Theory or Practice?

Theory and/or practice? Opposite sides of the same profession?  Are academics who teach their students a bookshelf full of theory helping the profession, or failing a generation? I have often argued that no one will remember twenty years after university that it was Bernstein’s theory of stakeholders , only that it is a concept which helps the PR practitioner remember that there are lots of publics. At a recent Open Day for prospective students at SSU, I was asked by a parent whether we gave more emphasis to theory or practice. My answer was unequivocal- practice. Academics like to theorise about PR, and give pseudo-scientific explanations of what should happen, whilst practitioners roll up their sleeves and make things happen.

Others disagree. Take a look at Jim Macnamara’s article on Why We need more Theory. It’s one of the articles in an engaging new e report, Public Relations 2011 Issues, Insights, Ideas.   His cogently argued article has given me food for thought. And, as much as it pains me (I am a practitioner, after all) I get his point. Theory is an explanation of WHY things happen. Theory is a paradigm, a way of linking things together to explain and predict what is happening in practice. Without the means to explain what is happening, and why, we become less fluent, less persuasive practitioners.

Theory is a language, a set of terms that allow the conversation to happen. And, put in those terms, I have to admit that I am a highly theoretical practitioner. Any of my students will know that I talk a LOT about “the PR toolkit”, which is full of useful tools. But, when I last looked in that toolbox, I realised it was full of theories, too.  People who rummage around in there are able to use the basic screwdriver, hammer and spanner of PR to bodge together a simple piece of PR “furniture” like a press release, or they can use the same tools to build a magnificent strategic communication campaign that adds brand value, shapes reputation and changes lives – an aesthetically pleasing piece of PR “architecture”.

Theories are like analogies- if they help shed light and inspire action, then I am all for them!


About catherinesweet
Academic, professional, communicator, stakeholder in a dozen different disguises

7 Responses to Theory or Practice?

  1. From a final year PR student perspective, I think theory is extremely important to learn, because without the tools/foundations you can’t ge the job done let alone build the house! However without actually putting that theory into practice… it doesn’t stick (not for me anyway!) I think you need a balance of theory and practice in order to gain a valuable understanding of what best practice is and how to achieve it yourself (instead of just being shown… in a book) Despite my initial dislike like for/lack of faith in reflective writting, I have to admit they have helped me understand how the theory I learnt was relevant in the world of work (doing work experience).

    In my case, my final year project of running a pro bono PR campaign for a local charity has really helped me apply the theory I have learnt by actually using it in the ‘real’ world. This, for me has been brilliant because I feel ready to be launched into the profession head first, I know the theory and I now have faith in my ability to put that knowledge into practice!

  2. I’d noted the apparent contradiction too, but find no difficulty in concluding that you’re both right:

  3. Richard- as you pointed out, that’s the interesting fact- the two work together.Thanks too for the mention in despatches in your own blog- which I retweeted to my students a while ago. I am gratified to see that Emily, one of my student,s now gets the point, too. It can be hard when you are a second year student to make sense of all that “book learning”, but it does come together when you start doing real PR. And Emily, (this is a BIG EXAM HINT), being able to use theory to explain what we do in practice is perhaps the most valuable form of communication, because it makes it easier to explain things to people who are not always on the same page as PR practitioners.

  4. Louise says:

    Working on the live client brief with Emily I have found myself doing something then working backwards to find the theory that fits the practice. What I do is instinctive and I know from previous experience that it’s right but I feel that I have to prove it by discussing the theory. So knowing why something works is good like you say Catherine, it helps to explain things to people who don’t understand PR. Also being able to discuss theory has shut a few people up who thought PR was ‘mickey-mouse’ degree.

    • Hi Loiuse. While I get where you are coming from on your comment, what you will find is that over time, theory will become more than just an esay way to explain things- it can also be a catalyst to solving complex problems where instinct doesn’t necessarily give you the best way out of a problem. The more complicated the PR you do, the more you need theory to figure out a road map!

  5. danielaoana says:

    As a second year PR student, most of the times I would agree with Louise. Thinking about theory sometimes gets in the way and complicates things. For our units, when we do have to work on a project I often think about what needs to be done first and I then have to struggle to find theory that fits my idea. However, I know that had I never read the theory before, I wouldn’t have any clue as to what works in different circumstances. So, in the end, I guess the theory is the foundation on which ideas have to build on.

  6. Jim Macnamara says:

    Thanks for all the comments, particularly Catherine Sweet’s. Nice analysis of the complex, sometimes conflicted, but ultimately complementary role of theory and practice. Of course we have to produce graduates who can get a job (and do a job) when they leave university. But I heard a great quote today from our Vice Chancellor. He said technical and practical training produces graduates to work in industry; universities produce graduates who create new industries.

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