What have the scholars ever done for us?

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.

Photo @Korcomms
Photo @Korcomms

Professions have shared stories.

Over lunch at Lincoln’s Inn surrounded by distinguished lawyers, I noted a portrait of Sir Thomas More (St Thomas More to Catholics) on the wall. That’s some hero to inspire you if you’re a lawyer!

The Royal College of Physicians is based in a striking 1960s brutalist building set amongst the Regency terraces of Regents Park. Yet inside there are many signs of the medical profession’s 500 year history dating back to the reign of Henry VIII – the cause of More’s execution.

Shared stories, a sense of history, social purpose, a heroic narrative.

When the call went out for contributions to a collection of essays marking the CIPR’s 70th anniversary, I offered to tell the story of British public relations scholarship.

It’s partly a personal story. I joined the then IPR 20 years ago and have been a trainer and educator throughout that time. I thought it would be a distinctive story, but I see that I’m surrounded by academic colleagues in this publication.

Professor Anne Gregory tells the story of the achievement of the Royal Charter in 2005. Professor Tom Watson discusses the various narratives of public relations history. Dr Heather Yaxley writes about professional qualifications. Gareth Thompson tells the story of a 20th century hero of government comms, Sir Thomas Fife Clark. Dr Joyce Costello discusses how to prepare students for the workplace. Dr Jon White looks to the future; and Anne Gregory and Dr Johanna Fawkes discuss the global capabilities framework. Diane Green makes the case for media relations and Dr Liz Bridgen discusses diversity.

Management scholar Dr Cara Green has contributed to a chapter on public relations and the public good. Practitioner Toby Rowe calls for greater collaboration between academia and business.

The lawyers who still discuss Magna Carta and Habeus Corpus have a sense of history. Hospital doctors are still taught about Harvey and the circulation of blood while they consider whether leeches should be reintroduced to treat infections. They know that a sense of history is essential in their professions.

Public relations degrees in the UK are only 30 years young. Initially, the lecturers on the MA in Stirling or the BA degrees in Bournemouth and Leeds had to call on US textbooks or ‘how to’ books written by practitioners. But the past 20 years has seen a flowering of British perspectives, publications and conferences.

My chapter provides a very short overview of this, so here’s a summary of a summary.

We have been living through a golden age of British public relations scholarship. What’s more, those named above (plus Jacquie L’Etang, Danny MossRalph Tench and Lee Edwards among others) are scholars who have all worked as practitioners. The gap between practitioners and academics is not unbridgeable, and the interplay between the two is an essential part of the professional project.

I’m less optimistic for the future, but we were asked to reflect on the past 70 years, so that’s a discussion for another day.

For now, it’s enough to note that professions have noble histories related to their role as a force for public good. They have heroes and heroines. They call on science and scholarship as well as instinct, hard work and creativity.

In public relations, we can’t invoke any saints, but we do have Tallents*!

So, what have the academics ever done for us? Apart obviously from the Royal Charter, the critical perspectives, the historical research, the exploration of ethics and professionalism, the research into management, leadership and careers, and the educating of thousands of graduates.

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* Scott Anthony (2012) Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain: Sir Stephen Tallents and the birth of a progressive media profession, Manchester University Press