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Public Relations Question: Teach It In Journalism School or Business School?

A battle has been brewing this summer over the University of Oregon''s decision to launch a graduate public relations program as part of its Portland-based Journalism School. The question is whether public relations and journalism have anything to do with each other, but some of the rhetoric suggests that public relations counselors shouldn''t be allowed to breathe the same air as a journalist. 

Lost in this bickering is the fact that a public relations counselor assists journalists with virtually every story they develop and generate a fair portion of the story ideas that end up in print and on the air. Journalists hate to admit this, of course. We also help the organizations we represent open up to encourage a flow of information back and forth with their communities.

This overview from the July 14th issue of Eugene Weekly sums the issue up nicely:

"The Portland program — which is geared to public relations and communications management — has drawn criticism from those who think PR is not real journalism, just propaganda, and belongs in business schools. Strong arguments can be made. The skills taught in journalism schools, just like the skills taught in business schools, can be used for enlightened purposes, or for deception and greed. What is more disturbing is the growing popularity of PR courses, and the decline in students choosing the news-editorial track. Who do we blame? PR pays better than hard news reporting, and PR students help pay to keep the lights on at Allan Hall. But the UO also has a role in deciding which programs to promote and fund. Meanwhile, the voices of truth and justice across our nation are being drowned out by a cacophony of spinning corporate media schlock and deception. Public education''s highest priority should be to serve the public interest."

As a former journalist and a person who assists journalists around the world with their stories virtually every day as an accredited public relations counselor, I see a lot of merit in having a foundation in journalism. Being able to frame a story and understand how newsroom decisions are made are central to the ability to design and execute a successful media relations strategy.

That said, it is clear to me that many in the public relations field who were educated in J schools lack business fundamentals that are necessary to truly provide value to CEOs. As far as I know, most Journalism tracks continue to do a poor job of teaching the fundamentals of economics, accounting, marketing strategy and project management.

I''m not suggesting I agree with the Eugene Weekly. Any suggestion that public relations is tantamount to propoganda completely misses a central role of public relations counselors: to build bridges of understanding between the organization that we represent and the publics on which we depend.  No doubt about it, we are advocates, but we advocate in the context of the public''s interest. Doing otherwise is certain to fail.

Tim Gleason, Dean of the UO School of Journalism and Communication jumped into the arguement with this letter to the Eugene Weekly on July 28th:

"Contrary to your report in Slant (7/14), our efforts in Portland are not solely focused on "public relations and communication management." Yes, the first graduate degree program we expect to offer is in communication management, but the vision is much broader. As reported in The Oregonian (7/12), "the vision for the program extends beyond public relations to the development of future news reporters and editors, and a place where media professionals can engage with academics in the field." Over time the programs at the Turnbull Center will reflect the range of professions represented in Allen Hall.

"I regret that EW used the occasion of our announcement to smear all public relations professionals and public relations education. The ethical practice of public relations is an essential part of public discourse. It is very much in the public interest for the School of Journalism and Communication to continue to be engaged in teaching future generations of PR professionals and in contributing to the professional and public discussions concerning best practices in the field, as we have been for the better part of a century."

Now this is getting pretty good, huh? Well, you haven''t seen anything yet. What followed a few days later was a guest column in the Daily Emerald, UO''s campus newspaper, by George Beres, a 1955 graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, who was previously the public relations counselor for the University''s sports program. Beres, in no uncertain terms, admits unethical behavior by routinely lying, then he goes on to attack his former profession:

My lies added an inch or two to a player’s height, or 10 or 15 pounds to his weight, or withheld information about a key player’s injury. Coaches insisted, thinking the spin could give them some hidden advantage. I loyally, and foolishly, complied.

That was petty. It’s not petty when your government hires a public relations firm to change its image, as corporations and politicians long have done. Now it hits close to home with word that the University will start a “journalism” program away from the Eugene campus, at the University’s Portland Center, focusing at the start on a program in public relations. That’s playing a dangerous word game, as those entrusted with developing journalists suggest that the two antithetical disciplines are synonymous.

A capable administrator and talented journalist, Gleason disregards principle to defend the indefensible in his letter to the Eugene Weekly (July 28). He claims teaching PR in a journalism school is part of “a clear statement of our commitment to journalism.”

The hypocrisy — shared with most journalism deans nationally — is compounded by calling PR “communication management,” then claiming that a public relations program in Portland sets the stage for a “much broader vision” of journalism.

Most journalists define their profession as getting facts on matters of public concern and presenting them in a straightforward, honest way. Public relations, by contrast, operates in behalf of a client, using facts selectively to paint as attractive an image as possible.

The very name of the educational program reflects an identity crisis. Most schools now are listed as School of Journalism and Communications. How very sly. Just add a word to the name and you justify being able to lump public relations, advertising, promotions, et al with journalism.

Most journalism administrators feel forced into the sham by budget needs. Some told me putting PR into journalism is dictated by money state schools get from the number of students enrolled. Since PR has the reputation of paying better, most students enroll in public relations.

Significant journalists reinforce my contention. The late Fred Friendly, who was valued assistant to Edward R. Murrow decades ago, told me that it was a tragedy journalism education and public relations had to be connected at all. During my visit with NPR’s Daniel Schorr, he said the same thing. Recent Northwestern Dean Ken Bode met with me during his short time in the dean’s chair; my impression was that he agreed with separating journalism from PR, but did not want to rock the boat in such a sensitive matter.

The identity problem will persist as long as our public funding for education falls short, and journalism educators choose to use naming solutions for larger problems. That choice keeps journalism headed down a slope to meaningless identity.

The University could start a corrective effort by choosing to teach journalism, not public relations, at its Portland Center. All schools could help by following one of their basic guidelines: conciseness. Drop that unnecessary word, Communications.

The question of whether the training of future public relations counselors should be folded into the Business curriculum or remain primarily within the Journalism track is a valid one and deserves rational consideration. However, the argument that PR practitioners merely spin tales with little regard for the facts or the public''s interest is myopic and outdated. It''s embarrassing to have a retired PR pro come out of the mothballs and sully those of us who practice ethically today.

Dan Keeney
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Author: Dan Keeney
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