A Change of Thought

Written by Dustin Manley

The most significant shift in modern public relations is its recognition and adoption by both organizations and practitioners as a strategic management function. While it may seem common that nearly every organization, regardless of sector or industry, requires a communications and public relations branch, this was not the case until relatively recently.

While practitioners are loathe to hear it, for most of the 20th century public relations was primarily regarded as a qualitative luxury. Numerous studies, including those by noted public relations theorist James Grunig, found that most practitioners were simply not incorporating scientific research and evaluation into their work.

The primary reasons for not using metrics in public relations were related to budgetary constraints and lack of formal education in research. A Canadian study published in 1990 found that only 3% of public relations practitioners had training in scientific research methods.

This was not an unexpected finding as few practitioners at the time had formal education in public relations. While a handful of colleges have been teaching public relations for many years, the only university program before 1999 was Mount Saint Vincent University’s Bachelor of Public Relations (BPR) introduced in 1977.

Today the situation has changed dramatically.

The launch of Royal Roads’ MBA in Public Relations and Communications Management in 1999 was the beginning of a sea of change for universities across Canada. It indicated the organizations were seriously beginning to seek formally trained public relations managers.

Today there are 10 undergraduate, 4 graduate, and approximately 30 diploma/post-graduate certificate programs in public relations and professional communications. Nearly every person entering the field has formal education while the situation was just the opposite 20 years ago. The curriculums for these programs must be approved by the provincial government and meet annual KPIs to ensure graduates leave with the requisite knowledge, skills, and competencies. Many of the post-secondary institutions also accept curriculum input from local businesses and professional associations.

For example, the CPRS’ National Council on Education published the Pathways to the Profession which outlines five curriculum frameworks to prepare students for the field, including: technical, career, management, leadership, and scholar.

In addition to Royal Roads, two other graduate programs tailored to working practitioners have been introduced: Mount Saint Vincent’s Masters of Public Relations (MPR, 2006) and McMaster’s Masters of Communications Management (MCM, 2007). These programs focus on the theory as well as the practice of integrating of public relations metrics and strategy into organization/business objections. The programs have been enormously successful with intermediate to senior-level practitioners.

Before these graduate programs were introduced, the closest designations available to graduate-level credentials were the CPRS’ Accredited in Public Relations (1968 - current) and the IABC’s Accredited Business Communicator (1973-2013). To be eligible for the designations, practitioners must be a CPRS or IABC members, have at least 5-7 years of managerial experience, and pay a registration fee of approximately $400. Practitioners are evaluated by the following three components: submission of a work sample, a written examination, and an oral examination.

As of 2014 there are at most 793 practitioners accredited by both the CPRS (487) and IABC (306) in Canada.

Each of the graduate programs at Royal Roads, McMaster, and Mount Saint Vincent universities share the same target audience as the CPRS and IABC but require significantly more commitment in terms of time and investment. Each program is two years in length, some require several weeks of on-campus study, with costs ranging from $22,000 to $43,000.

Over 842 practitioners have earned a graduate degree in public relations or professional communications since they became available in 1999. Applied graduate programs in Canada have matriculated more practitioners in 16 years than the CPRS and IABC have in nearly 50.

The growth of university education in public relations signifies the shift from a tactical to a strategic function, which is supported in part by an increase of theory-building research and peer-reviewed publications. During the 20th century there was a paucity of Canadian public relations research; the Journal of Professional Communication, the first academic journal in the field was launched in 2011. The growth of graduate programs at universities like Royal Roads, McMaster, and Mount Saint Vincent are generating more primary research that can be used by organizations and businesses to inform policy and research decisions.

A recent study found that public relations practitioners may possess higher levels of strategic thinking than peers in other managerial functions. Over 220 intermediate to executive-level public relations practitioners were asked to complete the Strategic Thinking Questionnaire (STQ). The STQ empirically determines an individual’s ability to think strategically through three skills:

1.       Systems Thinking: See situations holistically by understanding the properties and relationships that shape them.

2.       Reflection: Use past experiences and information to rationally guide future action.

3.       Reframing: Understand multiple perspectives to generate new insights and options for action.

Canadian public relations practitioners earned higher holistic strategic thinking scores than other managers surveyed at private and not-for-profit organizations in the U.S., U.K., and Asia. With a high aptitude for strategic thinking it is not surprising to see an increasing number of public relations roles at the manager, director, and executive levels in organizations.

Within the span of 30 years, public relations has gone from a qualitative ‘gut feel’ in many organizations to being one of the leading strategic management functions. While the rising importance of social media and growth of the knowledge economy are largely responsible for this shift, the introduction and success of university programs—particularly at the graduate level—are evidence that organizations are committed to the strategic function of public relations.