Whither/wither the PRIA and universities

There is much to be said about the Public Relations Institute of Australia – after all it is capable of being anomalous, anachronistic, irrelevant and from time to time very irritating.

The most irritating, for the blog at least, is the insistence of some of the leadership on talking about the industry as a profession. Quite evidently, while PR people can be professional, just like any other industry, it is not now nor has ever been a profession in the accepted sense of the word. Although a blog (non-PR) friend did once say there may be some point in the description – if only in the sense of the usage coined for the ‘oldest profession’.

The anomalous consideration stems from the long system of the PRIA accrediting university courses in public relations. In his PhD James Mahoney remarks that the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2013 that 20,700 people worked in public relations. Of that 20,700, according to the PRIA in 2009, its membership accounted for about 3,000 – 33% in consultancies, 25% in the corporate sector, 19% for State and Federal Government agencies, 12% in not-for-profits and 11% academics. Now those numbers are probably not a reflection of the real proportions of practitioners in each sector and might also be a combination of under and overestimates – lots of practitioners are probably not covered by the PR label; and, the blog is not sure what the latest PRIA membership numbers are as for some strange reason the PRIA didn’t table its annual report at the AGM in Hobart last year. We are told, by the PRIA, that they are going up but even given the PRIA’s 2009 estimate it represents less than 15% of the industry.

In the early days of the modern PR industry after World War II a few of the most progressive leaders worked hard to get universities to establish degrees in PR. At the time journalists, the then main source of PR practitioners, had generally learnt on the job or may have done a Diploma of Journalism. The first PR degrees, the blog thinks the RMIT one may have been the very first, were heavily weighted towards media relations and sat alongside media studies and journalism courses – normally though seen as the poor relation.

With the growth of PR degree courses the PRIA began an accreditation program of degree courses which continues today. Indeed, one of the main tasks of the newly-created PRIA Education Community Committee which will “further the profession of public relations and communications by ensuring relevant national education standards which maintain and enhance best practices.” It also provides (the PRIA Board presumably) “counsel and advice” regarding “PRIA Accreditation for Educational programs, including reviews of standards and expectations.”

Now the blog doesn’t know how many PR and communications students there are in Australia although the cohorts at RMIT in undergraduate and post-grad courses seem to get bigger every year. What it does know is that many academics teaching and researching in PR and communications are neither members of the PRIA nor particularly interested in what it gets up to. On a selection panel at RMIT last year, during a lunch break, the blog got engaged with a senior RMIT academic about the term PR, why she had changed the name of her post-grad course to communications and why the blog continued to say it had worked in PR. It didn’t get anywhere much except to confirm to the blog how irrelevant the term and the PRIA was to some academics.

Which gets back to the PRIA accreditation system. Modern universities are much different animals than what they were when the first PR courses were set up – not always for the best given the administrative hassles staff have to endure; the constant pressure on funding (after all you have to make savings to fund all those bureaucrats); and, the casualization of staffing through sessional teaching. But the PR and communications academic staff at universities are now much better qualified than they were in the past. There are more PhDs, lots of practitioners have made the shift to academia while simultaneously upgrading their qualifications and the quality of teaching itself is improving. No doubt the PRIA might suggest that’s due to them but it seems unlikely given the organisation’s recent track record.

But most importantly the market reality is that universities are competing for the sort of students who become 85% of the practitioners who are not PRIA members. More and more people working in the industry come from diverse backgrounds with qualifications in many different disciplines. Many of them do postgrad courses in PR and communications to get some specific industry skills but many others don’t bother. Indeed, very few very senior corporate communications people are PRIA members and most would be horrified to be thought of as part of the camp. They are more likely to attend an Australian Centre for Corporate Public Affairs function or course than a PRIA conference.

So what purpose does PRIA accreditation play in this environment? It is moot whether the PRIA accreditation means much to many prospective students. And is equally moot as to whether it is relevant in the modern educational world. Lawyers, doctors and accountants have onerous continuing professional development programs and real world capacity to enforce misbehaviour. They work closely with universities and the accreditation system is driven by statute. This sort of combination of enforcement and accreditation is as far removed from the PRIA and PR courses as the recently discovered source of gravitational waves.

So the question arises – is PRIA accreditation of courses any more relevant to the PR and communication industry than the PRIA is?

Meanwhile, on the anachronism front, it is interesting to note that the outgoing PRIA President is now talking about PR and communication and insisting that the organisation is not ‘anachronistic’.  Regular blog readers will recall that the then President made two reportedly very remarkable speeches at last year’s Hobart PRIA conference which, tragically, the blog missed.

Now the President has made some equally remarkable comments, reported on Mumbrella, to mark his retirement. As he said: “Meanwhile, I’m participating in PRIA’s reinvigorated whole of organisation approach to skilling-up the newcomers joining our broad-community, plus those keeping communicatively relevant. Even when we think we know everything, it turns out that life-long learning is a proven paradigm for staying alive.”