Why scholarship matters

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.

Exploring public relations history (photo: Heather Yaxley)
Exploring public relations history (photo: Heather Yaxley)

There are 92 football league clubs. So how is it that the Premier League winners are routinely drawn from such a small subset of these?

In short, the answer would seem to be money.

There are something like 150 universities in the UK, and yet the two oldest English universities regularly top the league table rankings.

How come? The answer would seem to be reputation.

Even within public relations education, a field that’s only 30 years old in the UK, there’s a similar pattern.

Many universities teach public relations; more have tried but given up. Yet only a few count as centres of public relations education. These teach students and also professionals, have PhD candidates, and offer a route from teaching to research (via readerships and professorships). They also host conferences and have a strong record of publications.

There’s also a pattern here in that the first three universities to offer public relations education in the UK have also been the three main such centres over the past three decades: Stirling, Bournemouth and Leeds Beckett (to use its current name).

What’s really going on is a form of network effect. The better football clubs invest in coaches, players and training facilities, and the competition for places and for success drives them forward. Success brings greater attendances, TV contracts and larger commercial contracts.

The top universities attract the star academics and the strongest students and researchers, thus producing more reputational assets (plus legacies and donations from wealthy alumni).

Digital disruption has only had a marginal effect on education to date – though university bosses dream of the economies of scale offered by online teaching. Think how many classrooms they could sell off and how many lecturers they could lay off!

I’m writing a chapter for the CIPR’s forthcoming Platinum publication about public relations scholarship in Britain. The strict word count means I must be very selective so this idea of centres of excellence seems neat.

I know that it’s incomplete and that Jon White and Danny Moss, to name just two, don’t fit – yet merit a mention.

I’m also trying to explain to a readership of practitioners why they should pay attention to – and even take pride in – the output of scholars.

Discussions of domains and definitions can easily be dismissed as ‘purely academic’ questions. Critical scholarship, with its emphasis on society over organisations, can seem perverse to practitioners who are incentivised to win on behalf of their bosses or clients.

And yet. 70 years on from its founding and a decade on from its Royal Charter, can we yet claim professional status for public relations?

The Royal Charter calls on the Institute ‘to promote for the public benefit high levels of skill, knowledge, competence, and standards of practice and professional conduct on the part of public relations practitioners.’

The italics are mine to emphasise that professions have a duty to society, not just to self. Professions also have an interest in their origins and development. They need arguments to defend their role in society and respond to the challenge that may never go away that the practice is a manipulative dark art, devoid of ethical principles.

We need scholars to help shine a light into some dark corners. We also need them to simplify complexity for the purpose of undergraduate teaching (and for training junior practitioners).

But most important to practitioners, we need to explain what we do and how it benefits our organisations (and society) – in the face of much confusion, some scepticism and continued challenge and encroachment from other disciplines such as marketing, human resources and management consultancy.

We need to know what works. We need help developing robust systems for evaluating our efforts. This is why scholarship matters.

Now for an outside perspective: the UK ranks second to the United States for public relations scholarship internationally. It seems we got lucky by exporting the English language.

‘It has not been merely by chance that authors of Anglo-Saxon countries – with a predominance of authors from the United States and the United Kingdom, in that order – have been the most productive in terms of research and publication.’

Molleda et al (2018) Influences on postcolonialism over the understanding and evolution of public relations in Latin America in Bridgen and Vercic (eds) Experiencing Public Relations: International Voices, Abingdon: Routledge, p. 152


We have had a technical issue with comments, so that people can post them via the social media links but they were not visible to others visiting the website (we hope this is now resolved for future posts, but not retrospectively). So a comment (and a response) on this article have been added here for the record:

Tom Watson comments:

Richard, I agree with much of what you write but challenge the assertion of Molleda and co that the US and UK have been the most productive on research. It’s like saying PR was invented in the US because they told us it was.

There’s been a vast amount of research in Germany, Benelux, Scandinavia, Italy and France that appeared in national languages, and it’s only been in the past decade that their academics have published in Anglo journals. I’m thinking of Gunter Bentele, Ansgar Zerfass, Barbara Baerns and Julian Raupp (Germany), Betteke van Ruler and Cees val Riel (Holland), Finn Frandsen and Winni Johansen (Denmark), Oyvind Ihlen and Peggy Bronn (Norway), Jordi Xifra and several co-nationals (Spain), And so on. Not forgetting Jim Macnamara in Australia as a representative of the non-Atlantic anglo world.

If anything, Germany now leads the way in PR and corpcomms research with Ansgar Zerfass of Leipzig University probably the world’s No.1 researcher. The UK has slipped way behind in output and significance of its research. Much of the US research fails to challenge practice verities and actively rejects any critical approaches. I’d argue that it’s been sliding for some time.

So please beat the drum for PR scholarship but I think you’re making an historical argument rather than a current one.

Richard Bailey replies:

Thanks, Tom. Your point is very well made, but I am attempting an historical perspective as I’m writing for a 70th anniversary publication for the CIPR. The challenge will be to remain upbeat – but accurate!