As history books document, the field of public relations dates back to the early 20th century. Since then, society and public relations have evolved. This evolution has led to multiple definitions of public relations over the years, and, in fact, the term still continues to evolve today. Currently, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines public relations as, “A strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” (PRSA, n.d., para. 3). In October 2019, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) announced its new definition of public relations as, “A decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organisations and their publics based on the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods” (IPRA, 2019, para. 2).
As the public relations profession has evolved, so has education. Edward Bernays is credited with writing the first public relations textbook and teaching the first class in 1923 (Broom & Sha, 2013). Fifty years later, in 1973, the Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) was founded. Since then, this group has combined insight from academics and practitioners to provide recommendations on public relations education around the globe. These recommendations have impacted both graduate and undergraduate education as many academic programs have aligned their course offerings as a result of CPRE recommendations. Plus, CPRE recommendations serve as the foundation for the criteria for the Public Relations Student Society of America’s chapter standards (PRSSA, 2019) and the Certification in Education for Public Relations (CPRE, 2006).
Following the recommendations from the 1999 CPRE report, “A Port of Entry,” academic public relations programs commonly included courses in the following topics:
- Introduction to public relations
- Public relations research, measurement and evaluation
- Public relations writing and production
- Supervised work experience in public relations (internship)
In 2006, the CPRE recommended that public relations programs should include these four core courses plus the following addition: a public relations course in law and ethics, planning and management, case studies, or campaigns.
The purpose of this article is to present the combined findings from the CPRE omnibus survey that is spread across the 17 chapters in the report Fast Forward: Foundations + Future State. Educators + Practitioners. Many of the chapters include the results from educators and practitioners from outside of the United States for a global perspective. This article, however, is delimited to the results for U.S. respondents to highlight the current state of undergraduate public relations education in the United States.
This research built onto past CPRE reports on undergraduate education, mainly A Port of Entry: Public Relations Education for the 21st Century (1999) and The Professional Bond (2006).Similar to those reports, an extensive omnibus survey was also conducted. Where appropriate, the questionnaire remained the same; however, given the vast changes in the public relations field over the last decade, few specifics were retained.
While past CPRE surveys were distributed to a stratified random sample of members in public relations associations, that approach in 2016 was not preferred due to typically low survey responses and difficulty obtaining membership lists. Therefore, the 2016 omnibus survey was distributed by email to CPRE members. The individual representatives for these associations invited their members and colleagues to participate in the survey. These members represented the following organizations:
- Arthur W. Page Center
- Arthur W. Page Society
- Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Public Relations Division
- Canadian Public Relations Society
- European Public Relations Education and Research Association
- Global Alliance for Public Relations
- Institute for Public Relations (IPR)
- International Communication Association (ICA) Public Relations Division
- National Black Public Relations Society
- National Communication Association (NCA) Public Relations Division
- Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations
- PR Council
- Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Educators Academy
- Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Educational Affairs Committee
- PRSA Foundation
- Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
- The Corporate Board/Society of New Communications Research (SNCR)
- Universal Accreditation Board (UAB)
The survey was open for participation from October 10 to December 19, 2016. Given that the survey distribution was through CPRE member associations, using their own recruitment process, it is not possible to calculate the number of people who actually received the survey.
Overall, a total of 1,601 questionnaires were started. Respondents who indicated they were not in public relations (or a related field) were removed (n = 48), along with anyone who took fewer than 10 minutes on the survey. This survey had a high drop-out rate given that it took an average of 25 minutes to complete (n = 738). The focus of this article is on undergraduate public relations education in the United States, so all respondents from other countries were removed (n = 124).
The questionnaire began with a filter question that asked respondents to identify as an educator, as a practitioner, or as someone not in public relations (or a related field). Based on responses to this question, participants were filtered to either an educator or a practitioner survey. If they were not in public relations, they were thanked for their time, and the survey concluded. The questionnaire contained eight sections. The final sample included in this article was 690, comprised of 231 educators and 459 practitioners.
The demographic information for this study is included in Table 1. Overall, 33% of respondents were educators (n = 231), and 67% were practitioners (n = 459). The percentage of female practitioners in this study matched the approximate percentage in the profession (74%, n = 291). The age distribution was skewed slightly younger in the practitioner sample than the educator sample; however, that is also consistent with both populations. The educator sample was predominantly white (94%, n = 156), and the practitioner sample was 77% white (n = 354), consistent with the lack of diversity in the field. Most educators had a Ph.D. (72%, n = 134), and most practitioners had a bachelor’s degree (54%, n = 209). Only 38% of educators (n = 92) and 28% of practitioners (n = 111) had their Accreditation in Public Relations, and 1% of practitioners were Accredited Business Communicators (n = 4). The practitioners were from a variety of organizational settings and sizes. The educator sample included 70% tenured or tenure-track faculty (n = 121).
The practitioner sample had some academic experience, with 18% of the practitioners having taught as an adjunct (n = 71) and 58% having guest lectured in a public relations course (n = 223). On the job, 52% of practitioner respondents directly supervised entry-level practitioners (n = 203), while 61% had supervised an intern in the last five years (n = 240).
Knowledge, Skills and Abilities
The KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) from the 2006 survey were updated to better align with current public relations education and practice. As a result, only a few KSAs were assessed in both 2006 and 2016, resulting in minimal comparisons (see Table 2). Writing was one skill that was measured in both years. In 2016, the mean scores for desired writing skills increased for both educators (0.19 increase) and practitioners (0.41 increase). The mean scores for delivered or found writing skills also increased (0.77 increase for educators and 0.02 increase for practitioners). Research and analytics was another item measured in both surveys. Educators and practitioners had a decrease in mean scores for research and analytics as a desired skill (0.03 decrease each), while educators believed that the delivery of these skills increased (0.86 increase), and practitioners felt the amount the skill was found had decreased (0.32 decrease).
In 2016, educators indicated a high desirability for 15 KSAs, while practitioners identified 11 as highly desirable (mean ratings of a 4.0 or higher). On the other hand, educators indicated only three KSAs as frequently delivered, and practitioners did not believe any KSAs were frequently found.
The top three knowledge topics desired by educators were: ethics (M = 4.44, SD = 0.95), business acumen (M = 4.09, SD = 0.92), and cultural perspective (M = 4.02, SD = 0.89). The top three desired knowledge topics by practitioners were: ethics (M = 4.57, SD = 0.78), diversity and inclusion (M = 3.95, SD = 1.06), and social issues (M = 3.67, SD = 1.00).
The top three skills desired by educators were: writing (M = 4.90, SD = 0.37), communication (M = 4.78, SD = 0.50), and social media management (M = 4.52, SD = 0.64). The top three desired skills by practitioners were the same: writing (M = 4.88, SD = 0.41), communication (M = 4.76, SD = 0.57), and social media management (M = 4.33, SD = 0.82).
The top three abilities desired by educators were: problem solving (M = 4.55, SD = 0.65), critical thinking (M = 4.53, SD = 0.75), and creative thinking (M = 4.52, SD = 0.71). The top three abilities desired by practitioners were: creative thinking (M = 4.57, SD = 0.70), problem solving (M = 4.52, SD = 0.77), and critical thinking (M = 4.44, SD = 0.82).
Overall, there was a 40% inconsistency in agreement between educators and practitioners about the desirability of the KSAs (12 out of 30). Significant differences in desired KSAs for educators and practitioners included business acumen, crisis management, cultural perspective, ethics, internal communication, PR history, PR laws and regulations, public speaking, social media management, website development, problem solving, and strategic planning. In each of these, the educators in the survey rated the KSA more desired than the practitioners, except for ethics where the practitioners indicated a higher level of desire than the educators.
The top three knowledge topics educators believed their programs delivered were: ethics (M = 4.11, SD = 0.95), PR theory (M = 3.77, SD = 1.03), and social issues (M = 3.43, SD = 1.06). The top three knowledge topics found by practitioners were: ethics (M = 3.37, SD = 0.96), diversity and inclusion (M = 3.30, SD = 1.02), and social issues (M = 3.20, SD = 0.96).
The top three skills educators believed their programs delivered were: communication (M = 4.44, SD = 0.78), writing (M = 4.32, SD = 0.83), and research and analytics (M = 3.83, SD = 1.04). The top three skills found by practitioners were: social media management (M = 3.84, SD = 0.91), communication (M = 3.31, SD = 0.88), and writing (M = 3.08, SD = 0.94).
The top three abilities educators believed their programs delivered were: critical thinking (M = 3.91, SD = 0.97), strategic planning (M = 3.90, SD = 1.04), and problem solving (M = 3.85, SD = 0.96). The top three abilities found by practitioners were: creative thinking (M = 3.38, SD = 0.94), problem solving (M = 2.75, SD = 0.89), and critical thinking (M = 2.65, SD = 0.89).
There was a 43% inconsistency in agreement between educators and practitioners about recent graduates having these KSAs (13 out of 30). There were significant differences in KSAs delivered by educators and found by practitioners for business acumen, crisis management, cultural perspective, diversity and inclusion, management, social issues, audio/video development, graphic design, media relations, social media management, speechwriting, website development, and strategic planning. In each of these, educators rated the KSA delivered more frequently than the practitioners indicated finding them.
Practitioners were given a list of “possible hiring characteristics” of recent college graduates and were asked to consider what they look for in entry-level new hires (see Table 3).
Practitioners rated the top five desired characteristics/experiences they look for when hiring (all are desired more than found):
- Writing performance (M = 4.88, SD = 0.40); 1.98 gap in what is found
- Internship or work experience (M = 4.67, SD = 0.71); 0.84 gap in what is found
- Public relations coursework (M = 4.47, SD = 0.83); 0.50 gap in what is found
- Strong references (M = 4.22, SD = 0.92); 0.86 gap in what is found
- Up-to-date with current professional trends and issues (M = 4.10, SD = 0.92); 1.30 gap in what is found
Practitioners’ scores resulted in this list of five least desired characteristics/experiences:
- Certificate in public relations (M = 2.38, SD = 1.18)
- Study abroad experience (M = 2.39, SD = 1.12)
- Certifications (e.g., Hootsuite, Google Analytics, coding) (M = 2.88, SD = 1.19)
- Caliber of university attended (M = 3.02, SD = 1.07)
- Bi- or multi-lingual (M = 3.17, SD = 1.22)
Results showed five most commonly found characteristics/experiences in new hires:
- Active on social media (M = 4.40, SD = 0.76)
- Public relations coursework (M = 3.97, SD = 0.82)
- Internship or work experience (M = 3.83, SD = 0.86)
- Campus involvement (M = 3.48, SD = 0.82)
- Liberal arts coursework (M = 3.46, SD = 1.01)
According to the practitioners who participated in the survey, there were five least found characteristics/experiences:
- Certificate in public relations (M = 1.64, SD = 0.86)
- Certifications (e.g., Hootsuite, Google Analytics, coding) (M = 1.91, SD = 0.89)
- Bi- or multi-lingual (M = 2.00, SD = 0.84)
- Study abroad experience (M = 2.33, SD = 0.92)
- Participation in an on-campus student PR agency (M = 2.46, SD = 0.98)
Public Relations Curriculum
This study sought to identify the implementation of the 2006 CPRE five-course recommendation and determine any needed changes to this standard. Overall, 90% of academic respondents (n = 178) and 95% of practitioner respondents (n = 395) were in favor of retaining the five-course standard. As Table 4 shows, the 2016 study found that practitioner respondents favored programs requiring all five courses.
Importantly, 99% of academic respondents said they have an Introduction to Public Relations or principles class (n = 198), 93% said this course is required (n = 185), and 87% said what they offer is a public relations specific class (n = 173). Most academics also indicated that a research methods course is taught (97.0%, n = 196) and required (89.9%, n = 178), but many indicated that it is not a public relations specific course that is offered in their program (47.0%, n = 93). Writing was also a course that most respondents said is included (97.0%, n = 195), required (93.4%, n = 184), and public relations specific (82.7%, n = 163). Campaigns and case studies courses are also taught (92.5%, n = 186), required (80.1%, n = 157), and public relations specific (82.2%, n = 162). A course for internships was also offered at universities for 91% of respondents (n = 183), but only 45% said it was a required course (n = 89); 58% said the internship course is public relations specific (n = 113).
In addition to the five-course standard, many public relations programs offer courses on additional topics and/or include topics within existing courses. Over the years, the list of possible curriculum topics has changed, resulting in two new topics in the 2006 study and 32 new topics in the 2016 study (see Table 5). Unfortunately, comparisons between the years is made complex due to a change from the 7-point scale used in 1998 and 2006 to the 5-point response metric used in this study; therefore, only the 2016 findings for the individual outcomes are discussed. For the 2016 mean responses, the curriculum topics rated as a 4.00 or higher are highlighted, indicating an essential topic. Educators indicated a high importance for 15 curriculum topics while practitioners identified 13 (mean ratings of a 4.0 or higher). Eleven highly essential curriculum topics were the same for educators and practitioners.
When it came to the most important curriculum topics, educators most often selected: (1) measurement and evaluation (M = 4.60, SD = 0.75); (2) social media (M = 4.58, SD = 0.80); (3) campaign management (M = 4.54, SD = 0.76); (4) strategic communications (M = 4.52, SD = 0.80); and (5) audience segmentation (M = 4.26, SD = 0.97). Practitioners believed the top five curriculum topics to be: (1) content creation (M = 4.52, SD = 0.69); (2) strategic communications (M = 4.48, SD = 0.78); (3) social media (M = 4.47, SD = 0.77); (4) measurement and evaluation (M = 4.41, SD = 0.79); and (5) publicity/media relations (M = 4.40, SD = 0.79).
Most of the items in Table 5 did not have significant differences between the educator and practitioner rankings for the essentialness of each topic. However, educators believed audience segmentation, campaign management, CSR, crisis management, fundraising, issues management, measurement and evaluation, and political communication were all more essential than practitioners did. The practitioners felt that business-to-consumer PR and content creation were more essential than educators thought.
Overall, 53% of educators who participated in this survey indicated that their program offers online public relations courses (n = 102). Six percent of the educators said their program had a completely online undergraduate degree (n = 11). Both educators and practitioners indicated they felt an online degree was not equal to a face-to-face degree (M = 2.27 and M = 2.35) (see Table 6). Furthermore, both educators and practitioners believed job applicants should disclose if all or part of a degree was taken online.
Of the educators who participated in this study and knew how their program handled internships, 42% said they required an internship (n = 80), 51% had programs that allowed elective credits for an internship (n = 97), and 6% just encouraged internships (n = 12) (see Table 7). Most programs had an internship coordinator (82.1%, n = 156) and 69% of respondents said that coordinator was a faculty member (n = 121).
Only 35% of educators said their program had a training program to prepare students for internships (n = 66), and the most common assessment of internships was a performance review by the supervisor (63.6%, n = 147). Plus, 45% said that to complete an internship for credit, their program required a prerequisite course (n = 103), 46% have minimum credit hours required (n = 107), and 36% have a minimum GPA (n = 83). Many required all three. Overall, 32% of practitioners said their interns were not paid (n = 124). The average pay reported for those who were paid was $13.54 an hour.
The Department of Labor’s Federal Guidelines on Internships based on the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides important guidance on internships; however, 36% of educators (n = 66) and 29% of practitioners (n = 111) were not familiar with the guidelines. Overall, of those who were familiar with the guidelines and knew how internships were handled in their area, only 67% of educators (n = 62) and 93% of practitioners (n = 2 44) said these guidelines are always followed.
There were significant differences between educator and practitioner views about interns having a valuable experience (see Table 8). Educators felt more positive about the experience; however, practitioners indicated higher agreement that interns were given meaningful work and that they receive clear and routine instructions.
Membership in Student Associations
Both educators and practitioners found high value in student involvement in associations such as Public Relations Student Society of America and International Association of Business Communicators (see Table 9). They each identified networking as the number one reason for participating in student associations.
As Table 10 shows, educators and practitioners ranked staying up-to-date on technology as the top faculty qualification (M = 4.51, SD = 0.69 and M = 4.63, SD = 0.65). Educators preferred more than 5 years of professional PR experience (M = 4.15, SD = 1.03), while practitioners ranked more than 10 years of professional PR experience as more important (M = 4.61, SD = 0.69). Similarly, educators rated presenting at academic conferences (M = 3.77, SD = 1.04) as more important than professional conferences (M = 3.47, SD = 0.99), whereas practitioners found the opposite to be more important.
Taking a good look at public relations undergraduate education on a periodic basis is an extremely valuable, though daunting, task. The value that academics and practitioners can derive from the CPRE reports highlight consistencies, gaps, and opportunities.
Consistencies and Gaps
The secret to the success of undergraduate education is collaboration between educators and practitioners. Together they can provide the foundation for a cohesive focus on knowledge, skills, and abilities to prepare undergraduate students for their future careers. While both educators and practitioners identified ethics as the top knowledge topic, there were inconsistencies on the other top knowledge topic areas. Educators identified business acumen and cultural perspective to aid students in having a well-rounded business grounding. Practitioners, on the other hand, identified diversity and inclusion and social issues as core knowledge areas likely to aid graduates to assimilate into the current work environment. Importantly, practitioners identified ethics, diversity and inclusion, and social issues as their top found areas, but none were found at what would be considered a high level; this indicates more work needs to be done to prepare students for all three knowledge areas.
When assessing the desired skills, practitioners and educators were aligned. Writing is still the most valued skill. In fact, the desire for writing skills has increased since 2006, but the good news is that writing ability has also slightly increased. The other skills both groups identified were communication and social media management. Fortunately, all three of these skills were the highest ranked skills found, but none were frequently found, so there is still a need for continued and increased focus. Unfortunately, there was a gap between the perception of educators delivering writing and communication skills and practitioners identifying the skills as found.
Both groups included strategic communications, social media, and measurement and evaluation as top curriculum topics, but the practitioners identified content creation as their most important addition to the curriculum.
Practitioners and educators identified creative thinking, problem solving, and critical thinking as the top desired and found abilities (while in slightly different order for the groups). Analytical thinking was not as highly rated by either, and there was a big gap with educators identifying higher levels of delivery of abilities than indications of the abilities being found by practitioners.
While the overwhelming majority of educators and practitioners in this study was in favor of retaining the CPRE five-course standard, some programs do not have these five courses specific to public relations. This is a missed opportunity; for example, 17% of educator respondents said their writing course is not a public relations writing course. Given how important writing continues to be, having a public relations writing course along with multiple other grammar and writing courses would be ideal. This is especially true considering this research found that writing remains the core entry-level skill and hiring characteristic.
In 2018, the CPRE published the global data from the 2016 omnibus survey reported in Fast forward: Foundations + Future state. Educators + Practitioners. In this report, the Commission recommended adding ethics as a sixth course to the standard. By recommending ethics as a required course, programs will be able to improve their focus on ethics and better meet the needs of this dynamic field.
As the profession becomes more integrated and entry-level positions continue to advertise positions looking for a bachelor’s degree in a “relevant field,” seeing public relations coursework as the third desired hiring characteristic is telling. The core competencies students learn in public relations programs are valuable and sought after. This should lead academic programs to question the value of combining advertising and public relations. Consistently, this research found support for core public relations competencies.
It is concerning to see the percentage of paid internships remains low, yet internship or work experience is highly regarded. There has been a strong call to action from academics and practitioners across the United States to pay student interns. Additionally, internships should be supervised and considered a learning opportunity for the student.
In addition to the content shared in this article, the full 2017 CPRE report Fast forward: Foundations + Future state. Educators + Practitioners contains 17 chapters with global recommendations.
Broom, G. M., & Sha, B. L. (2013). Cutlip and Center’s effective public relations (11th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice–Hall.
CPRE. (1999). Port of entry. Commission on Public Relations Education. Retrieved from http://www.commissionpred.org/commission-reports/a-port-of-entry/
CPRE. (2006). The professional bond. Commission on Public Relations Education. Retrieved from http://www.commissionpred.org/commission-reports/the-professional-bond/
CPRE. (2018). Fast forward: Foundations + Future state. Educators + Practitioners. Commission on Public Relations Education. Retrieved from http://www.commissionpred.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/report6-full.pdf
IPRA. (2019, Oct. 10). The International Public Relations Association wraps its values around a new definition of public relations. Retrieved from https://www.ipra.org/news/press-room/the-international-public-relations-association-wraps-its-values-around-a-new-definition-of-public-relations/
PRSA. (n.d.). About PRSA. Retrieved from https://www.prsa.org/about/all-about-pr PRSSA. (2019). PRSSA chapter handbook 2019-2020. Retrieved from https://prssa.prsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/PRSSA-Chapter-Handbook.pdf