Public relations education: Where is pedagogy?

Public relations education: Where is pedagogy?

PublicRelationsReview,25(1): 55-63 ISSN: 0363-8111 w. T/m0thy Coombsand Karyn Rybacki Copyright© 1999by ElsevierScienceInc. Allrightsof reproduction...

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PublicRelationsReview,25(1): 55-63 ISSN: 0363-8111

w. T/m0thy Coombsand Karyn Rybacki

Copyright© 1999by ElsevierScienceInc. Allrightsof reproductionin anyformreserved.

Public Relations Education: Where is Pedagogy? ABSTRACT: The year 1998 was a significant time for public relations education. Data for the Public Relations Education Survey were collected and analyzed and public relations educators met in suburban Washington, D.C. for the National Communication Association's Summer Conference on Public Relations Education to discuss the survey and its implications for public relations education. Pedagogy was one of the four major discussion topics at the conference. This article synthesizes results from the survey and discussions of the Pedagogy Task Team at the conference. A hopeful picture of public relations pedagogy emerged from the data and discussions. Current pedagogy places an emphasis on active learning, an important strength in the delivery of course material. But the picture includes weaknesses, too. Public relations educators are rather slow to utilize new technology in the classroom. Moreover, public relations as a field has not given enough attention to pedagogy. Research of public relations pedagogy is sparse, pedagogical tools are weak and teacher training is minimal. Placing more emphasis on public relations pedagogy will help to overcome these weaknesses and build on its strengths. W. Timothy Coombs is a Professor at Illinois State University and Karyn Rybacki is a Professor at Northern Michigan University.

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Public Relations Review

INTRODUCTION The educational process typically is divided into four elements: determination of desired outcomes, development of curriculum to deliver those outcomes, use of pedagogy to provide instruction for the curriculum and assessment of student learning. Public relations educators have focused most of their attention on outcomes (skills and knowledge students need for the practice) and curriculum (packaging of those desired outcomes into courses). 1 Lately, assessment has become a buzz word in public relations programs as higher education tries to quantify its contribution to society. Pedagogy, the delivery of course content, is the forgotten element in discussions of assessing public relations education. The neglect is unfortunate since the best curriculum is worthless without proper pedagogy. This article is one of the first detailed examinations of public relations pedagogy. The article examines the strengths and weaknesses of public relations pedagogy, compares educator and practitioner perceptions of pedagogy and offers a set of concerns and recommendations. The discussion is informed by two data sets. The first is the Survey of Public Relations Curriculum, Outcomes, Assessment, and Pedagogy conducted for the 1998 National Communication Association (NCA) Summer Conference. 2 The second data set is derived from the discussions of the Pedagogy Task Team at the conference. The group discussions from the conference are used as a form of qualitative data similar to focus groups. The Pedagogy Task Team 3 was charged with examining instruction of the public relations curriculum--the delivery of course content. The team took this to include the evaluation of instructional media, instructional delivery techniques and assignments. The team's goals were to identify the strengths and weaknesses of instructional media, instructional delivery techniques and assignments, and to discuss the current state of public relations pedagogy and plot means for improving it. The team also considered the issue of teacher training by discussing how people typically learn to teach public relations. Improved educator training was taken as one means for improving public relations pedagogy.

STRENGTHS OF PUBLIC RELATIONS PEDAGOGY The strength of public relations pedagogy is its vitality. Overall, the survey and group discussions reflect a public relations pedagogy steeped in active learning. Public relations educators are involving students in the learning process, a positive trend. The use of instructional delivery techniques (IDT) and assignments testify to the active learning orientation in public relations pedagogy. Table 1 presents the top 5 IDT and assignments preferred by educators and practitioners, as identified in the survey, along with summaries of their connection to active learning. 56

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IDT, Assignments, and Active Learning Area





0.70 students engaged in activitv

4.38 4.23

2 3

0.98 use of higher order thinking 0.87 no strong connection

3.97 3.78

4 5

1.21 students engaged in activin" 1.35 students engaged in activity

Individual speeches/ presentations Group Presentations

4.00 3.74

1 2

Publicity Materials Case Studies Written Exercises

3.73 3.65 3.46

3 4 5

1.65 students engaged in activitv 1.54 students engaged in activity and use of higher order thinking 1.48 skill development 1.43 use of higher order thinking 1.55 use of higher order thinking

IDT Dialogue/Class Discussion Exercises/Application of Concepts Lecture Small Group Discussion Group Work


Connection to Active Learning



A fivepoint scalewas used with 1 = NeverUse and 5 = Use all the time.

Four of the top five IDT identified in the survey emphasize active learning. Only lectures, at number three, are not specifically tied to active learning. However, large class size and some topics lend themselves best to lectures. Moreover, lectures can still be an effective IDT when they are engaging, organized and delivered with enthusiasm. 4 Group discussions expanded active learning to include student choice. Many instructors permit students to choose assignments, course topics and course policies. Student choice represents a collaborative approach to pedagogy--it is interactive with a focus on student participation. Student involvement facilitates a sense of ownership and control which, in turn, serves to enhance the educational experience, s All five of the top five assignments mentioned by survey respondents emphasize some aspect of active learning. The assignments emphasize engaging students in activities and involving them in higher order thinking, an active approach. 6 Group discussions at the conference also noted the need to bridge theory and application in assignments. The consensus was that the theory-application link is natural and easily demonstrated through case studies and written exercises, reflecting the general trend in education toward active learning. 7 Educators agreed that the most desirable teaching strategies and assignments are those which enable students to put theory into practice. Class sessions and outside assignments that directly involve students in the learning process, making them partners in their own education, are preferable to those Spring 1999


Public Relations Review

TABLE 2 Media Use and Access Use of the Media (Mean Score/Rank)


Handouts Whiteboard/Chalkboard Overheads Videotapes PowerPoint-type Presentations Internet projection

4.49/1 4.15/2 3.96/3 3.78/4 2.63/5 2.40/6

Access to the Media (Percentage/Rank)

98.8%/1 98.2%/2 98.2 %/2 91.0%/4 78.9%/5 72.9%/8

which make students passive recipients who memorize and recall information on an examination. Active learning pedagogy can be restricted by structural factors. Class size seems to be the major determinant of the extent to which active learning can be employed. Large lecture sections, particularly when the educator is not supported by teaching assistants, are not conducive to active learning. Geography becomes a factor in the ability to use actual clients in assignments. Educators in rural areas may have a limited pool of available clients and choose to reserve them for internships and the campaigns course. Computer lab availability also is a factor in employing active learning techniques. Those educators with dedicated lab space find it easier to use active learning strategies. Finally, and not least in significance, active learning techniques are demanding. The investment of time and energy for the educator is far greater when active learning techniques are used.

WEAKNESSES OF PUBLIC RELATIONS PEDAGOGY The survey and group discussions identified some perceived and real areas where public relations pedagogy is weak and in need of improvement. Table 2 summarizes classroom and lab media use and media access. The top three media are old standbys: handouts, whiteboards/chalkboards and overheads. Outsiders might conclude that public relations educators travel the dirt roads rather the information superhighway. But a look at the access data shows that classroom media use reflects media access. The use of a medium is linked to its availability, a logical limitation. Moreover, group discussions of the value of providing handouts for assignments and the utility of writing discussion highlights and reminders on the "board" or on overheads demonstrate the old media retain their relevance in the classroom. This point is also relevant in comparing practitioners with educators. While the use of old media or technologies can be justified, there is, however, a real problem in the limited use of new media. Students must have a basic 58

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understanding of new media they will need on the job. The Internet and PowerPoint computerized presentations are two such media. For instance, students must at least understand how to access and navigate the Internet and understand how a Web page can serve as a communication tool (a message design rather than a software use focus). Educators do a disservice to students when they do not integrate the Internet and other relevant media into their pedagogy when possible. Students must appreciate the new media they will be using in the workplace. 8 Table 2 includes the data on use of and access to Internet projection and PowerPoint presentation, and 66 percent of the educators responding to the survey say they provide course Web sites. Internet projection, however, is only the sixth most used media, a low mean of 2.4 on a five point scale. Although course Web sites are frequently used, instructors tend to neglect the Internet's interactive potential. O f the list of potential uses o f course Web sites, only two uses appear in over 50 percent o f the courses: assignments (66.1%) and links to supplemental resources (61.5%). Any course Web site can get students on-line and practicing navigation skills, an essential element in understanding the Internet. 9 The supplemental links to other Web sites further student navigation skills by leading them deeper into the "Web." What is missing is the use o f discussion groups to facilitate student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction about course and Web content. Only 33 percent o f course Web sites included discussion groups while 21.1 percent o f those surveyed have access to but do not use discussion groups. Group discussions at the conference identified a lack o f institutional support and skill deficiencies as the reasons behind the limited use o f the Internet; many educators lack the technical skills to fully exploit course Web sites. Use of Internet projection shows a similar pattern. A high 72.9 percent of educators have access to the media. O f those with access, 72.9 percent use it while 27.1 percent do not. PowerPoint-type presentations suffer a similar fate, with 78.9 percent o f educators having access. O f those with access, 61.8 percent use it while 38.2 percent do not. Group discussions at the conference warned against an over-emphasis on technology that forgoes content. Still, educators agreed that students must be exposed to these two media/technologies because they are c o m m o n elements in the workplace. Educators must work to bring relevant, new media/technologies into the classroom by using them as instructional media. The challenge is great. The cost to acquire, upgrade and maintain equipment is the greatest barrier to using computer technology.



PEDAGOGY There are greater pedagogical similarities than differences between practitioners who are part-time teachers and full-time educators. ComSpring 1999


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Educator-Practitioner Comparison Educator Mean Stdv

Practitioner Mean Stdv

4.15 0.89 3.08 1.14

4.74 0.54 4.35 1.47

3.31 1.44

4.09 1.28

Simulations/Games Role Playing

2.71 1.35 2.63 1.30

3.64 1.47 3.48 1.41

Assignments Case Studies Complete Campaigns

3.57 1.46 3.26 1.67

4.17 1.19 4.17 1.85


IDT Lecture Guest Lecturers Individual Presentations/ Speeches

parisons were made between practitioners who teach and educators in three areas: (1) classroom or lab media use, (2) assignments, and (3) IDT. Table 3 presents the mean comparisons for the three areas. A check was made to see if different types of courses could help explain any teaching differences. Approximately equal percentages of practitioners and educators taught the same courses yet no significant differences were found between them for use of the top five most-used media. Even practitioner educators relied heavily on the "old media," reinforcing the interpretation that the heavy use of "old media" reflects access to and continued utility of these media. Three meaningful, significant differences 10 were found for assignments. Practitioner educators were more likely than full-time educators to use case studies, full-blown campaigns and individual presentations. Group discussions reaffirmed the importance of these three assignments and educators would do well to follow the practitioners' lead. T w o meaningful, significant differences were found for IDT. Practitioners use more lectures and guest lecturers than full-time educators. Group discussions revealed a general lack of pedagogical training a m o n g educators, and the lack of pedagogical training is likely to be even greater for practitioner educators since they will, in most cases, not have received any training in teaching techniques as part of their professional training. Hence, practitioner educators may be relying more heavily on lectures because they are the most basic form of IDT. 11 Group discussions at the conference reported that educators often have a difficult time identifying, building and accessing guest lecture pools. Practitioners may use more guest lecturers because they have more contacts among practitioners, making it easier to build and tap guest lecture pools. 12 60

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Public Relations Education: Where is Pedagogy?

CRITICAL CONCERNS AND RECOMMENDATIONS The greatest concern for public relations pedagogy is the need for educators to engage in a dialogue about how public relations theory and practice is taught and how students learn. In the April 1993 issue of Communication Education, Jo Sprague challenged all communication educators, regardless of academic speciality, to participate in such a dialogue. She reminds us that not so long ago, "leading scholars...thoughtfully and passionately'' addressed the issues of teaching33 Sprague, noting that teaching is highly context specific, provides a series of guidelines for doing discipline-specific pedagogical studies. 14 Pedagogical research of any kind is sorely lacking in public relations. Faculty should be encouraged to address issues of public relations pedagogy, presenting at professional meetings and publishing thoughtful and passionate views on effective teaching specific to the discipline. Both Communication Education and Journalism Educator provide forums in which educators can begin the dialogue over public relations teaching and learning. Journalism Educator continues to publish research related to public relations education) s Communication Education's existing body of work also can provide guidelines for public relations education. The "master syllabus" feature articles are perfect examples. The author of each article provides a discussion of pedagogical issues, suggested sources or materials for course design, assignment descriptions, grading and evaluation suggestions, and details of teaching-learning strategies. Some of these are relevant to public relations pedagogy16 and the program provides an outline for public relations educators. The second greatest concern for public relations pedagogy is the quality of pedagogical tools. Textbooks are the foundation that determines pedagogy for a course. Group discussions at the conference expressed a general dissatisfaction with available textbook options. Too many of them try to cover the whole of public relations and consequently do disservice to detailed exploration of specific content areas. Educators also bemoaned the dearth of teaching materials such as simulations, games, videos and instructional media in general. Existing materials are frequently too expensive and not of good quality, and very little is available that is specific to teaching public relations. Perhaps few faculty are creating these materials because tenure and promotion committees may disregard the importance of writing textbooks and creating pedagogy tools. Through professional and academic bodies, public relations educators need to work to enhance the importance placed on pedagogy-related activity by bodies that evaluate faculty. The need for academic training in teaching pedagogical skills is a third area of concern. Too often, learning how to teach happens by trial and error as the neophyte educator begins teaching. Professional and academic organizations such as NCA and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) should offer more short courses and workshops on "how to teach the public relations course in..." The 1998 2nd edition of Learning to Teach, a publication of the Educator Academy of PRSA, is a valuable resource that should be more heavily marketed. PubSpring 1999


Public Relations Review

lic relations educators also must recognize that becoming and remaining active in professional organizations is one means of encouraging those organizations to place a greater focus on pedagogy. Further, engaging in research and doing public relations work for one's institution or community, and then integrating this work into one's teaching, can help revitalize teaching skills. Finally there is the issue of technology. As noted earlier, costs and skills are barriers. PRSA and other professional organizations could provide an invaluable service to pedagogy if the organizations would facilitate matching educators with companies or other donors willing to underwrite equipment costs. There also is a need to assist faculty with in-service training to learn new technologies. One option might be to invite vendors to offer workshops at annual meetings or professional organizations. Another is for institutions to support continuing education opportunities or internships like professional residencies for their faculty.

CONCLUSION There seems to be enormous interest in public relations pedagogy and how it intersects with curriculum content. The challenge for professional organizations is to accommodate that interest. A general undercurrent in the pedagogy discussions during the 1998 NCA Summer Conference was that teaching in general is undervalued. There seems to be little encouragement or' support from professional bodies for pedagogy issues. Perhaps the 1998 NCA Summer Conference will be a first step in developing the dialogue on public relations pedagogy and will lead to the expansion of outlets for pedagogical discussions and the creation of improved pedagogical tools.

NOTES The 1989 special education issue o f Public Relations Rev/ew and the 1987 Commission on Public Relations Education reflect this emphasis. 2. See the article on the survey by Don Stacks in this issue. 3. Members of the task team included: Jerry M. Anderson, Concordia College, Mark J. Banks, Slippery Rock University, Vince Benigni, University of Georgia, Garry Bolan, Towson University, Renee Botta, Cleveland State University, Josh Boyd, Purdue University, Thomas Boyle, Susquehanna University, Patricia Chantrill, Gonzaga University, isa Engleberg, Prince George's Community College, Denise P. Ferguson, University of Indianapolis, Steve Iseman, Ohio Northern University, Casma Now Keafor, Bowie State University, Michael Kent, Emporia State University, Debra Kernisky, Northern Michigan University, Rachel Kovas, University of Maryland, Ruth Ann Weaver Lariscy, University of Georgia, Chuck Lubbers, Kansas State University, Meera Manui, Graceland College/Washington State University, Becky McDonald, Ball State University, David Ritchey, University of Akron, Denise Rossitto, George Washington University, Valerie Terry, Boston University, Rochelle Tillery-Larking, Howard University, and Reno C. Unger, Kutztown University. 1.


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5. 6.

7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.

13. 14. 15. 16.

Mary Mino and Marilynn N. Butler, "A Traditional Lecture Approach Versus a Collaborative Approach: A Comparison of Student Performance Outcomes," Communication Research Reports 14(1997), pp. 493-507. Dugan Laird and Ruth House, Interactive Classroom Instruction (Glenview, IL: Scott and Foresman, 1984). Charles A. Lubbers and Diane A. Gorcyca, "Using Active Learning in Public Relations Instruction: Demographic Predictors of Facul~T Use," Public Relations Review 23(1997), pp. 67-80. Robert B. Barr and John Tagg, "From Teaching to Learning--A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education," Change 27 (Nov.-Dec. 1995), pp. 12-26. Diane F. Witmer, "Introduction to Computer-Mediated Communication: A Master Syllabus for Teaching Communication Technology," Communication Education 47(1998), pp. 162-173. Ibid., pp. 168-169. Meaningful significance meansp < .05 and either one of both means were above 4.0 or the differences between the means fairly large. Ma D, Mino and Marilynn N. Butler, op. cit., p. 497. Two other differences are worth noting because of their relationship to the group discussions. Practitioners were more likely to use role playing and simulations/games than educators. Educators bemoaned the lack of resources for role playing and simulations/games in the group discussions. These two IDTs are common in organizational training. It fbllows that practitioners might have greater exposure to and better resources for utilizing role playing and simulations/games. Educators seem eager to close the gap on these two IDTs. We must find and exploit the advantages practitioners have in utilizing role playing and simulations/games. Jo Sprague, "Retrieving the Research Agenda for Communication Education," Communication Education 42 (1993), pp. 106-107. Ibid., pp. 106-107. See Glen T. Cameron and Patricia A. Curtin, "An Expert Systems Approach fbr PR Campaigns Research,"Journalism Educator 47 (Summer, 1992), pp. 13-18. See William B. Gudykunst, Stella Ting-Toomey, and Richard L. Wiseman, "Taming the Beast: Designing a Course in Intercultural Communication," Communication Education 40 (1991), pp. 272-285. The authors describe design features for interdisciplinary courses, emphasizing cognitive, affective, and behavioral; goals for teaching- learning.

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