Sunday, August 12, 2007

Theoretical Discussions

Final thoughts on the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference in DC....

As you all probably have experienced, I have conference burnout. This conference is packed for five days with a great variety of sessions ranging from advertising and PR-related topics to all other aspects of mass media. I can't get into everything that Helen Thomas and Bill Moyers said as keynoters, but suffice it to say people are worried about the future of journalism. Not just the financial viability, but the very essence of our democracy. It may have to get worse before it gets better. Or, it may not be as bad as the chin-pullers say it is.

As for PR and advertising, I've spent a good part of the past two days in sessions about theory--discussing specific theories, how to teach them, how to make them relevant to professionals. Here's a summary of what I'm hearing

On the one hand, theories are not relevant to professionals partly because we have bad theories. We tend to borrow a lot from psych and sociology and some of our specific ad and PR theories need more testing to be relevant.

On the other hand, most professionals don't undertand what a "theory" is. As one panelist points out, it's best to speak in terms of empirical research or evidence. That's what we're supposed to do with theory--test them. According to scientific method, if we can't falsify theory, it becomes more robust. There's nothing more relevant than that.

Still, too many practitioners of PR think theory is merely an idea or notion that doesn't play out in "real life." What's ironi is that these same professionals are willing to stake a campaign on "theories" of their own that have only been successful in a few "real" situations. It's not possible to generallize anecdotal professional experience to all publics, campaigns, situations.

So, as I kick off another school year, I'll continue to work to make academic theories better, to focus on research that bears them out, to listen to professional input on their practical experience, and to work to bring it all together for students.

For now, a New Yorker cartoon on the counter of my local bookstore sums it up well: "In theory, theory and practice are the same. But in practice, they are not."

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