Next steps in PR education: Reflections on the RMIT PR education reviews

Delivered at the Public Relations Institute of Australia National Conference 2005 Academic Forum, 23 October 2005

Having started in PR practice in 1966 I am now coming up to 40 years in the industry. The past 10 years of that have seen an increasing involvement in PR education – both from the teaching and administrative viewpoints.

Specifically I have been involved in various ways in three major reviews of RMIT PR education – which, I hope, have given me some insights into the interactions between practice and education which I would like to discuss today.

The first review was in 2000 when I was one of three members (the others being Dr Jon White and Geoff Kelly) who were asked to look at the RMIT course at a time when, to put it politely, there was an air of crisis around the place. In retrospect, the quaintest thing about the review was that the biggest issue for nearly everyone in industry with whom we consulted was whether the PR course should be located in the business or the social sciences faculty.

We found in that review that “the public relations tertiary sector has responded to public relations industry requirements opportunistically over the past few years.”

While the review was not implemented it did inform a subsequent review initiated in 2002 by the RMIT School which focused on developing a PR education which provided both competencies and a conceptual framework; provided students with research, analytical and interdisciplinary skills; and prepared students for life-long careers in a global workforce.

In 2003, coming out of that process, I formulated and published some hypotheses about PR education. These were that:

  1. While PR education and training have been primarily market-driven, descriptive and atheoretical there were now opportunities to develop new approaches to PR practice and theory.
  2. Such approaches will be derived from the recognition that PR is an activity which functions at the interface between best practice professional activity and all those disciplines which provide insights into human behaviours and attitudes.
  3. The most profound insights into public relations theory will most probably evolve from analyzing the interactions between professional practice – industry competencies – and the societal context which professional practice both operates within and influences, thereby enabling us to develop an epistemology of public relations.
  4. The range and complexity of these considerations require us to situate public relations courses within a context that transcends the boundaries imposed by existing organizational structures and which creates new opportunities for interdisciplinary approaches in undergraduate and post-graduate studies, practice and life-long learning education and training.

How do these reviews and hypotheses stand in the light of yet more change in the tertiary sector?

It strikes me that the Dawkins/Nelson reviews and changes have created a market opportunity for PR education, although that opportunity is not being fully exploited because of various changes within the structure of universities prompted by Dawkins and Nelson.

In saying this I am not defending the Dawkins-Nelson changes. The Coalition government’s cutbacks, VSU, industrial relations policies and Stalinist micro-management of the sector are to be deplored. However, the concept of encouraging diversity in tertiary education is a different matter – particularly if some universities can seize the opportunity to aspire to be first rate centres of applied learning rather than third rate examples of traditional research universities.

However, so far the impact of Dawkins and Nelson has not been the creation of more diversity among institutions but rather a growth of managerialism which misuses resources, inflates senior management salaries, deprives customer-facing staff (us) of resources and leads to constant re-organisations which seem to be more about process than outcomes.

Following the two previous reviews mentioned above the RMIT School of Applied Communications has undergone a third review, in July 2005, as part of RMIT’s organizational-wide review system.

There are some things that are useful in the review – just as there is always some usefulness in research which confirms the seemingly obvious. But some of us felt a little surprised that most of its recommendations urged us to undertake a series of actions which the last review had been undertaken to make possible, and which we were in the process of implementing.

There is an irony in this. For many years I have been arguing with my business colleagues that what goes on in universities is not only as important, but as real, as what goes on in offices in corporations.

The various reviews of PR recognized that we had serious problems in many areas and sought to address them. The School staff were frank about the problems and innovative in how they responded to them, just what you would expect in a well-run company.

When the university came to review them, quite frankly, I thought we might get some credit for how far we had come and some suggestions about what the university might do to help fulfill the potential and  exploit the opportunities.

Instead we got what I can only describe as vacuous, superficial and supercilious.

Certainly, in prose worthy of Don Watson’s Death Sentence, we got suggestions about the need for more emphasis on the need for inter-disciplinary approaches; more emphasis on post-graduate research and additional opportunities for staff research; and, development of a professoriate.

Yet these are all exactly what the 2002 review sought to do. It sought to explore new inter-disciplinary opportunities between PR, advertising, journalism, media studies, business and the social sciences as well as creating new opportunities for inter-disciplinary post-graduate study, an alternative to MBAs for senior communication professionals and professional doctorates. In short – to promote praxis.

All in all the July 2005 review gave us three commendations, made 17 recommendations for the school, two recommendations for the portfolio and one for the university.

What we didn’t get was one substantive offer for more resources to help us implement the vision agreed upon by staff, industry and other stakeholders.

This is particularly galling given that, arguably,  that the school’s biggest single problem is the difficulty of making a surplus on its operations – or indeed breaking even – in the face of the size of university overheads.

For instance, under the RMIT governance and service guidelines overheads represent 95% of the total projected 2005 school revenue from offshore operations. Moreover, as the number of students grows in this area – in other words as the school gets more successful – the loss on operations gets worse. The Review did recommend that the university look at this situation in the light of its “international strategic priorities.”

This reminds me of a friend of mine who works for a global company who once told me that whenever any in his company mentioned “strategic”, “China” and/or “Asia” in the one sentence he assumed the company was about to lose a billion dollars.

In its core domestic operations the school makes a gross operating margin of more than 80% – something I would have liked to achieve when I was running my own business. In this case, after the imposition of university overheads, the School makes a loss. Unfortunately there was no recommendation on this aspect of overheads beyond suggesting that we make better use of the central systems.

Appearing before the panel undertaking the review, headed by the Chancellor,  I said that given such a situation in any organization it could be expected that a review, along with any recommendations for improving the operations of the organization, would also want to look at what could be done about the overheads.

Huge head office costs – and layers of management – have been effectively eliminated or stripped bare in private sector organizations. Yet it seems that in universities changes designed to make them more business-like have instead made them more bureaucratic and costly to administer. While I don’t think Bologna and Paris of the 12th century are necessarily models for modern universities (although all that theological study might be useful to understand both the US and its enemies) their collegial structures do seem to be more cost effective than our more modern ones do.

Now these views are my personal ones as a practitioner, educator and someone who has tried to bridge industry and the educational sectors. They are not the views of RMIT.

But I think our experience of reviews at RMIT suggest some lessons. The most important one of which is that increasing emphasis on diversity in tertiary education opens up new market opportunities for disciplines, such as ours, which can bring together critical theory, inter-disciplinary study and practical industry preparation.

However, it appears that the major barriers to exploiting those opportunities are not the Dawkins and the Nelsons but those within our organizations who encourage managerialism and discourage the sort of management initiative which can produce meaningful change.