The Practical Importance of Theory

Unknown-1Yesterday the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), an organization of professors in various communication fields including advertising and public relations, adopted a resolution that educators should “forge relationships between educators and media professionals.”

I heartily endorse the notion, partly because that’s what my colleagues and I in the Grand Valley State University Advertising and Public Relations program have long done. In fact, our many adjunct professors come from industry every day, and all of us who are full-time and tenure-track professors have experience in the field and even consult still today. We also remain engaged through our active involvement in associations and organizations that mix academics and professionals, including PRSA, AAF, the Institute for Public Relations, and the Arthur W. Page Society.

This effort recognizes the fact that academics can still learn much from professionals in the trenches, that the field is in constant change, and that we need to connect our students to their future colleagues and employers. In other words, we need to connect theory to practice.

But as we say in PR, any relationship should be mutual, or two-way. And so this professor-professional relationship should involve mutual learning, and that should include professionals having a healthy respect for and understanding of theory.

I’ve been in numerous conversations in person and online where a professional will poo-poo theory or put the word “theory” in quotes as a way of expressing their disdain for theory. What’s ironic is they then hold forth their own….theory, without realizing it. Professionals believe they have “experienced” something and that trumps theory. But theory is often based on multiple experiences, not a single example.

Types of theories are critical, based on reason; normative, proposing what ought to be; or empirical, based on solid, replicable and generalizable evidence that meets scientific standards well beyond one person’s personal experience.

A theory, properly understood, is an explanation. In advertising and public relations, as social sciences, theories explain and predict human behavior.

Much professional research is only descriptive in nature–valuable, but not useful as a generalized and reliable prediction. In other words, there are numbers and percentages of responses to key questions. The academic research that over time produces theory is based on large scale, repeatable cases in the real world. Professional research most often provides the “what,” whereas scientific research that leads to theory provides the “why.” This is its practical value.

At the end of the day, professionals and their experience provide validity (an accurate reflection of reality) while professors and their research and theory provide reliability (consistency and generalizable to the larger population).

Academics have long acknowledged the need for both validity and reliability (practice and theory). It is time for professionals to come to the same conclusion and apply theory to their practice.

I may some day write a book about practical PR theory for use by professionals. It would offer explanations of various media, persuasion, attitude, behavioral and other categories of theory and give their corresponding applications.

Til then, look for the occasional blog post espousing the value of a particular journal article or theory. I would hope professionals in the trenches have as much respect for theory as we academics do for their practice.

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