the most prestigious academic journal in the field, has a series of articles representing work should be of significance to many practitioners. (You can read the contents and highlights of each article here.) The material related to work-life balance, story-telling, corporate social responsibility and social media in particular should be required reading for everyone in PR these days. In addition to the fact that many (most?) practitioners don’t even know this journal exists, to download a single article costs $35.95 (USD). Are they going to do it? I don’t think so, and I don’t blame them.

So, what can academia do?

I’m calling on editorial boards of these journals to develop electronic communication with PR practitioners the purpose of which would be to distill the research into useful sound bites if you like for busy practitioners. Then should the practitioner wish to read the entire article, that article could be made available for a much lower price.

Scholarly research in public relations should not only be the narcissistic purview of the academics who need to do it to enhance their careers. I believe that we have a moral responsibility to see that those who are on the front lines have access to that research so that it might truly make a difference to more than the CV of the researchers.

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