Theory vs. practice? The correct answer is both for PR education

As I write this, thousands of faculty members in schools of communication, journalism, and related disciplines all across the country are beginning a new academic year. While estimates vary, it is safe to say that more than 50,000 - perhaps as many as 75,000 - students of communication, journalism, PR, and similar majors are cutting the tags off their new backpacks, scuffing up their flip-flops, and saying goodbye to their summer friends as they head back to campus.

As I write this, thousands of faculty members in schools of communication, journalism, and related disciplines all across the country are beginning a new academic year. While estimates vary, it is safe to say that more than 50,000 – perhaps as many as 75,000 – students of communication, journalism, PR, and similar majors are cutting the tags off their new backpacks, scuffing up their flip-flops, and saying goodbye to their summer friends as they head back to campus.

Facing students and faculty alike is one of the great tug of war matches in academia. On one end of the rope is a gaggle of esteemed theoreticians, appropriately robed and hooded in academic regalia. At the other end is a swarm of practitioners, shunning robes for open-collared shirts and understated sport coats, the younger ones in shorts and polo shirts.

For the long-term benefit of their students, the best outcome of this clash would be for the deans to declare a draw. Students exposed during their academic years to both the science of the profession and the art with which it is practiced will ultimately be best prepared.

Though I never studied PR in school – I was an English major – I have, over the past few years, gained an enormous respect for those who have articulated the theoretical framework of what we do through disciplined research and inspired writing. From Aristotle to Grunig, students can draw upon a vast body of knowledge to help them understand and explain the actions of individuals, corporations, and organizations in the practice of communication.

Some leaders in the profession are dismissive of academic theory. Yet, the application of research-based theory can help PR be more accepted as a knowledge-driven profession, rather than one based solely on instinct, opinion, gut-feel, or trial and error.

Just as important, when these theories are applied to the realities of day-to-day practice, they gain life, relevance, and credibility. Students often have trouble seeing the ways in which the communications profession can have a direct impact on the organizations it serves. They often struggle, for example, with the concept of strategy because so much of how our profession is portrayed in popular culture is highly tactical.

It is essential that students in the classroom experience a balance between conceptual theories and practical realities. Many professors understand the importance of illustrating theory through actual cases. The library of case studies that demonstrate the application of theories is growing and the Internet has made this type of resource far timelier.

Both academics and practitioners will continue to debate the relative merits of theory and practice. Placing value on the richness of each will provide a more meaningful educational experience for students, who all too
soon will be engaged in tugs of war of their own.

Tom Martin is an executive-in-residence, Department of Communication, the College of Charleston. He also serves as a senior counselor for Feldman & Partners. He can be reached at martintr@cofc.edu.

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