Where should public relations education be headed? Should fledgling practitioners be focusing on skills learned in schools of journalism or mass communication? Or is the future of the profession best served by stressing marketing, advertising and management principles taught in business schools?
The answer is probably a healthy mix of both. But there's no question that there's a push within the profession to make public relations a household word in college business schools. The thinking is that exposing public relations students to both the communications and business aspects of the field will speed the profession's recognition as an indispensable management function. Another goal of teaching public relations in business schools is to increase the number of students who are exposed to public relations, thus educating future CEOs, executives and managers about how public relations can positively impact the bottom line.
One educator who comes down firmly on the side of teaching public relations in a business school setting is Elizabeth Tidwell, APR, associate professor of marketing at Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, MI. Tidwell chose to teach at Ferris precisely because the undergraduate public relations program is housed in the business school. The multidisciplinary curriculum requires students to take courses in public relations, journalism, marketing, advertising and management. Not many other public relations programs can make such a claim.
Professors and administrators at DePaul University in Chicago also see the benefit of treating public relations as a business management discipline, as opposed to simply a communications function. This summer the university's business school offered a pilot course in public relations at the MBA level. "We want business majors to have respect for and understanding of public relations," said Betsy Ann Plank, Fellow, PRSA, who helped set up DePaul's MBA course.
Pat Jackson, Fellow, PRSA, a senior counsel at Jackson, Jackson & Wagner, a consulting firm in Exeter, NH, who also serves as the chairman of an advisory task force charged with developing the public relations curriculum at Ferris State, believes that public relations students need to take courses in finance, organizational behavior and marketing. He believes putting public relations in the business school environment will "pull the profession forward."
Others in the academic world do not necessarily agree. Historically, public relations has been part of journalism schools, many professors noted, making it unrealistic to think of weaving the discipline into the business schools. "And not that many business schools are interested in teaching public relations anyway," said James Grunig, professor of public relations in the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Some educators feel strongly that public relations fits best in a journalism and mass communications setting. "You simply don't find the writing courses, message strategy or message production courses elsewhere," said Judy Van Slyke Turk, Ph.D., Fellow, PRSA, dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of South Carolina, and PRSA's 1992 Educator of the Year.
David J. Pincus, APR, a communications professor at California State University at Fullerton who has taught in both the communication and business environment, has mixed feelings about where public relations fits best. "If you look at most PR texts, they are driven by communications philosophies," he said. "That's a terrible weakness and shows a lack of understanding of where it fits in a business context. It puts the public relations students at a disadvantage with people who have decision-making authority."
The debate over where public relations should be taught is an old issue, Pincus added. "In the business school it (public relations) would be a new kid on the block and would have to fight an uphill battle," he said. …