The state of public relations education

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

End of the PieR show? Bournemouth seafront @claudiahbarnett
End of the PieR show? Bournemouth seafront @claudiahbarnett

The UK”s longest-established BA degree course in public relations will no longer be recruiting from this autumn.

Since the early 1990s, Bournemouth has been a pioneer of public relations education in the UK and its well-regarded course has produced many high-achieving graduates, several milestone publications, and the distinctive International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC).

It’s not an end to all of this. Courses do not close overnight: it will take several years for those who started last year to complete their programme of study. And Bournemouth colleagues are keen to point out that public relations will continue to be offered as an option within a broader marketing communication degree. Dates have already been announced for IHPRC 2019.

Nor is Bournemouth alone. Recruitment onto public relations degree courses has been declining for several years, certainly outside London. All public relations educators face the challenge of asserting and defending their identity alongside journalism (if in a media school) or alongside marketing and human resources / organisational behaviour (if in a business school). These struggles will only increase and become more pressing with integration and convergence.

Yet this is an important development and one that should concern the CIPR, in particular.

Public relations continues to grow as an industry, and there’s an insatiable appetite for graduates. It seems hard to explain the enduring popularity of journalism degree courses among students (these are still recruiting, and I’ve noticed many vacancies for academics and educators this summer) when the traditional route into journalism via local newspapers and trade publications is closing down and salaries remain low. There are indeed plenty of opportunities for journalism graduates – but most seem to end up in public relations or content marketing roles.

So why not accept that public relations is a part of marketing communication (as Bournemouth seems to have concluded)? This is why I said it should concern the CIPR in particular. It’s the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, a distinct body from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. If public relations is (only) a part of marketing, then why the need for a distinctive professional association?

It should also concern the CIPR because universities play a part in the professional project. Industries can flourish with appropriate training courses, but it’s a foundational principle of professions that they should have a body of knowledge that professionals need to master.

That body of knowledge arises from academic (as well as industry) research; it’s tested and challenged through academic approaches and presented through journal articles, books and conference papers. It is a part of the syllabus for CIPR professional qualifications and Chartered Practitioner status.

I have written a chapter for the forthcoming CIPR Platinum publication marking 70 years since the then Institute of Public Relations was established in 1948. My chapter outlined the distinctive contribution of UK public relations scholars over the past three decades and I named Bournemouth alongside Leeds Beckett and Stirling as the main centres of public relations education and scholarship during this period.

This not-yet-published chapter already looks dated, though it stands as an historical reflection.

If public relations education at universities is no longer in good health, this has serious implications for the PR professional project and for the main professional body.

What of the PRCA? It recently changed its name, though the first two letters still stand for Public Relations (the full name is now the Public Relations and Communications Association).

The PRCA is also keen to build relationships with universities and academics. But it is even more focused on promoting PR apprenticeships as a debt-free way for young people to gain experience and training. The PRCA also offers training courses and qualifications and now seems to be putting new energy into continuing professional development (CPD).

When you look at the totality of public relations education from apprenticeships through university (BA, MA / MSc) to professional qualifications such as the CIPR Professional PR Certificate and Diploma and include events and courses that lead to CPD and on to Chartered Practitioner status, then the picture looks much more healthy. There’s a strong appetite for public relations education.

There’s an opportunity – and a continual need to explain about public relations that’s at the heart of our purpose at PR Place. Read these thoughts from Greenwich PR student Ellie Tyrrell and you can sense the excitement and opportunity but the constant challenge to understand and explain her chosen course:

‘I have found Public Relations to be a ruthless field and one that is hard to initially understand. In my first year of University I found explaining the course to friends difficult; I didn’t quite get it myself.’

The loss of the BA Public Relations course at Bournemouth plus the struggle to recruit onto other public relations degree courses is worrying. I ended my Platinum chapter by asserting that this has been a golden age for public relations scholarship in Britain. I was referring to the previous generation of scholars who had all previously worked in practice (and exemplified by Professor Tom Watson, once a prominent public relations consultant, who has now retired from Bournemouth University). There will be looser ties in future between scholars and practitioners, I fear.

But my comments now can be read as an observation on the golden age of public relations education in universities which has had a proud past, but seems to face an uncertain future.