Bridging the research practice gap

What the PR world needs now is……to take some lessons from agricultural extension practices. The suggestion was made by Dr Peter Sandman, the renowned risk communication expert, in a discussion with the blog and Tony Jaques of crisis and issues management renown.

Agricultural extension work has been crucial to programs such as the Green Revolution which helped transform crop yields throughout the world. Australia has been a leader in the field and Frank MacDougall, who worked for the Dried Fruits Board, then the Empire Marketing Board, advised President Franklin D Roosevelt, and finally worked for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, was not only a pioneer of PR in Australia but also a pioneer in agricultural extension and social marketing. Basically agricultural extension involves taking the products of scientific research and new knowledge and applying them to agricultural practice through farmer education. It is interdisciplinary and draws on all sorts of theoretical knowledge from seeds and genetics to soil chemistry. MacDougall did this under the banner of “marrying health and agriculture”. The blog and Mark Sheehan mention him and his role in Australian PR history in a paper, The impact of divergent historical and cultural factors on convergence in global communication practice, in Asia Pacific public relations journal, vol. 14, no. 1&2, pp. 33-49.

Peter Sandman made the point about the relevance of agricultural extension to PR in a more general discussion about academic research and writing and the problem of drawing on the research to improve practice. Part of the problem is that some academic writing is impenetrable hiding things of little significance while other examples of the genre are also impenetrable while obscuring things of immense significance.

There have always been practitioners who have benefitted from translating theoretical research findings into practice. The late Pat Jackson from the US was a prime example. Increasingly some practitioners are looking at interdisciplinary learnings from network analysis, social sciences such as behavioural psychology and other fields. The blog wrote a paper on this after participating in a review of the RMIT PR course. It can be found on this website at  But a look at most PR conference programs, seminars and what not indicates that much of the material is practical and theory free – or at least free of any theory other than some glib sloganeering about ideas masquerading as theory but more akin to marketing. Some practitioners are also openly contemptuous of academics and are always complaining about graduates of PR courses even though recent graduates are undoubtedly much better qualified than the blog’s generation was when it went straight from journalism to PR.

Peter Sandman also points out, however, that other practitioners have absorbed some social science knowledge, for instance about Kahneman and behavioural psychology and its implications for how people actually think, from popularisations. And in essence that’s what agricultural extension workers do – take the research, repackage it in terms which are relevant and comprehensible to farmers and educate them about how to apply it in practice and measure the results. Most universities might have more impact if they sacked one or two administrators and used the money saved to employ people who read all the research, evaluate it and then communicate its relevance and importance to practitioners. PR academics, who traditionally have close links to the industry could, with more resources, pursue the process much more systematically and substantially than they do now. Who knows, taking the approach Peter recommends, we might reduce the bulls..t we see in the industry and replace it with some immensely productive modern fertiliser?

In the meantime the blog promised Peter, who was back off to the US after three weeks of courses in Australia and New Zealand, that it would send him a copy of the Australian novelist, Carrie Tiffany’s, wonderful book Everyman’s Rules for scientific living about the 1930s government information program bringing expertise about better farming to rural Australia.

And speaking of books, Tony Jaques’ new book which will be out in a couple of weeks. More details are available at . It’s called Issue and Crisis Management: Exploring Issues, Crises, Risk and Reputation and the Oxford blurb says of it: “The intersection of issues and crises management with risk and reputation is one of the most dynamic and challenging areas of professional communication. Written by one of Australia’s leading experts in issue and crisis management, this book introduces and examines each of these elements, and explores their relationship as an integrated model within the broader contexts of public relations, communication and management. It provides comprehensive analysis and discussion of theoretical perspectives and current field research, and introduces industry examples of best practice. Issue and Crisis Management equips students and practitioners with key knowledge and skills to manage the communication process within organisations, and inform strategic responses to issues and crises.” The book features case studies which connect theory and practice; the role of social media; and a fully-worked example of a detailed issue management plan.