(This article was published in The Assam Tribune today on the ocassion of National Public Relations Day. The newspaper edited and left out two very relevant paragraphs. So, I am posting the full article here.)
The present educational scenario in our country marks the decline of popularity of traditional knowledge-oriented social science subjects like economics, history and political science in one hand and the rise of industry-oriented so-called professional or job-oriented subjects like mass communication, journalism, public relations, advertising and tourism etc. While institutes imparting education in these increasingly popular courses have mushroomed, the quality of education these institutes impart needs closer examination and review.
The primary goal of any industry-oriented course is to develop and produce trained and skilled human resources for the industry. The success of such a course in this direction depends primarily on two factors – the curriculum adopted and the teaching imparted. For the success of any professional course of education, the curriculum should reflect the current development in the industry and the teaching should fulfill the actual need of the trained manpower in the industry. To whatever extent the course offered by any institute in these fields may be hyped up, the institute’s efficacy is certified by the product churned out by the institute. To be able to produce suitable manpower for industry, the industry-related academic courses should be designed and reviewed keeping in mind the need of the industry in real time. The question that exercises our minds however is - whether the available professional courses in the northeastern region have been able to fulfill these two prerequisites or not? So, before enrolling into any professional course in any institute, one should clearly understand the details of the curriculum offered and its relevance vis-à-vis the industry it serves as well as the capabilities of the faculty imparting such education.
The rapid growth of print and electronic media during the last two decades in our country has created a vast demand for trained manpower in the field of Mass Communication and Journalism. Considering the fact that the media industry is estimated to grow at about 15% in the next few years, the demand is likely to increase. The other profession that has attained much attention, during the same period is Public Relations. Though person like Niira Radia has unintentionally made it infamous, the profession has managed to stay in the headlines mainly due to the increasing realization of the power of public relations in emerging market-driven economy like India’s. The industry will require a large number of communicators – be it journalists or public relations professionals – in the coming days to avoid conflicts and to sustain the projected growth rate of 8% for the economy. In such a scenario, it becomes the combined responsibility of both academics and the industry to ensure that the professional trained in academic institutions are tailored to the actual need of the industry.
In most of the academic institutes and universities in India including the four universities in Assam that imparts training and teaching in Mass Communication has included public relations as a small part of the overall curriculum of Mass Communication and Journalism. As such, more detailed and less comprehensive issues like ethics in public relations and role of social media for public relations had been left out of the syllabus although these two are topics are poised to be major issues that are going to shape the future of public relations worldwide.
In fact, one of the major controversies exercising mind of academic administrators and policy makers, journalists, public relations practitioners and mass communication teachers around the world in the last decade is - whether Public Relations is to be retained as a part of journalism and therefore, should remain in academic curriculum of Mass Communication; or Public Relations has grown up as a strategic management tool and therefore be included in curriculum of Business Schools. Opinions on the topic are divided into two distinct camps – both keeping professional ethics at the centre of their arguments. While David Gordon argues that public relations and journalism will both benefit when they are taught in the same school or department, and ethics in both field have no relationship to this issue, John Michael Kitross argues that teaching public relations and journalism in the same department is detrimental to the ethics of both fields.
Another interesting metamorphosis going on the academic field of public relations education and training is the emphasis increasingly laid by hard-core management professionals trained by business schools on the use of public relations and social media solely as cost-effective marketing tools. These professionals argue that ethics of public relations, that of honest and total communication with intention of trust building, is nothing but a legacy of the days of Ivy Lee. Since, public relations is capable of influencing people’s decision and thereby increase sales, there are no qualms of ethics involved. They often advocate equating corporate communications, lobbying, publicity and propaganda with public relations.
New–age social media marketing experts like Gary Goldhammer, a former journalist and New York-based digital media marketing communications specialists, even goes to the extremity of proposing disbanding public relations professional associations like the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) terming it as legacy organization outliving its utility loosing relevance to present society. Gary says, people hardly care about the differences between marketing and public relations; for the masses they are the same, it is only the professionals who make a distinction between the two. The number of people like Gary who use social media like Facebook for marketing is increasing and their views are gaining ground. They argue that PRSA code of ethics regarding honesty and integrity in communication for building trust and understanding for an organization is outdated in today’s market-driven world. On the other hand, professional public relations bodies like PRSA do not support the overwhelming classification of public relations exclusively as a marketing or propaganda tool.
Goldhammer-kind professionals eager to establish their supremacy over social media as marketing tools are going to outnumber public relations professionals in our country soon. These marketing professionals in the industry and the business school mandarins claim that public relations is a specialized communication technique and like other aspects of business, communications management should also be left to managers; and therefore should be taught in a business school to the ‘would be’ managers. The Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata has recently announced a course in business communication which actually aims at imparting public relations knowledge and skills to the participants. Other business schools too include course in communication for business which provides the first insight into the field of public relations.
These developments, however, seems to have caught the academicians and professional bodies like the Public Relations Society of India (PRSI) unaware. Interestingly, PRSI announces in its website that it “was established in 1958 to promote the recognition of public relations as a profession and to formulate and interpret to the public the objectives and the potentialities of public relations as a strategic management function”. The PRSI has promotions of public relations education as one of its primary objectives, but nothing significant has come out of it so far (at least not in this part of the country). It is unfortunate that after more than 50 years of existence of PRSI, as people without any professional qualification dictates the role of public relations, the professionals in the field still has to fight for recognition for a meaningful role in any organization.
Public Relations professional world over believes that public relations has much more to it than mere marketing, publicity, propaganda or advertising. As mass communication gained its stature as medium of influence in democracies over the world, the public relations too grew as a very strong tool of public advocacy and opinion engineering. The added cost advantage of public relations as a marketing tool against advertising has made the profession a field vied for by professional from diverse fields. Thus, what once was a field for former journalists or mass communication specialists has now become equally available for marketing, brand-building, customer-service, sales and social media specialists.
Now everybody wants a piece of the pie. The situation has been further been aggravated by the absence of a universally accepted definition of public relations. The profession is defined by the practitioners as they practice it. The absence of a mandatory registration process like that of legal advocacy or medicine also has confounded the problem of lack of cohesive views among the professional in the field. It is high time that public relations professionals under the aegis of bodies like PRSI take note of these. Otherwise, the day would be near when views demanding disbanding of PRSI or propagating irrelevance of PRSI would be aired in our country too. And mass communicators will have to watch from the stands while professional managers will manage public relations like any other aspects of business.