Posted by an Honored Guest
Ya know... we loooove controversy. Better yet, we're totally bowled over when one of our illustrious PR leaders demonstrates the right stuff and takes a stand. And you know we're especially fond of the potential of generating a little heat. Well, here's alotta heat.
It is our distinct pleasure today to have with us Dr. Donald K. Wright, Professor of Public Relations in the College of Communication at Boston University. Don recently made a few comments that have raised more than a few ears and eyebrows.
By way of background, Dr. Wright was recently given the 2007 Distinguished Service Award by the elite Arthur W. Page Society. BIG STUFF! Professor Wright is one of a small number of full-time educators who hold membership in the Page Society. Dr. Wright is the first full-time educator to receive the Award and only the second to become an honorary member.
Here's where it gets interesting. While accepting the award, Dr. Wright made a few remarks specifically about the awful state of PR education today. Yikes! Gutzy! And now it's got everybody buzzin'.
Anyway, we got the chance to sit down with Professor Wright. Without further ado...
CHAPEL: “First, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Congratulations on your award.
Let me get right to it: word is you were somewhat critical of PR practitioners in your acceptance remarks. One online report claims you, 'rapped the PR industry for failure to provide support for PR education.' Care to comment?”
WRIGHT: “Thanks for the kind words. This is a huge honor and I’m still trying to figure out how to react to it.
With regard to the quote, as sometimes happens in the news business, I don’t think the article you reference does justice to what I said. Although I mentioned it’s unfortunate many practitioners couldn’t care less about public relations research or education, I did praise those who do support us and also acknowledged support from organizations such as the Page Society, the Institute for Public Relations and PRSA.”
CHAPEL: “You did assert that there are serious problems in public relations education. What exactly and who's at fault?”
WRIGHT: “Certainly we shouldn’t absolve practitioners of all blame, but I think the major culprits are universities and public relations educators. As I pointed out in the remarks, many universities make huge financial profits teaching our subject but don’t return a fair amount of those profits to the public relations sequence or department. We call this “cash cow” university management – the practice of making lots of money off of one academic discipline and then using the bulk of those funds to pay for fields of study that don’t attract many majors.”
CHAPEL: “Does this happen frequently?”
WRIGHT: “Much more frequently than it should. Nobody in public relations education thinks universities should shut down philosophy or history departments because they might not attract an abundance of majors but at the same time we do believe there should be a more appropriate dispersion of the resources universities get from the large numbers of students majoring in public relations.”
CHAPEL: “How many US institutions teach public relations? How many students are studying the subject?”
WRIGHT: “Records suggest there are about 35,000 students majoring in public relations at US journalism or communication schools. A study conducted by Don Stacks of the University of Miami, Judy VanSlyke Turk of Virginia Commonwealth University and Carl Botan of George Mason University suggests public relations is taught at nearly 700 US colleges or universities.”
CHAPEL: “What’s the overall quality of a PR education today?”
WRIGHT: “That’s a huge question and it’s one I think universities and public relations educators should try to answer. Some universities do a good job in this area but others do not. Given the ‘cash cow’ mentality too many universities started teaching public relations without adequate faculty and other necessary budgets. You get what you pay for in education.”
CHAPEL: “Apparently, among your remarks at the Page conference was that graduates of public relations degree programs account for a dismal 10% to 15% of recent hires within the nation’s major public relations firms and that most of the time these agencies, and major corporations, favor graduates of liberal arts, business and other academic disciplines instead of graduates of public relations degree programs. Not good. Care to comment further?”
WRIGHT: “Those percentage figures come out of research I conducted within the past year with assistance from Michelle Hinson of the Institute for Public Relations, Rob Flaherty of Ketchum and Pat Ford of Burson-Marsteller. I realize PR Week claims this number is closer to 50% or 60%. Even if they’re right we should seriously question why this situation exists.”
CHAPEL: “Why do you think it does?”
WRIGHT: “It certainly reflects the reality that there are some problems in public relations education. Let’s fact it, if public relations was excellent; if the faculty were highly qualified in both theory and practice; and, if the curriculum contained the kind of up-to-date, cutting-edge, state-of-the-art knowledge found in disciplines such as accounting, engineering, law medicine, nursing, and so forth; employers with entry-level positions would fight over public relations graduates in a manner similar to what happens in other occupations. And, it would be the exception rather than the rule to have graduates from other academic disciplines hired for entry-level positions in our field.”
CHAPEL: “What are some of the other problems you see in public relations education?”
WRIGHT: “Several things. We’ve sat back and let the curriculum at some schools evolve into something more theoretical than practical. We’ve looked the other way when some universities have hired less than competent professors. We’ve tolerated, hired, tenured and promoted those whose research agendas don’t focus on information practitioners want or need. Far too many universities have not revised course materials to accommodate the reality that public relations is in the midst of a revolution that evolves new audiences, new channels, new kinds of content and new measurements. And, as Frank Kalupa of James Madison University has pointed out, we have continued to tolerate keeping public relations education in journalism schools – a model that might have worked 50 years ago but it not always effective today.”
CHAPEL: “When someone rates the top business, medical or even journalism schools in the nation the lists usually contain mainly names of major universities. However, rankings of the top places to study public relations contain a mixture of large, well-known schools plus some smaller, regional institutions. Why is that?”
WRIGHT: “I think this has happened for several reasons. There are very few universities who were noted for teaching public relations 50 years ago who also are high on the national radar screen today. Perhaps I’m biased, but I would list Boston University as one of those places since it has been teaching public relations continuously and effectively for 60 years. Northwestern University, the University of Southern California and Syracuse University have been noted for excellence in public relations education for many decades and other major schools such as Brigham Young University, the University of Florida, the University of Maryland and the University of Miami (Florida) certainly have developed excellent public relations education programs in recent decades. The emergence of good public relations education at regional institutions often happened because some, including me, took the easy way out and developed good programs at lesser-known institutions rather than fight back when top-ranked journalism schools showed blatant professional prejudice against what we do.”
CHAPEL: “It sounds as though individual professors might be more significant to a good PR education than the universities themselves.”
WRIGHT: "Absolutely. You can trace the beginning of excellence in public relations education at San Diego State University to the arrival of Glenn Broom there about 30 years ago. The same thing could be said about San Jose State University and Dennis Wilcox, Ball State University and Mel Sharpe, the University of Northern Iowa and Dean Kruckeberg, Virginia Commonwealth University and Judy VanSlyke Turk, plus a few other people and schools.
Some of us have been pointing this out for years. One of the really sad things about public relations education is nationally and internationally noted faculty members frequently are not replaced when they retire or move on to other opportunities. When I first started teaching public relations 30 years ago at the University of Texas most people ranked Wisconsin (because it had Scott Cutlip), Ohio State (due to the presence of Walt Seifert) and Texas (because of Alan Scott) as three of the top ten places to study public relations. Not one of those schools would make anyone’s top ten list today.”
CHAPEL: “Certainly sounds challenging. How does the future look? Is there any chance the situation will improve?”
WRIGHT: “Several universities are working diligently to change things. Some schools do have major agencies and corporations fighting over our top graduates. Some places are taking steps to erase some issues related to the lack of succession planning. The University of Maryland and Boston University both have hired senior-level full professors in recent years to replace well-known faculty who were retiring. Both BYU and Miami have established a strong record of hiring noted mid-level faculty. And, although hires have taken place at a more junior, assistant professor level, some other schools such as Ball State and San Diego State have made significant appointments to accommodate for retirements. There certainly are significant pockets of excellence in public relations education. Some of the 700 US universities teaching our field do a very good job. The problem is with those schools who lack the same commitment to educational quality.”
CHAPEL: “In your Page Society remarks you also criticized academic accreditation in public relations and said it had ‘evolved into a journalism-dominated joke.’ Can you explain that please?”
WRIGHT: “In addition to institutional accreditation that all respected universities have attained there are opportunities for professional accreditation in certain fields, such as business, law, etc. The federal Department of Education has dictated that public relations should be part of accreditation in journalism and any programs seeking this status must deal with the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC). Up until about 15 or 20 years ago, ACEJMC used to accredit specific programs within journalism and communication schools. For example, one university might be accredited in print journalism and advertising but not in broadcasting or public relations. Another school might be accredited in print and public relations but nothing else. When that was the case there were about 25 US universities specifically accredited in public relations. This was good for our field and for consumers, prospective employers, etc., seeking information about the best places to study public relations. However, ACEJMC has foolishly moved to what they call ‘unit accreditation’ whereby the entire journalism or communication school gets accredited regardless of whether or not all of its specific programs are worthy. I think this is inappropriate and I believe it has led to considerable confusion. In my opinion, some ACEJMC accredited programs do not do a good job of teaching public relations and some of the better public relations programs are not ACEJMC accredited.”
CHAPEL: “Which of the ‘better’ programs are not ACEJMC accredited?”
WRIGHT: “Boston University, Northwestern University and a few other very good programs. I can’t speak for the other schools and I can’t speak for my BU colleagues, but I certainly would not recommend BU pursue ACEJMC accreditation until they go back to actually accrediting public relations, and other specific, programs or sequences.”
CHAPEL: “Does not being ACEJMC accredited hurt the reputation of public relations education at BU?”
WRIGHT: “No. Public relations isn’t the only academic discipline where some of the leading programs are not accredited. For example, most people rank the Harvard University Business School as one of the best in the world, but the HBS is not accredited by the business school accreditation agency. BU has many successful graduates working at the highest levels of public relations in the US and throughout the world. Edward L. Bernays and Harold Burson, neither of whom have degrees from BU, have been major supporters of our program. All of Eddie’s papers are in one of our libraries and Harold and his friends have funded an endowed faculty chair. I think the reputation of public relations education at Boston University is doing just fine without ACEJMC accreditation.”
CHAPEL: “Any final comments?”
WRIGHT: “Only that I think universities and public relations educators have politely ignored the education things we’ve talked about in this interview for too many years. If similar problems existed in medical education, or in engineering, nursing or law schools, people (both educators and practitioners) in those fields would take action. I think we should too.”
CHAPEL: “Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us professor. Again, congratulations.”
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This is a very interesting interview - thank you. In the UK we have some similar issues with regard to the increasing number of Universities offering PR and related degree topics, and also ensuring there is a strong calibre of people qualified to teach (who can bring practical and academic knowledge).
The degree courses are not necessarily located in journalism schools and also tend to have a wider faculty underpinning reputation. Although there are still debates about the value of specialist PR degrees, I believe most UK PR graduates do go onto work in the profession. They still face competition from those with other types of degrees though.
FYI, accreditation of PR degree courses is generally undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, but this is not mandated by government.
I believe we are seeing greater integration of new media and other contemporary developments in the practice of PR within the skills being taught to undergraduates and postgraduates within Universities. This also applies to those practitioners opting for the professional CIPR qualifications. What we need is greater recognition of those recruiting PR practitioners of the benefits of such specialist knowledge.
There is still a long way to go in respect of improving the quality of PR practitioners, many of whom do not even recognise a need to have any specific knowledge or skills. There is also an issue in terms of gaining recognition and adequate funding for public relations within the University sector in the UK.
We should also remember PR education is developing within Universities globally and this provides a wider base of academic and practitioner knowledge and capabilities. I believe this will being to challenge the historical US-centred dominance of PR and maybe add an international dimension to the debate called for by Dr Wright.
I'm surprised by such tame questions. We all know Universities may NOT include appearance or morality in their entrance requirements, while most PR agencies do.
I'm in Professor Wright's corporate communication class here at BU. We're lucky to have the distinguished and energized faculty that we do here, and it's wonderful to see PR thought leaders champion public relations education. My classmates and I are blessed.
My take: I don't really know where all the bullshit in this industry comes from or who teaches it, but it certainly isn't coming out of BU or Professor Wright's classes.
You know, Strumpette, I like you. You’re like a younger, sluttier Maureen Dowd.
But you didn’t publish my comment about the interview with Donald Wright.
There were only two comments, so it’s hardly likely that the subject was exhausted.
PR education is a rotting edifice that should be blown up and rebuilt on a much better foundation, with more balance between theory and practice, practitioners and researchers.