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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
What is the role of public relations theory?
One perspective is that the role of theory is to describe and promote “best practice”. Supporters of this view argue for an alignment of academic and practitioner focus towards a common goal of improving PR practice.
Others argue that a critical distance is vital and that theory should critique current practice, and develop robust frameworks against which practice, and its the role in society, can be defined, analysed, measured and judged.
Criticism levelled at academia is often focussed on the notion of an ivory tower. That far from engaging with practice, academics speak to themselves – sharing an inaccessible language, and establishing a dialogue in journals and at conferences not easily accessed by practitioners.
Criticism of practitioners is levelled at an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism, where theory is rejected because practitioners' PR goals are linked to power and control – and consequently frameworks for measuring impact on society are deemed to be irrelevant.
The relationship between theory and practice is clearly relevant in the move to professionalise public relations. In the US debate Kerr claims “a profession gains its identity by making the university the port of entry (Kerr, 1995 in Port of Entry 1999)”. And authors of a UK study claim that “The future of public relations – as a profession – largely depends on its ability to develop coherent theoretical structures to explain itself to its practitioners and customers, as well as society generally. This role can only be undertaken by academic investigation.”
Is this possible? Or desirable? We asked practitioners and academics for their views. Do practitioners resist theory and academics speak only to themselves? And are the agendas for research and practice irreconcilably disparate?