Three decades of PR degree education in the UK

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Dr Alenka Jelen-Sanchez, University of Stirling

This year we celebrate 30 years of university degree education in public relations. The University of Stirling was the first in the UK – and one of the first in Europe – to introduce a degree in public relations at postgraduate level in 1988, but only just. Bournemouth University and the College of St Mark and St John (under the guidance of Exeter University) established undergraduate degrees a year later. Other universities followed suit in establishing increasingly popular degrees attracting large numbers of students and academics.

The student interest has in recent years at best plateaued as we witness the closing down of several degree courses in public relations or their merger with marketing, digital media or in some cases even journalism, “the sworn enemy of PR”.

The anniversary, therefore, not only calls for celebration, but also reflection on evolution of public relations, its place in contemporary societies and how the subject will either thrive or survive in the future. These questions were addressed at the ’30 Years of PR @ Stirling: Critical reflections on past, present and future directions in public relations’ symposium held at the University of Stirling on 17 October 2018 with world-leading public relations scholars who have played a key role in shaping public relations education and research at Stirling and beyond.

Stirling has undoubtedly been a trendsetter in public relations academia, not only because it pioneered a degree that educated several prominent practitioners and academics, but also because it represents a “cradle” of critical public relations that significantly influenced the research agenda worldwide. It is safe to say that almost every critical scholar or output crossed paths with Stirling at some point or another, extending its influence from Scandinavia to New Zealand.

However, early curriculum at Stirling was in line with strong vocational orientation of the discipline unapologetically functionalist, focussed on developing public relations skills, driven by accreditation from professional associations and involving practitioners and “pracademics” (i.e. academics with professional background who followed a well-trodden practitioner-teacher-researcher career path) in education.

In the early 1990s, public relations started pursuing a critical intellectual path with Jacquie L’Etang and Magda Pieczka at the helm. Introducing new approaches while challenging a dominant functionalist paradigm was anything but easy. It required a strong will, disobedience and resistance to contest gender and power hegemony within the University and in a wider public relations community. Their scholarship represented a breath of fresh air, which David McKie recommended to be read by public relations practitioners concerned with education, and all public relations academics.

Important battles in securing a place and legitimacy of critical scholarship alongside other approaches have been won, but there are new concerns of how to preserve this diversity in times when universities are becoming market-driven systems employing modes of governance based on corporate models, introducing highly pressured academic environment focussed on research impact, student satisfaction, employability, efficiency and metrics. These developments have driven theories out of academic curricula and enforced practice-led intellectual myopia.

Marrying academia too close to practice is inevitably doomed to failure. The role and purpose of the universities should never be to teach practitioners how to do their job better, but how to think about their work better. Public relations scholarship has too often gone down the path of following instrumental rationality and strategic interests of practice only to find itself offering little more than common sense knowledge (with a few years’ delay) and falling short in producing more boldly theoretically-driven work. There is a serious concern that if scholars do not step up their game, practitioners will start looking for explanations of communication phenomena elsewhere. There is a need for a greater engagement with practice, but with a healthy distance.

Three decades of public relations are certainly a reason to celebrate immense growth, diversity and advancement of public relations in academia, yet come with a bitter taste of fear that public relations education might be in a gradual decline. As a discipline in transformation concerned with phenomena of a central relevance to society, we will have to play our cards right to steer the discipline into a bright future.

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