Vol. 9 ­ 2008

Editorial Note ­ Kate Fitch -Special Issue Editor

Perceptions of professionalism: Practitioner reflections on the state of Australian public relations.­_ Katharina Wolf and Nigel de Bussy

The value of academia: variance among academic and practitioner perspectives on the role of public relations academics - Kate Byrne

Continuous professional development and the discourse of professionalism in public relations practice - Sarah Williams

The role of research in PR practice: the other side of the story, from the developing world (Ghana) - Kwamena Kwansah-Aidoo and Kwesi Aggrey

The business of relationships ­ Joy Chia

NGOs, identities, and religion: a case of split personalities? - Paul Adams and Nigel de Bussy

Employee engagement in organisations' social capital. Does public relations have a role? - Joy Chia and Margaret Peters

Employer of choice- staff perspectives - Rob Gill

Towards a generic skills learning model in public relations: student perspectives on self evaluation -Amisha Mehta and Robina Xavier

An exploratory study of relationships between local government media officers and journalists in regional Australia - Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller


Editorial Note

This edition of the Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal publishes nine refereed papers from the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) Academic Forum 2008. Both the forum and the journal remain important research activities for Australian public relations academics. Both represent the only journal and conference exclusive to public relations, rather than broader communication disciplines, in Australia. It is a fantastic opportunity that the refereed papers from the forum can be more widely disseminated through publication in this special issue of the Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, and my thanks go to the journal editor, Mark Sheehan.

There were some common themes in the papers presented at the forum. Several explored the status of the public relations profession. Katharina Wolf and Nigel de Bussy's paper investigated practitioners' perceptions of professionalism and, in a qualitative study of over 300 practitioners, found many perceived public relations to be a fragmented industry which lacks a strong industry voice and engagement with other disciplines and professional associations.

Ironically, one barrier to professionalism is seen as the gap between academics and practitioners, which is explored in a thoughtful paper by Kate Byrne. This paper, a follow-up study to one published in last year's journal, addresses the perception by public relations practitioners that academics are out of touch with industry and unresponsive to industry needs, despite the fact that many public relations academics have worked in industry.

The ongoing engagement with professionalism continued with Sarah Williams' qualitative analysis of 12 interviews with UK practitioners, and professional association discourses around professionalism. One interesting finding is that for several of the practitioners interviewed, public relations is a career rather than a job, and therefore career development and personal fulfillment are the main motivation for engaging in continuing professional development activities.

Kwamena Kwansah-Aidoo and Kwesi Aggrey's paper also explored public relations in another country, in Ghana. The authors investigated the use of, and views towards, research in public relations campaigns and activities by practitioners. The paper is a welcome addition to understanding public relations in a developing nation context.

Other papers explored public relations in terms of its impact on reputation and relationships. Paul Adams and Nigel de Bussy examined the increasing corporatisation of non-government organisations (NGOs). They found religious NGOs tend to downplay their religious identity in order to succeed in a secular Australia, but that there may be long-term consequences for the organisation's reputation.

Joy Chia explores the interpersonal/personal content of business exchanges in client-consultant relationships. Chia found a poor understanding of the personal and subjective components of all relationships, and identifies an opportunity for public relations practitioners to focus more on the development of long-term partnerships with their clients.

Two papers consider employee engagement. Joy Chia and Margaret Peters present their findings of a pilot study into the level of engagement of employees and potential employees to their organisations' funding of community projects. The role for public relations may be to find better ways to involve employees, in order to ensure the success of such programs.

Rob Gill researches why Employer of Choice (EOC) is important to Australian business and how computer-assisted learning can be a valuable tool in educating the employees of a large organisation. EOC reflects the value an organisation places on its staff and employees, and its impact on staff retention rates and overall performance of an organisation. Gills finds that commitment to EOC strategies improves not only an organisation's reputation but also staff motivation.

Finally, Amisha Mehta and Robina Xavier compare students' and markers' evaluation of student work with the aim of developing the generic skill of self-evaluation. Papers exploring pedagogy are an important contribution to public relations education. The lively discussion this study evoked at the forum highlights the interest in pedagogical issues in the discipline.

The forum, and this journal, could only happen thanks to the anonymous reviewers, many of whom generously offered constructive feedback and suggestions, regardless of whether they were accepting or rejecting a paper. Many of the authors expressed special thanks for these comments; public relations scholarship in Australia is the richer for such collegiality.

Kate Fitch - Special Issue Editor
Program Chair and Senior Lecturer in Public Relations
Murdoch University
Perth, Australia


Perceptions of professionalism: Practitioner reflections on the state of Australian public relations

Katharina Wolf

Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia

and

Nigel de Bussy

Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia

This paper highlights Australian public relations practitioners' perceptions of the current state of their profession, based on a study conducted in late 2007/early 2008. Approximately half the respondents were non-members of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), indicating that the representativeness of the peak professional body remains at best questionable. This has implications for standards of practice, compliance with codes of ethics (Bowen, 2007) and, ultimately, the professionalisation of the field. Despite global efforts by professional associations to develop the public relations body of knowledge, enforce higher ethical standards, and encourage certification and accreditation - the three defining characteristics of a profession (Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2006; Grunig & Hunt, 1984) - research results indicate that public relations in Australia continues to be regarded as a 'semi-profession' (Dozier, 1992). Despite seeing some improvements, respondents reported a continued need to educate employers, management and the general public about the roles and responsibilities of public relations. Concerns were also raised about the ability of professional bodies - specifically the PRIA - to handle ethical issues and misconduct, in order to protect the standing and reputation of the field.

 


The value of academia: variance among academic and practitioner perspectives on the role of public relations academics

Kate Byrne

University of Canberra, Australia

This paper presents the results of investigation into the perceived value of public relations academics and academia by public relations academics and practitioners in Australia. This research forms part of broader doctoral research into areas of convergence and divergence in terms of perceptions of theory and practice in the public relations field among practitioners and academics in Australia.

While most practitioners in the sample see academics as adding value to the public relations field, a significant proportion do not. Of the public relations practitioners who do not perceive academia as adding value to the field, responses are underpinned by a common theme; academia is out of touch with industry and unresponsive to practitioner needs.

Findings indicate that academics may not be as out of touch as practitioners imagine. The majority of academics in the sample have worked as practitioners, and demonstrate insight into public relations practitioner duties. Furthermore, findings show that practitioners and academics research interests overlap, indicating that academics can be useful contributors to public relations practice.

Practitioners imagine academics in the field as teachers, researchers, credibility builders, practitioner problem solvers, facilitators, and industry advocates. Meanwhile, most academics in the sample did not perceive their roles as broadly. This paper posits that variance in academic role expectations between each group devalues notions of academia, and promotes the role of the Public Relations Institute of Australia as a potentially powerful intermediary between academics and practitioners in Australia.


Continuous professional development and the discourse of professionalism in public relations practice

Sarah Williams

University Of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, United Kingdom

This phenomenological study addresses the issue of continuing professional development (CPD) in public relations practice. Through a series of twelve qualitative interviews, the author considers the views of practitioners currently engaged in CPD and asks whether informants' perceptions of their professionalism are influenced by their participation in CPD schemes.

Following detailed analysis of the significant statements contained in the interview data, several common themes emerged which raise interesting questions for the individual practice of CPD in public relations, and also for the way in which CPD is both promoted and managed by professional bodies. The paper also examines the relationship between individual practitioner and professional body discourses on CPD and professionalism.

While this small-scale study is not representative of the state of continuous professional development across the entire PR industry, it provides a useful overview of practitioner views and sets CPD in the context of current debates on professionalism in public relations. A number of areas for further research are also identified; these include issues relating to the position of professional body policy towards CPD and the role of mentoring to effective CPD practice.

Considering professionalisation discourses, the study further considers the role CPD might play in helping the public relations industry to professionalise, concluding that for this to happen, professional body policy must ensure that CPD assumes greater significance to practitioners.


The role of research in PR practice: the other side of the story, from the developing world (Ghana)

Kwamena Kwansah-Aidoo

Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia

and

Kwesi Aggrey

University of Education, Winneba, Ghana University of Education, Winneba, Ghana

Some leading public relations scholars in Western developed countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK, have observed that the use of research by public relations practitioners is generally not encouraging. This view is supported by research findings from a number of countries (see, for example, Grunig (1992), Tymson & Lazar (2006), Cutlip, Center & Broom (2006), Lindenmann (2003)). On the contrary, there is hardly any literature on the subject matter in developing countries, and particularly Africa. At best, what we have is undocumented anecdotal support of the notion that research hardly gets attention in public relation practice in developing countries.

This paper is a small step in the direction of addressing the imbalance in the literature relating to the use of research in public relations or otherwise in developing countries. In relation to the research-practice nexus, this paper seeks to answer two main questions: (1) what are the views of practitioners' concerning the use of research in public relations practice? (2) Is public relations practice in public enterprises in Ghana informed by research?

Data was collected through a self-administered questionnaire and the sample was drawn from a population consisting of government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) that were featured in Ghana's 2007 budget statement. The findings show that contrary to popular belief, public relations practice within the public/government sector in Ghana is informed by research and that practitioners report that their research activities are aimed at consensus.


The business of relationships

Joy Chia

University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia

Public relations is a profession where successful relationships are developed, maintained and effectively managed. This paper suggests that amidst the flurry of relational exchanges personal context, or perspective is important to successful business exchanges making client-consultant relationships vibrant, dynamic and meaningful. Through a qualitative study of consultant-client exchanges an interpretivist approach facilitates understanding and provides insight into delicate relational exchanges that take place within the business of managing public relations programs and activities. Four types of relationships emerged, some successful, some unsuccessful, some appearing to be successful, and others breaking down as relationships become strained and difficult to manage. The paper suggests that within deadlines, demands and business pressures there is considerable opportunity to value relationships and develop long-term partnerships, however, realising relational potential does not seem to be at the forefront of practitioners' business planning. The theoretical context of these relationships is explored within interpersonal theory and complexity theory as the emergence of relational theory gains significance in public relations scholarship.


NGOs, identities, and religion: a case of split personalities?

Paul Adams

Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia

and

Nigel de Bussy

Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia

The past two decades have seen considerable worldwide growth in the size and influence of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Some 3,451 NGOs were listed as having consultative status by the United Nations in 2007. Using a more relaxed definition of 'NGO', some commentators have estimated the number of such organisations an order of magnitude higher (Mathews, 1997). One explanation for the expansion of the sector is that NGOs meet societal needs which corporations and governments either cannot or will not, thus circumventing problems inherent to both profit maximisation and bureaucratic structures (Seibel & Anheier, 1990). It is therefore ironic that many NGOs, established as a necessary alternative to commercial enterprises, are increasingly run on corporate lines (James, 1997). This trend is especially apparent in the corporate identities leading NGOs develop and project to their stakeholders through the deployment of strategic communication programs. This paper presents a comparative case study of the Australian arms of two well-known international NGOs, both operating in the same sector (humanitarian aid). One of the organisations in question is religiously-based, the other is secular in nature. The study found that the Religiously-based Non-Governmental Organisation (RNGO) deliberately downplays its religious identity in order to succeed in an increasingly secular Australian social environment. The implications for organisational identity and identification in the NGO sector are discussed. To some extent it appears inevitable that NGOs must cultivate a split personality to achieve their goals, creating both ethical and practical dilemmas for their public relations advisers.

 


Employee engagement in organisations' social capital. Does public relations have a role?

Joy Chia

University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia

and

Margaret Peters

University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia

This paper presents initial findings of a pilot study of financial institutions that investigates whether employees of these organisations, or those seeking employment in such organisations, identify with and are committed to organisations' social capital goals. The study, a work in progress, undertakes an in-depth qualitative analysis and case study of two organisations, one in Canada and one in Australia, committed to funding community projects as part of their social capital investment. This paper begins to unravel some of the findings of the Canadian research that also included a participatory observation component with Chief Executives Officers, Vice Presidents and Board Members of credit unions.

Following Bourdieu (1986), social capital in the context of this paper refers to the investment of an organisation in community programs where employee involvement is central to the success of these programs. Through an interpretive analysis, the paper provides some initial insights to employee-community engagement and suggests that the public relations role in realising organisations' social goals and objectives is subtle; a team approach is required to be successful.


Employer of choice-staff perspectives

Rob Gill

Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia

"Employer of Choice" (EOC) is an evolving principle for Australian business. EOC reflects the value and importance organisations place on their key stakeholders - their staff. This paper aims to define employer of choice for Australian business conditions, demonstrate the link between EOC and "Corporate Social Responsibility" (CSR), expand on the valuable contribution staff add to organisational "Reputation and Risk Management", and illustrate how "Information and Communication Technology" (ICT) can provide the ideal platform for educating a large office-based staff about their organisation's EOC program.

Increasing numbers of Australian organisations are paying greater attention to motivating and effectively utilising the skills of their employees. The current climate of buoyant employment in Australia enables employees and job-seekers to look beyond monetary incentive in employment to include aligning work culture with their individual beliefs on corporate, environment and social responsibility. Many organisations are working hard to acquire EOC status, as EOC programs are one way of addressing employee requirements. This paper suggests "Computer Assisted Learning" (CAL), which embraces the constructivists' principles of adult learning, enables individually tailored education for large office-based staff on their organisation's EOC programs, enhancing opportunities to reflect an organisation's brand and desirable culture.

 


Towards a generic skills learning model in public relations: student perspectives on self evaluation

Amisha Mehta

Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia

and

Robina Xavier

Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia

Public relations educators and employers have long recognised the importance of technical skills including writing and campaign planning. Although technical and managerial skills are essential to practice and valued by employers, generic skills and capabilities including problem-solving, critical analysis, creative thinking, and self evaluation are equally relevant. Generic skills are valued highly by employers (Clifford, 1999), governments (DEST, 2004), and educators (McWilliam, 2008), and advocated by accrediting professional bodies throughout the world (Anderson, 1999; Hon, Fitzpatrick & Hall, 2004). Support for generic skills comes at a time when educational specialists are also calling for different "sorts" of education and training tailored to a new generation of students (McWilliam, 2008). Within this context of change and curriculum renewal, there is a need to first examine the student perspective on generic skills.

Through the generic skill of self evaluation, this study examines how approximately 200 students self evaluated assignments and interpreted the differences between their self and a marker's evaluation of performance. The results show strong support for self evaluation techniques to be embedded in a multi layered curricula. The findings of this research are significant to public relations educators, practitioners and professional bodies as they have implications for course design and preparing students for lifelong learning and reflective practice. The findings will be used to develop an integrated learning model to be presented in later papers.

 


An exploratory study of relationships between local government media officers and journalists in regional Australia

Kristy Hess

Deakin University

and

Lisa Waller

Deakin University

This exploratory study examines the influence local government media officers have in disseminating their messages to the public through regional newspapers in Australia. The study follows Gandy's information subsidy theory and uses interviews with public relations officers across Australia to determine their perceptions of regional newspaper journalists and their level of satisfaction with newspapers as an effective medium for local government news and information. The study found media officers have a high level of satisfaction when it comes to their relationship with regional journalists and the use of their media releases largely because their work is often reproduced verbatim by the press. The researchers argue that local government media officers are gaining increasing influence over the messages being disseminated to the public through newspapers and their own communications mediums such as ratepayer funded newsletters/newspapers.


 

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