Tag Archives: CPRE

Accreditation, Curriculum, and Ethics: Exploring the Public Relations Education Landscape

Editorial Record: Special issue deadline June 15, 2020. Revision submitted October 7, 2020. First published online December 22, 2020.

Authors

Teri Del Rosso, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Memphis, TN
Email: t.l.d@memphis.edu

Matthew J. Haught, Ph.D.
Assistant Chair, Associate Professor
Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Memphis,TN
Email: mjhaught@memphis.edu

Kimberly S. Marks Malone, APR, Fellow PRSA
Instructor, Online Coordinator
Journalism and Strategic Media
University of Memphis
Memphis,TN
Email: ksmarks@memphis.edu

Abstract

The Commission for Public Relations Education issued a report in 2018 recommending that public relations ethics be a required course, in addition to the incorporation of ethics into all public relations courses. To understand the implications of this recommendation, this study explores the nature of public relations ethics education in 15 PR programs accredited by Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications and certified by Public Relations Society of America via the Certification in Education for Public Relations  program. Through an analysis of 2020 academic catalogs, findings suggest that although programs have general ethics courses (e.g., media ethics or law and ethics), few programs offer—and fewer require—public relations ethics courses. The research concludes that in conjunction with previous research on ethics in the classroom, programs implement an experiential learning approach to ethics instruction. 

Keywords: ethics, curriculum, accreditation

More and more, public relations professionals are finding that ethics in PR go beyond communication. Stakeholders and publics want companies to not only post on social media, but also to allocate resources, diversify leadership, and donate to social justice causes (Meyers, 2020; Mull, 2020). As PR professionals navigate these issues for their organizations, the need for ethics training is evident. A Commission on Public Relations Education (CPRE) report found that employers rate knowledge regarding ethical issues as one of the top three skills they seek in hiring employees (CPRE, 2018). The report recommended that a course focusing specifically on public relations ethics be required for undergraduate PR students (Bortree et al., 2018). In 2019, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) prescribed a PR Ethics course for all programs seeking certification in its Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) program. This coalescence of factors means that public relations programs need to revisit the ethical training they provide and explore a new path forward. This need was laid out in the CPRE report where it was recommended that all PR courses incorporate ethics into the curriculum and lessons center on “moral philosophy, case studies, and simulations” (Bortree et al., 2018, p. 68). 

Ethics training is not new to journalism and mass communication programs, where public relations programs are often housed. The Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) positions ethics training as one of its professional values and competencies that programs must teach students, writing that students must “demonstrate an understanding of professional ethical principles and work ethically in pursuit of truth, accuracy, fairness and diversity” (ACEJMC, n.d.-b, para. 18). However, training in most programs tends to be broad and built on the ethics of journalism. As public relations operates differently than journalism, more specific ethics training for public relations is needed. 

The purpose of this study is to explore how public relations programs both accredited by ACEJMC and certified by PRSA through the CEPR program address ethics in their curricula. Given the renewed emphasis on ethics education (CPRE, 2018), this research seeks to understand the state of ethics teaching in this specific subset of programs. As ACEJMC and CEPR represent some of the highest expectations and standards for teaching in journalism, mass communication, and public relations, schools that subject themselves to both reviews should reasonably be expected to have higher standards for ethical education.

Literature Review

Public Relations Ethics: Industry Perspectives

Most definitions and conceptualizations of ethics involve “systematic analysis, distinguishing right from wrong, and determining what should be valued” (Bowen, 2007, para. 2). In public relations, that manifests into a practice of valuing “honesty, openness, fair-mindedness, respect, integrity, and forthright communication” (Bowen, 2007, para. 2). Historically, PR was viewed as void of ethics and as a profession that put too much energy into spinning and sensationalizing stories and not focusing on truth and relationship building (Bowen, 2007).

As the profession further embraces its role in the corporate suite, many PR professionals are serving as ethical compasses for their organization’s leadership (Bowen, 2007). The PRSA Code of Ethics guides members and the profession as a whole on the ethical responsibilities of public relations professionals. The core professional values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness help PR professionals serve the public good and achieve “excellence with powerful standards of performance, professionalism, and ethical conduct” (PRSA, n.d., para. 3). 

Globally, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) adopted the Code of Athens in 1965, which was amended in 1968 and again in 2009 (IPRA, 2009). The code’s ethical recommendations to public relations professionals around the world encourage PR practitioners to work in three ethical realms: endeavoring, undertaking, and refraining. These codes center the need to establish and circulate the free flow of information, uphold human dignity, center the truth, avoid manipulation, and balance the concerns of publics and organizations (IPRA, 2009). Similarly, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (GA) offers a code of ethics that includes a declaration of principles and resources for ethics education and enforcement. GA argues in favor of working in the public interest; obeying laws and respecting diversity of local customs; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; freedom of media; honesty, truth, and fact-based communication; integrity; transparency and disclosure; and privacy (GA, 2018).

Public Relations Ethics: Classroom Perspectives

Before public relations professionals enter the industry, their understanding of ethics often comes from their experiences within higher education. At the 2019 PRSA International Conference in San Diego, Elizabeth Toth moderated a conversation with public relations educators at the Educators Academy about how programs can begin to implement the CPRE’s recommendations for ethics education. This presentation explored research around ethics, common ethical issues, core ethical competencies, implementation models, trends in ethics syllabi, creating a PR-specific ethics course, and increasing ethical lessons across the curriculum (Toth et al., 2019).

Accreditation 

Administrators and professors often struggle with finding the right balance between skills-based courses, theory and conceptual classes, course requirements, electives, minors, and supplementary classes outside of the major or department (Blom et al., 2012). If a unit opts to seek accreditation for its program, that decision often brings more considerations and requirements with how schools present the course catalog and descriptions to its students. Although the process of accrediting a program can limit and direct how a school builds its programs (e.g., the amount of credits a student can take within the major, see Blom et al., 2012), as of June 2020, 118 programs have earned accreditation by ACEJMC (ACEJMC, n.d.-a). Seamon (2010) argued that the limits imposed by accreditation make a broader curriculum more difficult, and highlighted a study noting that international public relations courses were stymied by accreditation limits (Hatzios & Lariscy, 2008). However, it should be noted that ACEJMC requirements have changed significantly since Seamon’s work to be more open to curricular change, thus, an examination of how ethics training has been implemented in light of those changes is appropriate. Becoming an accredited program provides administrators and professors the opportunity to reflect on the program’s successes and failures, compare itself to other programs, and assess whether its students are prepared for industry work (Blom et al., 2012). In addition to the internal evaluation, a school or department’s accreditation status may influence students’ decisions when they weigh options that include rankings, athletics, and extracurricular activities (Blom et al., 2012; Pellegrini, 2017). These internal and external opportunities provide an incentive for schools and departments with public relations programs to pursue the accreditation with ACEJMC or certification through PRSA. 

ACEJMC 

Although ACEJMC does not define exactly how units design their programs, the organization outlines nine core standards for accreditation: 1. Mission, governance, and administration; 2. Curriculum and instruction; 3. Diversity and inclusiveness; 4. Full-time and part-time faculty; 5. Scholarship, which includes research, creative, and professional service; 6. Student services; 7. Resources, facilities, and equipment; 8. Professional and public service; 9. Assessment of learning outcomes (ACEJMC, n.d.-b). With each standard there is a basic principle and an outline of key indicators and evidence. These standards provide the rubric for how the programs are evaluated during the accreditation process. The process of accreditation happens every six years and programs complete a self-study before an accreditation team conducts a site visit. After the self-study and site visit, the national accrediting committee reviews the materials and votes, and then the national accrediting council takes final action (ACEJMC, n.d.-c). 

PRSA Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) 

In 1989, the Public Relations Society of America established a certification for public relations programs through its educational affairs committee (PRSSA, 2020). Similar to the ACEJMC process, the CEPR requires programs to submit a self-assessment, followed by a site visit with two PRSA members. CEPR identifies eight standards, which include an analysis of the curriculum; faculty; resources, equipment, and facilities; students; assessment; professional affiliations; relationship with the unit and university; and perspectives on diversity and global public relations (PRSSA, 2020). 

Value of Accreditation 

Research suggests that most journalism and mass communication programs see accreditation as a path to reputation enhancement (Blom et al., 2012). There is no evidence to suggest that accredited schools are “better” than unaccredited schools, especially when it comes to social justice issues (e.g., human rights) (Blom et al., 2012; Reilly, 2018; Seamon, 2010). However, ethics is a key component attributed to professional and public service (ACEJMC) and curriculum and diversity and global perspectives (CEPR). 

Pedagogy and Curricula

The previous standards review and research into accreditation suggests that incorporating ethics more robustly will be initiated by the professor or the school. In 1999, in one of the earliest PR pedagogy articles, Coombs and Rybacki synthesized survey results and conversations that emerged from a pedagogy task force team at the National Communication Association (NCA) summer conference on public relations education. Coombs and Rybacki (1999) concluded the public relations pedagogy was “steeped in active learning” (p. 55). At the time, PR professors placed an emphasis on bridging theory and practice through dynamic assignments, lessons, and outside-of-the-classroom opportunities (Coombs & Rybacki, 1999). Since this trailblazing article on public relations pedagogy, scholars have explored pedagogy through the lens of writing (e.g., Hardin & Pompper, 2004; Waymer, 2014), social media (e.g., Kim & Freberg, 2016), and international perspectives (e.g., Thompson, 2018).

Public Relations Curricula 

Public relations scholars who study PR curriculum note that there has been a transition toward a more skills-based, professional focus (Auger & Cho, 2016). For some, the shift to a more professionally minded profession can erode what some believe is the purpose of higher education, which is to pursue knowledge for the sake of pursuing knowledge (Auger & Cho, 2016; Brint et al., 2005). Attempting to focus on skills-based lessons can result in the exclusion of topics such as race, globalization, and interdisciplinary perspectives (Auger & Cho, 2016). 

A powerful indicator of curricula decisions and priorities can result from the organization in which a public relations program is housed. Public relations programs are sometimes housed in journalism and mass communication schools but are found equally in speech, liberal arts, and business departments and schools (Kruckeberg, 1998). In their study of 234 public relations programs, Auger and Cho (2016) found that more than half (57%) of PR programs were affiliated with the liberal arts and humanities and almost one-third (38%) were housed in communication and journalism schools.

For course offerings, Auger and Cho (2016) found that the liberal arts (53%) and journalism schools (57%) were more likely to offer ethics courses than the public relations programs housed in business schools (31%). The most common type of classes across the curricula were principles/introductory classes, mass communication theory, law, writing, campaigns, and research (Auger & Cho, 2016). Only 51% of programs offered a media ethics class in their curricula, while only 3% offered a specific public relations ethics course (Auger & Cho, 2016). 

Public Relations Skills

As previously discussed, public relations curricula programs are often labeled as a practical field, meaning students can expect to encounter applicable hard and soft skills that they can transfer to their internships and professional careers. As McCleneghan (2006) suggests, “No other profession requires greater knowledge of ‘how to’ communicate than public relations” (p. 42). Almost every year some think-piece pitches a list of the most important skills PR students need to know once they graduate. For example, in 2013, The Guardian listed those skills as communication, research, writing, international mindset, and creativity (Turner, 2013). Seven years later in 2020, the media monitoring and social listening platform Meltwater identified the top 10 skills as: social media, copyrighting, management, multimedia and new media skills, analytics, visual branding, writing, virtual team management, and influencer collaboration (Garrett, 2020).

Public relations scholars have explored the topics of how relevant skills translate from the classroom into the professional world. For example, in 2014, Todd surveyed PRSA members on 24 quantitative categories divided into two subgroups, job skills and professional characteristics, to determine how prepared entry-level workers were for the workforce. The goal of this survey was to determine how Millennial (born between 1982-2002), entry-level workers rate themselves compared to their supervisors, and the survey’s 165 participants were asked to rank themselves or their entry-level employees on the following skills: writing, technology, research, social media, computer, job task preparation, and overall quality of work and performance (Todd, 2014). In addition to these practical skills, Todd (2014) identified professional characteristics (i.e., soft skills) that were key performance indicators in the public relations profession (e.g., awareness of ethics, creativity, cooperation, and time management). The “pressure to teach students the most relevant knowledge and skills to be industry-ready” is one that educators are familiar with, and assessments like these can illuminate how recent graduates are performing  (Todd, 2014, p. 790).

The Commission on Public Relations Education (2018) found that writing is a core skill for future public relations professionals and should be included in every public relations class. In addition to writing, the report suggests that research remains a foundational skill with particular attention paid to data, analytics, and big data (CPRE, 2018). Finally, technology is seen as a “triple threat challenge” (i.e., educators must teach it, study it, and do it) (CPRE, 2018, p. 14). Along with these tangible skills, the report also stressed the need for the incorporation of ethics (CPRE, 2018).

Ethics as a Skill 

Research suggests that educators, professionals, mentors, and advisers agree that ethics is a key skill for graduates (Eschenfelder, 2011). In public relations programs, ethics is often covered in principles, writing, campaigns, and case studies in the classroom and in textbooks (Hutchinson, 2002). These more traditional, static forms of learning ethics, however, might contribute to entry-level public relations professionals overestimating their ability to practice and understand ethical principles and their decision-making skills (Eschenfelder, 2011). Conway and Groshek (2009) suggest that students might gain more from interactive experiences through student media and internships, and Curtin et al. (2011) found that mentors (e.g., PRSA industry advisers and PRSSA faculty advisers) can influence younger workers as they consider ethical dilemmas (also see Todd, 2009). Furthermore, ethics competency is a skill that employers seek from new hires and one that educators feel compelled to teach (DiStaso et al., 2009). Unfortunately, employers rated their employees low on ethics skills (Todd, 2014). These studies suggest that the key to students gaining these skills outside of the classroom in meaningful ways is through dynamic coursework, such as service and project-based learning (e.g., McCollough, 2018), student-run agencies (e.g., Haley et al., 2016), and internships. According to experiential learning theory, this type of learning environment is vital for students as they understand and process experiences into knowledge. 

Experiential Learning Theory

According to Dewey (1938) and other scholars of experiential learning theory (ELT), the theory is best understood as a “theory of experience” (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 193). This work draws on learning as the “process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” and learning is the result of “grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 41). ELT focuses on the process rather than the outcome, and scholars of experiential learning theory identify six pillars that facilitate experience as a key component to human learning and development. These pillars can be summarized as: learning as a holistic process that creates knowledge; learning as relearning; and learning as a process that involves transactions between a person and their environment, which are primarily driven by finding solutions for conflict, difference, and disagreements (Kolb, 1984; Kolb & Kolb, 2005).  Using ELT as a foundation in understanding knowledge acquisition, students can grasp experiences through concrete experience (apprehension) and abstract conceptualization (comprehension) and can transform through reflective observation (intension) and active experimentation (extension) (Baker et al., 2002; Fraustino et al., 2015; Kolb, 1984). These tactics work together and provide students with the experience of process: they can engage, internalize, observe and analyze, and then experiment with conclusions (Fraustino et al., 2015).

ELT and the Strategic Communication Classroom 

Scholarship suggests that public relations professors and instructors are looking to incorporate ELT-driven lessons, assignments, and projects into the public relations classroom. For example, Fraustino et al. (2015) studied the relationship between Twitter chats and digital case studies (i.e., using the now defunct app Storify) and whether students apply public relations concepts to those practices. Other scholars have explored how students engage in teleworking in a cross-institutional setting (Madden et al., 2016), service learning and empathy (Everhart et al., 2016), public relations writing (Meganck & Smith, 2019), and learning about journalism storytelling through Instagram Stories (Byrd & Denney, 2018). 

Research Questions

To understand the present state of ethics education at ACEJMC-accredited and CEPR-certified schools, the present study examines the following research questions:

RQ1: How do programs following both the ACEJMC and CEPR guidelines address ethics writ large in their curricula?

RQ2: How are ethics addressed in public-relations-specific courses in ACEJMC and CEPR accredited programs?

Method

To answer the research questions, we compiled a list of ACEJMC accredited programs (n = 112), PRSA CEPR programs (n = 40), and determined which programs were listed in both (n = 15). After we identified the 15 schools with ACEJMC accreditation and PRSA CEPR certification, we analyzed the 2020 programs of study and course catalogs to determine what kind of public relations program each school offered (e.g., major, concentration, or emphasis area), number of credit hours required inside and outside of the unit, if there were ethics-specific courses available and/or required, if there was a PR-ethics-specific course available and/or required, and which courses specifically mentioned ethics in their course descriptions. To achieve internal validity, the research team first coded three universities collectively and then each of the three researchers individually coded the four remaining schools.

The method of content analysis was chosen for multiple reasons. First, it provided an evidence-based analysis of the offerings and requirements of the programs. While previous studies regarding public relations education used a survey approach (DiStaso et al., 2009; Neill, 2017; Silverman et al., 2014), curriculum studies from other disciplines in mass communication found course descriptions to be a fruitful avenue for analysis (Spillman et al., 2017; Tanner et al., 2012). Second, as course names and descriptions are used as indicators of course content and catalogs as indicators of program requirements, their use here is congruent. Finally, content analysis proved to be an expeditious way to collect data, as some previous studies saw low response rates and used content analysis to supplement their data (e.g., Tanner et al., 2012).

Findings

To address RQ1, we examined the listings of required courses for the public relations programs at each school. Of the 15 schools, 10 offered public relations as a major, two as an emphasis area, two as a concentration, and one as a specialization. Most schools required students to complete 34-48 credit hours (with three schools requiring 48, and six schools requiring 36-39 credit hours) in public relations and related classes. Programs required as few as three and as many as 27 credit hours be taken outside of the major (e.g., business or statistics classes). Six schools required zero credit hours outside of the program.

Most schools taught elective ethics overall in the form of mass communication ethics, ethics and law, and/or media ethics courses (87%). Thirteen of the 15 schools offered one of these courses—tending to approach ethics similar to the University of Florida (n.d.-a), which described them as a cross-disciplinary introduction to study and practice. Fewer schools required students to take a general mass communication ethics class (67%). Thus, it is possible for a third of these public relations students to graduate without any department ethics training. Furthermore, 13% of students appeared to have no or limited access to ethics training within their major.

To answer RQ2, we analyzed the course descriptions for each of the programs. Only five universities offered an elective in PR-specific ethics (33%) and fewer schools required a public-relations-specific ethics course (20%). Drake University (n.d.-a) had an elective course called Cases in Ethical PR Practice that prepared students through “instruction and practice to execute professional-level thinking, analysis, writing and presentation skills needed for successful public relations campaign management” (Drake University, n.d.-b, para. 1). The University of Florida (n.d.-b) offered an Ethics and Professional Responsibility in Public Relations course, which focused on “ethical responsibilities of the public relations professional” (para. 1). This course provided knowledge and skills for study to “reach and justify ethical decisions,” which elicits “a sense of personal and professional responsibility” (para. 1).

The findings suggest that most students receive their ethics training through interdisciplinary study, focusing on the intersection of law, ethics, and mass communication professions (e.g., journalism, advertising, media studies). Public relations ethics, on the other hand, are more likely to be a learning objective or talking point in courses such as principles of/introduction to public relations, campaigns, and some case studies courses. Five programs addressed ethics in the course description for their Principles of Public Relations classes. These classes indicated topics will cover “ethics and social responsibility” (Syracuse University, n.d., para. 1) or “persuasion, media relations, crisis communication, reputation management, and ethics” (Indiana University, n.d., para. 2), many of which explored different ethical approaches and introduced students to codes of ethics (e.g., PRSA). This positioning indicates that schools recognize the need to introduce ethics early.

Some schools engaged with ethics instruction and scholarship through journalism, multimedia, or advertising classes. The University of Memphis (n.d.), for example, offered an elective class for public relations students in multimedia storytelling in which students could expect to learn and understand “legal and ethical issues in photography” (para. 1). The University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh (n.d.) offered a course in Special Topics in Writing/Editing, which addressed several topics, including media ethics. 

These findings indicate that although ethics is an important part of a public relations student’s curricula, there is an opportunity to expand this offering of public-relations-specific ethics courses.

Discussion

After analyzing the programs at 15 ACEJMC and PRSA CEPR schools, this study’s findings suggest there is room for growth regarding public relations ethics education. Through our analysis of selected public relations programs, we have concluded that public relations programs need to revisit their PR ethics requirements. Given ACEJMC accredited and PRSA certified schools have chosen to hold themselves to higher standards, they must be leaders in adopting the CPRE and PRSA recommendations for PR ethics training. Based on their accreditation and certification and the standards of both, the 15 programs in our study should be leading the way on teaching ethics and providing students with the dynamic opportunities to engage the subject matter. The fact that 80% of students might graduate without a PR ethics course and a third of students can graduate without an ethics course at all, sets students up for difficulty in the industry upon graduation. As employers expect ethical knowledge in their hires, universities need to respond by providing ethics training to students.

Experiential Learning Theory in the Ethics Classroom 

The CPRE (2018) report outlines a new course proposal summary for faculty and administrators wishing to build a new PR ethics class based on the recommendations from the undergraduate education report. The report outlines key outcomes and assessment metrics, which include written assignments, class discussions, quizzes, exams, presentations, and projects (Bortree et al., 2019). The provided catalog descriptions focus on students engaging in “discussions and case studies” and being able to “apply learning from the course to an original case study paper” (Bortree et al., 2019, p. 3). In addition, courses should “bridge cultural applications and offer practical insights on how communicators . . . might develop communication strategies that uphold ethical principles” (Bortree et al., 2019, p. 3). 

The active language used in these course and catalog descriptions and the proposed assignments suggest that an experiential learning approach would be best suited for the instruction of PR ethics. Research suggests that lectures on ethics are not as valuable as case studies (Canary, 2007; Todd, 2009), and many students are receiving their ethical training through internships and mentors (Conway & Groshek, 2009; Curtin et al., 2011; Todd, 2014). Although internships and real-world opportunities are wonderful learning tools for students, there is little guarantee that ethics will be practiced in a consistent manner, which makes these environments a challenge.  

For many internships and mentor-driven relationships, the outcome might outweigh the process. Given that experiential learning is process-driven and, as Kolb and Kolb (2005) describe, “a theory of experience” (p. 193), students must be exposed to ethics through a number of different processes and experiences. Our findings indicate that most conversations around ethics are happening in siloed spaces, such as in relationships with the law or as a dedicated week during an introduction to a public relations class. For students to grasp and transform experiences around ethical dilemmas and cases, approaching the subject manner in a way that lets them work together and experience the process is key for entry-level public relations professionals developing the critical thinking needed for this important skill (Eschenfelder, 2011). A standalone ethics course would be a major step toward resolving these issues and would answer the call for greater ethics education from previous research (DiStaso et al., 2009; Neill, 2017; Silverman et al., 2014). 

Conclusion

Based on the previous research presented in this study and our own findings, we recommend that public relations programs implement and require a case-study-based public relations ethics course for their advanced-level students. This class should be completed at a level greater than foundational public relations courses and should draw on real work to provide students with the opportunity to grasp and transform the experience of an ethical situation. In this course, students can process the dilemma, engage, internalize, observe and analyze, and experiment with different conclusions (see Fraustino et al., 2015). 

In addition to a case study class, professors and administrators should consider including the word ethics in course descriptions for experiential learning courses, client work, and capstone classes (e.g., internships, student-run agencies, research, and campaigns). Addressing ethics in all facets of a student’s education and creating a specific public-relations-centered ethics course would help students graduate with a more robust understanding of what it means to be an ethical public relations professional. 

The present study is limited in its scope by only examining ACEJMC and CEPR programs. Although the population of universities utilized in this study makes sense for examining those at the highest standards, further investigation across both review bodies would present a clearer picture of the state of public relations education. Future studies should examine these schools as well as public relations programs without certification or accreditation. 

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© Copyright 2020 AEJMC Public Relations Division

To cite this article: Del Rosso, T., Haught, M.J., & Malone, K.S. (2020). Accreditation, curriculum, and ethics: Exploring the public relations education landscape. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(3), 4-28. http://aejmc.us/jpre/2020/12/22/accreditation-curriculum-and-ethics-exploring-the-public-relations-education-landscape/

Undergraduate Public Relations in the United States: The 2017 Commission on Public Relations Education Report

Author

Marcia DiStaso, Ph.D., APR
Associate Professor
Public Relations Department Chair
University of Florida
mdistaso@ufl.edu

INTRODUCTION

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.

METHOD

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.

Survey Distribution

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.

RESULTS

Demographics

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. 

Hiring Characteristics/Experience

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):

  1. Writing performance (M = 4.88, SD = 0.40); 1.98 gap in what is found
  2. Internship or work experience (M = 4.67, SD = 0.71); 0.84 gap in what is found
  3. Public relations coursework (M = 4.47, SD = 0.83); 0.50 gap in what is found
  4. Strong references (M = 4.22, SD = 0.92); 0.86 gap in what is found
  5. 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:

  1. Certificate in public relations (M = 2.38, SD = 1.18)
  2. Study abroad experience (M = 2.39, SD = 1.12)
  3. Certifications (e.g., Hootsuite, Google Analytics, coding) (M = 2.88, SD = 1.19)
  4. Caliber of university attended (M = 3.02, SD = 1.07)
  5. Bi- or multi-lingual (M = 3.17, SD = 1.22)

Results showed five most commonly found characteristics/experiences in new hires:

  1. Active on social media (M = 4.40, SD = 0.76)
  2. Public relations coursework (M = 3.97, SD = 0.82)
  3. Internship or work experience (M = 3.83, SD = 0.86)
  4. Campus involvement (M = 3.48, SD = 0.82)
  5. 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:

  1. Certificate in public relations (M = 1.64, SD = 0.86)
  2. Certifications (e.g., Hootsuite, Google Analytics, coding) (M = 1.91, SD = 0.89)
  3. Bi- or multi-lingual (M = 2.00, SD = 0.84)
  4. Study abroad experience (M = 2.33, SD = 0.92)
  5. 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).

Curriculum Topics

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. 

Online Education

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. 

Internships

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.

Faculty Qualifications

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.

IMPLICATIONS

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.

Opportunities

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.  

REFERENCES

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

JPRE Special Issue, Vol. 5, Issue 3, Fall 2019

Current Issue


Introductory Letter by CPRE Co-Chairs Judith T. Phair, PhairAdvantage Communications, and Elizabeth L. Toth, University of Maryland

Research Article

Undergraduate Public Relations in the United States: The 2017 Commission on Public Relations Education Report by Marcia DiStaso, University of Florida

Teaching Brief

Ethics Education in Public Relations: State of Student Preparation and Agency Training in Ethical Decision-Making by Denise Bortree, Penn State University