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.

PR Professor-Practitioner Relationships Need Mutual Understanding

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.