Tucked away on 1,600 picturesque acres in Bethlehem, PA, less than two hours from New York City and Philadelphia, rests a small, private liberal arts college. While exuding a serene innocence, Lehigh University is not always so quiet. Just wander into the journalism department, find Carole Gorney and ask for her thoughts on PR education. Then get your pencil ready - class is in session.
Tucked away on 1,600 picturesque acres in Bethlehem, PA, less than
two hours from New York City and Philadelphia, rests a small, private
liberal arts college. While exuding a serene innocence, Lehigh
University is not always so quiet. Just wander into the journalism
department, find Carole Gorney and ask for her thoughts on PR education.
Then get your pencil ready - class is in session.
Gorney, co-recipient of the PRSA’s 1999 Outstanding Educator award, does
not mince words on the topic: ’The scrutiny and misperception of public
relations is a unique problem in academia that no other discipline
faces. No one challenges whether history, business or chemistry should
be studied. Yet we’ve had a faculty member formally condemn PR as ’a
discipline that teaches students to lie.’’
She continues: ’There’s a total misunderstanding that’s promulgated by
how PR is portrayed in the news, with stories of political spin, and in
the entertainment media. I’ve always been disturbed that the PR
character seems to be the joker, takes the brunt of the jokes or is just
plain dishonest. Did you see Spin City when they used a Thanksgiving
dinner to ’humanize the mayor’?’ She looks at her questioner with
complete exasperation, and one begins to understand just how tough it is
to teach PR in this ivory tower environment.
In spite of the perceptual hurdles, Gorney finds her program in growing
demand. In the past 18 months, the number of journalism majors declaring
PR as their concentration has risen from 19 to 52. But as a university
with an emphasis on small classes and close student-faculty interaction,
Lehigh has placed a cap on Gorney’s program. She remains the only
tenured professor in PR with no additional funding for adjunct
Gorney explains that in many colleges the budget for the college or
department is based on the number of FTE (full-time equivalent) students
to allot tuition revenue. PR students are included in the census, but
the specific program never gets its fair share of funds. At Lehigh,
there’s no way in the college of journalism to reallocate resources when
a program becomes popular. One solution is to move the PR program
outside of the journalism department, which the University of Maryland
did in late 1998.
Since arriving at Lehigh in 1982, Gorney has sought to establish PR as a
distinguished major, but she says the university has repeatedly dragged
its feet on the issue. ’Before I had tenure, I was told it wouldn’t be
politically correct to award major status (to the program). It could
create opposition among the faculty, which might reflect poorly on the
department. I tried again after I gained tenure and was told to wait
until I was promoted to full professor. They’ve now run out of excuses,
but I’m still waiting.’
Gorney contends that this frustration impacts the students even
’They’re so confused because they don’t know what to call themselves.
The latest description they identify is ’concentration majors’ of PR
Amy Walts, president of Lehigh’s PRSSA chapter, says, ’It’s hard for us
to be recognized as a serious major or concentration because we’re
buried under the journalism name in the course catalog. The new
concentration will lead to more introductory classes so more students
can get exposed to it. But there’s only one Professor Gorney and she
already advises every student and teaches all the classes.’ Walts says
that more students (63) have joined the PRSSA chapter than those who
have declared the concentration.
Since helping to organize it, Gorney has guided the chapter to become
one of the nation’s largest and most respected, winning numerous
But Gorney’s contributions to PR don’t end at the campus gates. She is a
frequent contributor to trade publications and has penned articles on PR
for USA Today Magazine, Forbes Media Critic, the New York State Bar
Journal and other publications.
Gorney won Fulbright scholarships in 1991 and 1997, and each time she
went to universities in China, which she has visited five times.
There she lectured on American business and media, and once submitted a
paper to the China International Public Relations Association entitled,
’Why China Needs Public Relations.’
Gorney earned her BA at the University of Albuquerque and immediately
pursued her graduate degree in radio, television and broadcast writing
from Northwestern University. From there she returned to Albuquerque to
join the local ABC affiliate and was promoted from a reporter to
producer on her way to becoming an anchor.
Her life took an unexpected turn in 1968 when she was ’literally hired
away’ to work for the New Mexico Department of Hospitals & Institutions
as its director of public affairs. Gorney credits this experience as her
indoctrination into PR. She did a stint managing labor relations for one
of the hospitals and spent two years as the administrator of a federal
de-institutionalization program for the developmentally disabled. Gorney
hired a team of therapists to visit small communities statewide to
provide various social services.
In the interim, she freelanced as a writer, photographer and PR pro
until 1976, when she went to Israel for a year to work on a kibbutz. ’It
was an investigative reporting trip to see for myself the political and
social problems, the division among the sects and to examine my
Gorney then began her academic career at her alma mater by heading the
department of PR, marketing and alumni affairs. By 1982 she was ready
for a bigger challenge, and wanted to be ’closer to an ocean rather than
the desert.’ She pursued an opening for a teaching position at Lehigh
University and embarked upon her new career as an outspoken PR
Gorney has witnessed many changes in PR education over the years. ’We
have evolved from when a journalism degree was sufficient. Students now
have a menu of choices among publicity, issues management, crisis
communications and so forth. But we still have a long way to go. There
needs to be more emphasis on business, marketing, government policy and
specialty practices. In fact, PR is making its way out of journalism
programs into the colleges of business or arts and sciences,’ she
As long as Carole Gorney is among those educators working to advance the
PR discipline, it’s a safe bet that these changes will be realized.
But they won’t come quietly.
CAROLE GORNEY - Public relations professor Lehigh University
1968: Director of public affairs, New Mexico Dept. of Hospitals &
1974: Program administrator, Los Lunas Hospital & Training School,
1979: Head of PR, marketing and alumni affairs, University of
1982: Joins faculty at Lehigh University
1996: Full professor, Lehigh University.