The 2014 Academic Summit, sponsored by Edelman Public Relations along with PR Week, the University of Notre Dame and DePaul University, is an event that brings together PR professors and practitioners for some engaging discussion. I wasn't in attendance last week, but I did note some tweets from the meeting and one in particular caught my eye.
Richard Edelman, the well known president and CEO of the global PR firm that bears his name, made a comment in his remarks that in effect said professors need to get out more and not just stay in their office writing papers.
I have great respect for Edelman, and have used his firm's annual 'Trust Barometer" as required reading in some of my classes. But, for that reason, I was dismayed that he would imply that academic research is not of value.
I tweeted a question just to clarify. I asked Edelman what academic journals and conference proceedings he reads. It caused several retweets, comments, and even caused the editor of a well-regarded PR journal to snort aloud at the meeting.
Mr. Edelman did not respond to requests for comment.
One other academic at the conference noted that the context was that academic research is valuable, but it needs to be presented in ways that are not so full of academic jargon. That is a good point. It is possible for some academic works to be heavy on theoretical concept buzz words or statistical gymnastics seeming more intended to impress than express.
But on the other hand, the broad-brush assertion that academics "don't get out much" is a little heavy. I know from my own interactions with other PR professors that many have professional experience before getting a PhD and teaching full time. I also know that once they become PR professors, many of them stay very much engaged with the practitioners in the field through conferences like the Academic Summit and other regular interactions ranging from coffee with local pros to faculty externships. And the papers that we academics write are largely based on "getting out" there and studying actual PR practice and consequences. We don't just sit in a campus office and stroke our chins and venture a guess. Some of us, myself included, still practice PR as consultants ourselves, and also take on local clients for class projects where concepts are applied directly.
Methods from content analysis, to focus group, to survey and others are all about engaging real professionals. But academics go beyond reporting raw data and percent response. They look for the reasons behind the response, the cause and effect that is consistent and can be predictive over time. That can be hard to understand because of the methodological mumbo-jumbo or precision required in defining concepts. But if the results can be communicated to practitioners, that is of tremendous value and considerable practical. Indeed, informing the field--of academics and practitioners, and of course our students--should be the reason we do research.
Certainly, academics need to have a solid and grounded--we academics might say valid--understanding of what PR professionals do every day. But professionals, rather than eschewing academic research, theory, and unfamiliar words, should seek to understand it and apply it. This is one reason I'm an advocate of open-access journals, so professionals can access research without needing access to a university library or membership in academic organizations. I applaud PRSA for having its PR Journal available online. And, if you read the previous post on this blog, that is why I do a summary of journal articles for PR pros and students periodically.
At the end of the day, the professor-practitioner relationship can have mutual benefit if we all try to honestly understand each other.