Who Teaches Public Relations Writing? An Analysis of Faculty Status of Public Relations Writing Instructors
- Douglas F. Cannon, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
- Damion Waymer, University of Cincinnati
This exploratory study captures a snapshot of who—by basic faculty classification—taught public relations writing courses during the 2012-2013 academic year. Results provide evidence that faculty category might be a constraint that, according to management theory, needs attention from program administrators. Non-tenure-track faculty members handled two of every three writing courses on the overall schedule. Differences were greater at Carnegie doctoral universities; non-tenure faculty members taught three writing classes for every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track instructor. Results add specifics to the body of knowledge about public relations education and establish basic benchmarks for future study.
Keywords: Public relations, writing, instructors, management theory, faculty classification
Preparing students for the work world is an important part of public relations education. For decades, practitioners and scholars have said in trade journals, textbooks, and other publications that writing was the most important skill that applicants needed for entry-level public relations jobs (e.g., Berry & Cole, 2012; Ellis, 2015). The Encyclopedia of Public Relations says unequivocally that “writing tops the list” of tasks that practitioners perform (Carden, 2005, p. 903). Since at least 2010, Public Relations Tactics, a monthly Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) publication, has devoted its February issue to articles about improving public relations writing.
In 2006, the Commission on Public Relations Education listed writing as the first of five core competencies that 21st century public relations graduates should demonstrate. The commission recommended that a public relations writing and production course be one of five requirements in a public relations curriculum (Turk, 2006). Before a school can receive a Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter charter, it must offer the five core courses—including public relations writing and production—recommended by the commission (Public Relations Student Society of America, n.d.).
Despite both the professional and academic emphasis on writing skills, Cole, Hembroff, and Corner (2009) and Berry, Cole, and Hembroff (2011) found significant dissatisfaction among public relations employers with the writing abilities of entry-level employees. Supervisors in the United States and Canada gave recent graduates poor grades on grammar, spelling, and punctuation; following style guidelines; and organizing ideas. Employers said new employees were poorly prepared to write fundraising appeals, project proposals, business letters, and memos. As a result, many supervisors in both countries had lowered their expectations of what college graduates should be able to do.
In light of the professional emphasis on writing skills—and dissatisfaction with abilities of public relations graduates—this study looks at one component of how public relations programs at schools with PRSSA chapters match faculty resources to writing courses. That component is the faculty category of those who teach the primary skill that employers say they want in public relations graduates. While faculty status may play no role in the quality of instruction, the category of faculty member does relate to resource management. Management theory (Moss, 2005) suggests that the way academic administrators choose to staff public relations writing classes may indicate how they prioritize writing instruction and could be one reason that students do not appear to meet entry-level standards.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
This literature review considers three topics: (a) development of public relations programs at U.S. universities, (b) management theory in relation to public relations, and (c) theory of constraints in project-management thinking.
Public Relations Programs
Formal public relations instruction in the United States began during the 1920s in journalism programs at colleges and universities. Josef F. Wright taught the first course, titled Publicity Methods, at the University of Illinois in 1920. Wright, a former newspaperman who had become the school’s publicity director, trained students in ways that honest publicity men “dished out news” (Cutlip, 1994, p. 220). Frank R. Elliott, publicity director at the University of Indiana, taught a course titled Publicity on the Bloomington campus in 1922. Edward L. Bernays, author of Crystallizing Public Opinion, taught the first course titled Public Relations during 1923 and 1924 in the Department of Journalism at New York University (Cutlip, 1994; Hallahan, 2005; Wright, 2011). Courses in publicity and press relations soon followed at American University, Stanford University, University of Minnesota, University of Oregon, University of Texas, University of Washington, and Wayne State University (Hallahan, 2005). While Bernays said he was interested in “theory and an abstract approach to the subject,” other pioneer instructors appeared more focused on getting stories into newspapers (Cutlip, 1994, p. 220). Although historical sources do not make specific course content clear, these journalism courses dealt with practical topics and could be assumed to have involved writing.
After World War II, more U.S. universities, such as Boston, Georgia, Northern Illinois, Ohio State, and Syracuse, added public relations courses. With the exception of those at Boston, all early courses were taught in departments, schools, or colleges of journalism, where writing and reporting were fundamental skills. The majority of U.S. public relations programs today are still part of journalism and mass communication units. That academic home continues to affect how educators think about public relations skills courses, such as writing (Fedler, Counts, Carey, & Santana, 1998; Wright, 2011).
In the 1970s, speech departments (later renamed communication or communication studies departments) began adding public relations courses as well (Wright, 2011). By 1999, almost half of the nation’s public relations programs were housed in departments or schools of communication. These units traced their academic roots to rhetorical studies, interpersonal communication, and persuasion, not journalism and mass communication (Turk, 2006). As a result, these programs may not prioritize writing as much as journalism-based programs, but no scholars appear to have investigated that possibility.
Concerns about instructional standards at colleges and universities prompted PRSA in 1975 to form the Commission on Public Relations Education. It was initially composed of eight educators and practitioners. They recommended that universities offer a four-course sequence (12 semester hours) in public relations for majors. One of those courses was writing. In 1987, the Commission, now up to 25 members from eight communication industry or educational organizations, recommended a five-course sequence (15 semester hours) for majors. The list again included writing. The commission reaffirmed the five-course recommendation in 1999 and 2006 (A Port of Entry, 1999; Turk, 2006).
Enrollments in U.S. journalism and mass communication programs have been slowly declining since 2011, the Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Enrollments shows (Becker, Vlad, & Kalpen, 2012; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2014; Vlad, Becker, & Kazragis, 2011). The 2013 report said:
The vast majority—seven out of ten—of students who are enrolled in journalism and mass communication programs around the country today are not there to study journalism but to study something else, most prominently advertising and public relations, and that has been the case for at least twenty-five years. (Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013, p. 319)
Undergraduate public relations enrollment in 2012 increased by 13.2% nationwide from 2011 while the overall enrollment in journalism and mass communication programs declined 2.9% (Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013). Growing public relations enrollments should increase demand for public relations writing classes.
Faculty hiring in journalism and mass communication programs has increased annually since 2010 (Becker, Vlad, & Kalpen, 2012; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2014; Vlad, Becker, & Kazragis, 2011). Communication programs reported making major curriculum changes between 2009 and 2013 to respond to industry changes, especially Web-based communication. More than one-third of administrators who responded to the annual enrollment surveys said they had hired permanent faculty members (35.6% in 2010 and 37.8% in 2011) to teach digital media skills. More than half of administrators had hired adjunct faculty members (55.8% in 2010 and 62.1% in 2011) to teach basic skills courses. The digital skills course taught most often in journalism and mass communication programs in 2011 was writing for the Web. It was offered in 92.3% of programs responding to the survey (Becker, Vlad, & Kalpen, 2012; Vlad, Becker, & Kazragis, 2011).
Masse and Popovich (2007) learned that full-time faculty members who taught mass media writing were uncomfortable teaching writing skills for public relations, advertising, broadcasting, and online writing. In addition, Masse and Popovich uncovered evidence of systematic resistance to writing curriculum reforms at both accredited and unaccredited mass communication programs. Writing teachers did not want to learn new technologies or retrofit their skills to fit emerging communication channels.
Fedler, Counts, Carey, and Santana (1998) found that instructors who taught reporting/editing and public relations/advertising had lower percentages of doctorates (66%) than their faculty colleagues. Furthermore, faculty members who taught writing/editing conducted less research than those who taught other courses. Nevertheless, these writing instructors rose through academic ranks at slightly higher rates than other faculty members.
The Commission on Public Relations Education has repeatedly maintained that public relations educators should have terminal degrees (Port of Entry, 1999; Turk, 2006). In 2006, the commission said:
A successful academic career increasingly will require a record of scholarly publication and national and international recognition in the scholarly community. Without faculty who fit this model, public relations programs won’t be valued because their faculty will be considered “second-tier.” Thus, while the Commission believes there is a place in the academy for former practitioners with substantial and significant experience, those practitioners may be expected to earn their terminal degrees, i.e., their Ph.D.s, as a credential for becoming full-time faculty. (Turk, 2006, p. 74)
Wright (2011) said that the Commission’s viewpoint had clearly dominated thinking in many public relations units. Nevertheless, executives at major U.S. public relations agencies have said that many of their best new practitioners graduated from programs in which faculty members had both academic credentials and professional experience.
Other research indicates, however, that lack of practical experience among faculty members is not a major problem. Fedler, Counts, Carey, and Santana (1998), for example, showed that more than half the faculty members (53%) who taught journalism skills courses (including writing) had 11 or more years of professional experience. All instructors who taught writing listed some professional experience. Masse and Popovich (2007) found that writing instructors with doctorates averaged about 10 years of professional media-writing experience.
Nevertheless, Pardun, McKeever, Pressgrove, and McKeever (2015) discovered that senior mass communication faculty members with doctorates thought that having a terminal degree was more important for journalism faculty members than having significant work experience in news. Pardun et al. said schools around the country needed to consider the relative value of academic and practical experience as they prepared the next generation of journalism and mass communication graduates.
The authors of this article conducted an analysis and found that the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication website carried 70 ads from January through September 2015 for faculty openings in public relations or strategic communication. Fifty-four were for tenure-track positions. Forty-three of these tenure-track openings (79.6%) required applicants to have a doctorate before being hired. Ten required a master’s degree, and one did not include an education requirement. Only 15 of those tenure-track ads (27.8%) specified that candidates needed the ability to teach writing. Ten of the 15 ads that mentioned writing required candidates to have a doctorate. None of the 16 advertised non-tenure positions required a doctorate. Ten of the 16 ads (62.5%) said that candidates should be able to teach writing. This limited sample gives evidence that public relations administrators may expect non-tenure faculty members to teach public relations writing more often than tenured or tenure-track instructors.
Waymer (2014) discovered that non-tenure instructors accounted for only 24% of full-time public relations faculty members at Carnegie doctoral universities. At those institutions non-tenure faculty members taught three public relations writing courses to every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member.
The 2013-14 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) salary survey documented that colleges and universities paid tenured and tenure-track faculty members more than non-tenured faculty members. The mean salary for tenured and tenure-track faculty members (assistant, associate, and full professors) in 2013 was $90,370. The mean salary for non-tenured faculty members (instructors, lecturers, and those with no rank) was $57,158 (Curtus & Thornton, 2014). The AAUP website reports that “contingent faculty” members (full- and part-time non-tenured instructors) now fill 76% of all instructional appointments at American colleges and universities (American Association of University Professors, n.d.). AAUP does not provide data by discipline.
Lingwall and Kuehn (2013) discovered in a September 2012 study of 860 communication students from 13 schools that nearly half expressed a need for some remedial help with writing. In a follow-up study, Kuehn and Lingwall (2015) concluded that many faculty members appeared to be ignorant about the extent of students’ skills deficits. Kuehn and Lingwall (2015) proposed three steps to improve writing instruction: (a) extensive one-on-one help from instructors, (b) focused feedback to show students how to improve, and (c) intensive work on basic spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other writing mechanics.
Management theory includes a range of concepts that describe and predict how administrators run organizations. Systematic management thinking dates from the late 19th century. Theories emerged as large industrial organizations called for structures and policies that enabled effective operations. As public relations matured during the 20th century and joined the dominant coalition of many organizations, the discipline drew upon assumptions and processes rooted in management theory. Managerial thinking guided not only administration of the public relations function but also contributions by public relations executives to strategic organizational decision-making (Moss, 2005; White & Dozier, 1992). Today 18% of items on the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations (APR)—the second largest area of concentration—ask about knowledge, skills, and abilities related to leading and managing the public relations function. Decisions about what to assess on the test were based on industry-wide analyses of public relations practice done in 2000, 2010, and 2015 (Cannon, 2016).
Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911) helped lay the foundation for management theory with his principles of scientific management. These principles, based on time and motion studies during the 1880s and 1890s, were designed to (a) replace habit and common sense with systematic study of work to determine the most efficient way to perform specific tasks, (b) match workers to their jobs in light of individual capabilities and motivations and then train people to work at maximum efficiency, (c) monitor worker performance to ensure that employees are using the most efficient work process, and (d) allocate work so that managers spend time planning and training workers to work efficiently (Taylor, 1911).
One of Taylor’s disciples, Henry L. Gantt, developed a graphic method (Gantt Chart) to display project schedules and control workflow (Gantt, 1910/1974). Many public relations practitioners have adopted the technique from project-management literature to plan and coordinate public relations workflow (Wilson & Ogden, 2015). Practitioners preparing for the APR Examination learn that Gantt Charts are “useful for tracking deadlines and monitoring a project’s progress as well as for planning and scheduling tasks” (Cannon, 2016, p. 59).
Another of Taylor’s students, Henri Fayol, proposed one of the first general theories of management in 1917. That theory included six primary management functions and 14 management principles. The functions were forecasting, planning, organizing, commanding, coordinating, and controlling. The principles were division of work, authority and responsibility, discipline, unity of command, unity of direction, subordination, remuneration, centralization, scalar chain, order, equity, stability, initiative, and esprit de corps (Fayol, 1949).
The project-management body of knowledge builds on the foundation laid by Taylor, Gantt, and Fayol. Project-management thinking says administrators must identify and decide how to complete each task necessary for reaching an organization’s objectives. According to this logic, a critical task for academic administrators would be educating students. In professional disciplines like public relations, administrators might determine that training students for industry would be another required task. Project managers—in addition to deciding what must be done to complete each task—simultaneously control three elements: resources (people, equipment, and materials), time (production duration and path), and money (costs, contingencies, and profits). Goals are to turn out a product that meets customers’ needs and that costs as little as possible to produce (Cicmil & Hodgson, 2006; Cunningham, 2012; Koskela & Howell, 2002; Project Management Institute Standards Committee, 2013). For public relations programs, the corresponding goals are to prepare graduates for entry-level jobs as cost-effectively as possible.
A 2013 survey of senior public relations executives showed they valued business acumen and believed public relations educators should put greater emphasis on business thinking in public relations classes (Ragas, Uysal, & Culp, 2015). These executives would probably expect to see public relations program administrators use a business approach to academic management as well. But the literature appears to lack clear evidence of any dialogue between senior executives and university administrators about how public relations programs are run. Wright (2011) said educators rarely have meaningful dialogue with practitioners.
Theory of Constraints
The theory of constraints, a systems-management approach developed in the 1980s, is one project-management theory (Goldratt, 1990). It offers one way to analyze the educational process. This theory assumes that every system, no matter how well it performs, has at least one bottleneck. Informed by the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the theory directs managers to identify and correct that constraint. Managers follow a three-step process: Identify the constraint, manage the constraint, and evaluate the resulting performance. Constraints may be physical (inadequate equipment, people, or space), policy-based (standing operating procedures, ways of working, union contracts, or overtime rules), paradigm-based (beliefs about how things should work), or market-based (supply and demand). Because a system can have only one “weakest link,” a process can have only one constraint at a time. Once the constraint is eliminated, another factor will become the weakest link and demand attention. By addressing each constraint, managers constantly improve their operations (Goldratt, 1990; Goldratt & Cox, 2004).
Recent enrollment, curriculum, and faculty-employment trends have presented potential constraints that may influence how public relations program administrators manage resource allocations for public relations writing. Constraints regarding writing could include students poorly prepared for public relations writing (Kuehn & Lingwall, 2015; Lingwall & Kuehn, 2013); inadequate classroom space or number of instructors to meet enrollment demands; faculty members unprepared or unwilling to teach public relations writing (Masse & Popovich, 2007); limits on faculty teaching loads; inflexible curriculum requirements; competing priorities for faculty time; or changing writing demands in the public relations marketplace.
In light of the foregoing trends in public relations education and business thinking about resource allocation, this study examines if the faculty category of public relations writing instructors at schools with PRSSA chapters is a constraint that affects how students are taught to write. This examination explored three research questions:
RQ1: How does the number of public relations writing classes taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty members at schools with PRSSA chapters compare to those taught by non-tenured faculty members (instructors, lecturers, and those with no rank, such as adjuncts and graduate students)?
RQ2: How do faculty assignments to public relations writing classes at PRSSA schools differ by Carnegie classification of the college or university?
RQ3: Does school location influence faculty assignments to public relations writing classes?
The first question was intended to explore whether significant differences in faculty assignments existed and could qualify as a constraint. The second question was designed to see if faculty resource allocation might be a constraint at some schools but not others. Carnegie doctoral universities, for example, could have more rigid research-focused tenure requirements than master’s colleges and universities or baccalaureate colleges. Those requirements might come into play in identifying constraints. The third research question sought to see if the availability of practitioners who might teach writing part time influenced faculty resource allocations. Cities would likely have more public relations practitioners than rural areas. Hence, the pool of part-time labor available to teach public relations writing might be greater for universities in or near urban areas than for others and could change the constraint calculation.
To gather data for exploring these three research questions, one author analyzed online course schedules during the 2012-2013 academic year at schools with active PRSSA chapters (N = 332) (Public Relations Student Society of America, n.d.a) and recorded results on an Excel spreadsheet. To be eligible for a chapter charter, each school needed to (a) be a nationally or regionally accredited four-year institution that offered baccalaureate degrees and (b) offer five public relations courses that follow Commission on Public Relations Education recommendations (and include public relations writing) (Public Relations Student Society of America, n.d.c). Therefore, all schools should teach public relations writing at least once during the academic year.
The two authors consulted on how to identify courses but did not independently code the online course schedules of the 332 schools. To be included in the analysis, a course needed to meet the following criteria: (a) be part of the public relations curriculum, (b) have both “public relations” and “writing” in the course title, or (c) fulfill a writing requirement for a public relations degree. For example, Sam Houston State University in Texas had both Writing for PR and Advertising and Advanced Writing for PR and Advertising on its schedule. Both courses were included in the analysis. Baylor University allowed students to meet public relations writing requirements by taking either of two journalism courses: Beginning Reporting and Writing or Writing for Media Markets. Both were included.
Coding included school name, location, number of public relations writing sections scheduled, faculty status of each instructor (tenured/tenure-track or non-tenured), and Carnegie classification for the institution. Three general Carnegie groups were used in this analysis: (a) doctoral universities, (b) master’s colleges and universities, and (c) baccalaureate colleges (The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, n.d.). Campuses within 20 miles of a city with a population of 100,000 or more were considered urban. The distance was determined by average U.S. commuting times (McKenzie & Rapino, 2011). Coded data were imported from Excel into Statistical Package for the Social Sciences to allow t-tests and analysis of variance of means in categories examined for each research question.
To determine each instructor’s faculty status, the same author who identified courses matched teacher names to online faculty directories. When instructor names or ranks did not appear on official directories, the author checked other online sources, such as LinkedIn, for clues to faculty status.
Schools with more than one incomplete data category were excluded from final analysis. For example, some schools listed public relations writing courses online without instructor names. Others listed no courses with public relations writing in the title. Forty-one of the 332 schools lacked complete information and were excluded.
The review of online 2012-2013 fall and spring semester schedules generated complete data for public relations writing courses at 291 of the 332 schools with PRSSA chapters (121 doctoral universities, 150 master’s colleges and universities, and 20 baccalaureate colleges). The total number of writing sections was 889. Of the 332 institutions in the analysis, 159 were in urban areas. Another 132 were in rural areas. Not all public relations programs at schools with PRSSA chapters were in journalism or mass communication units. Some were related to business, communication studies, or English departments.
RQ1: Faculty Category
Research question one asked how the number of public relations writing classes taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty members compare to those taught by non-tenured faculty members. Results were expected to help determine if the faculty category of public relations writing instructors was a constraint that affected how students at schools with PRSSA chapters were taught to write. Table 1 shows the mean for courses taught by tenured/tenure-track and non-tenured faculty members. Differences were significant and do support the idea that faculty category could be a constraint.
Non-tenured faculty members taught two writing courses on average (M = 1.9) for every one taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members (M = 1.1) at schools with PRSSA chapters during the 2012-13 academic year. That difference is statistically significant (p < .001). The d effect size is approximately .4, which is medium, according to Cohen (1988), and is typical in social science research. Tenured or tenure-track faculty members were listed as teaching 36% (321) of the 889 writing sections. Non-tenure-track individuals were listed as instructors of 64% (568) of the sections. The number of sections at each school taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members ranged from 0 to 9. The number of sections at each school taught by non-tenured faculty members ranged from 0 to 33.
This first test indicates that non-tenured instructors not only taught more writing sections than tenured and tenure-track faculty members but that the difference was also not the result of chance. The significant difference in assignments appears to reflect specific management decisions about faculty resource allocation. While this finding is far from conclusive, it provides evidence these faculty allocations could be considered a constraint.
RQ2: Carnegie Classification
Research question two considered how a university’s Carnegie classification related to the number of writing sections taught by tenured/tenure-track and non-tenured faculty members. Table 2 shows the mean number of public relations writing courses taught by tenured/tenure-track and non-tenured faculty members at schools in each Carnegie category. These results, while still showing evidence that faculty status could be a constraint, complicate the interpretation. The management issue appears to differ by Carnegie classification.
A one-way ANOVA found a significant difference in the mean number of public relations writing sections taught by non-tenure faculty members compared to tenured and tenure-track instructors, F(2, 288) = 18.810, p = .000. The Levene’s test of homogeneity indicated that variance was unequal between the master’s-level and baccalaureate-level groups. Therefore, a Games-Howell post hoc test was done to assess effect size. Results showed larger than typical effects, according to Cohen (1988), for differences between doctoral universities and master’s colleges and universities (p = .000, d = .84) and between master’s colleges and universities and baccalaureate colleges (p = .000, d = .71).
Results from this second test indicate differences in how institutions in each Carnegie classification assign public relations writing instructors. At doctoral universities, non-tenured faculty members teach three public relations writing classes (M = 3.1) for every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track instructor (M = 1.0). That result is higher than the overall difference (1.9 vs. 1.1) identified in Table 1. The comparison of means is nearly even at master’s-level institutions. At baccalaureate colleges, tenured and tenure-track instructors are more likely (M = 1.1) than non-tenure faculty members (M = .85) to teach public relations writing.
This second test suggests that the Carnegie classification of an institution may relate to whether the faculty category of public relations writing instructors is a constraint that needs management attention. Doctoral universities appear to require more writing instructors than current tenured/tenure-track faculty members can meet. Master’s-level institutions meet half their demand for writing instructions with tenured and tenure-track faulty members. Baccalaureate colleges, on the other hand, cover most of their writing-course requirements with tenured and tenure-track instructors. The need for contingent faculty members at baccalaureate colleges does not appear to be as strong as at doctoral and master’s-level institutions.
Research question three examined how urban or rural locations related to whether tenured and tenure-track faculty members taught public relations writing courses. An independent-sample t-test found no differences at the p < .05 level for the two faculty groups at rural or urban schools in any Carnegie classification.
This exploratory study captures a snapshot of who taught public relations writing during the 2012-13 academic year. Results provide evidence that faculty category could be a constraint on writing instruction at schools with PRSSA chapters—especially doctoral universities. Non-tenured faculty members taught two of every three public relations writing courses on the overall 2012-2013 schedule. At doctoral universities the difference was greater; non-tenured faculty members taught three public relations writing classes for every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track instructor.
The limited scope of the research could not show whether the 2012-2013 academic year was an anomaly or part of a trend. The numbers in this study were consistent, however, with reports in recent journalism and mass communication enrollment surveys (Becker, Vlad, & Kalpen, 2012; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2013; Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2014; Vlad, Becker, & Kazragis, 2011) and job announcements. More than half the administrators in 2011 and 2012 enrollment reports said they had hired adjunct faculty members to teach basic digital skills courses. Faculty job announcements for non-tenure openings specified the ability to teach writing more often than calls for tenure-track positions did. But the percentage of non-tenured public relations writing instructors was below the overall percentage (76%) of contingent faculty appointments that AAUP reports at American universities (American Association of University Professors, n.d.). More research, including a more longitudinal view, is needed to analyze the situation in public relations programs. Nevertheless, the results in this study could prompt public relations program administrators—especially at master’s colleges and universities and doctoral universities—to consider whether the type of instructor assigned to writing classes is a constraint that needs to be managed.
The analysis of data in this research used a management lens. This project was intentionally designed to see if public relations programs were following constraint theory to match faculty resources to demands of the field (Goldratt, 1990; Goldratt & Cox, 2004; Moss, 2005; Project Management Institute Standards Committee, 2013). We could have used other theoretical approaches from higher education or industrial training. We chose the management approach because senior executives who hire public relations graduates say they want them to have business acumen (Ragas, Uysal, & Culp, 2015; Wright, 2011). The APR Examination, grounded in practice analyses done in 2000, 2010, and 2015, lists business literacy and management aptitude as the second-most important area of knowledge, skills, and abilities that practitioners should master (Cannon, 2016). Scholars have for many years called public relations a boundary-spanning discipline (Grunig, 1992). Therefore, we concluded that practitioners who hire public relations graduates might expect college and university administrators to reflect management thinking as they determined the best way to educate public relations majors. We wanted to investigate whether schools with PRSSA chapters would meet that expectation.
The project management body of knowledge provides clear standards for assessing management decisions. Project managers must decide what has to be done to complete a task and then control the resources, time, and money used to reach that end. Goals are to turn out a product that meets customers’ needs and that costs as little as possible to produce (Cicmil & Hodgson, 2006; Cunningham, 2012; Koskela & Howell, 2002; Project Management Institute Standards Committee, 2013). While public relations educators are not running factories, they are metaphorically producing products: graduates who fill entry-level jobs in public relations agencies and corporate communication departments. Therefore, according to project-management thinking, public relations program administrators could be expected to make the desires of potential employers a high priority in the educational process. The way administrators choose to staff public relations writing classes is one indicator of how they prioritize writing instruction.
Feedback from both employers and graduates indicates that they do not think public relations educators are producing adequately prepared public relations writers now. For decades, practitioners have said writing was the top skill applicants needed for entry-level public relations jobs. Previous research (Berry, Cole, & Hembroff, 2011; Cole, Hembroff, & Conner, 2009) identified significant dissatisfaction among public relations employers with the writing abilities of entry-level employees. Lingwall and Kuehn (2013) showed that communication students themselves expressed a need for remedial help with writing. Kuehn and Lingwall (2015) found that many faculty members did not recognize how poor student writing skills were. Project-management literature suggests that public relations program administrators would identify and address these shortcomings as a constraint. Administrators should then put systems into place that would prepare graduates who meet employer expectations as cost-effectively as possible and evaluate outcomes (Project Management Institute Standards Committee, 2013).
The theory of constraints guided the approach in this research to identifying shortcomings in the educational process. Earlier scholarship had looked at the educational level and practical experience of faculty members who taught writing (Fedler, Counts, Carey, & Santana, 1998; Masse & Popovich, 2007; Wright, 2011). But no research appeared to consider how faculty resources were allocated to writing instruction. Ads for faculty openings indicated that ability to teach writing was not a top consideration for tenure-track positions. Therefore, this project attempted to determine if the faculty status of those who taught writing qualified as a constraint that needed attention. If writing were indeed the top priority of potential employers, management theory would predict that educational administrators would (a) focus on addressing the issue and (b) assign the best-qualified instructors to those courses. We assumed that those instructors would be tenured or tenure-track because AAUP surveys show that schools invest the most money in those faculty members.
Results of this exploratory study did not support our starting assumption and showed it was too simplistic. Instead, findings identified another constraint: personnel costs. AAUP figures (Curtus & Thornton, 2014) show that non-tenured instructors make on average 63% less than tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Using less expensive instructors for public relations writing courses, particularly if demand is growing with enrollment, could be seen as wise management—especially in the short term. If non-tenured instructors could adequately teach public relations writing, they would be more cost efficient than tenured and tenure/track instructors. That cost-efficiency would be consistent with the project management body of knowledge and address the constraint. This study was not designed to assess that constraint. Results simply gave evidence that many programs did rely on non-tenure instructors to teach public relations writing. A continuing management issue, however, was that many employers were not satisfied with the writing ability of the public relations graduates they were hiring. This feedback signaled another constraint that now needed attention.
Would assigning higher-paid faculty resources to writing classes be a better way to meet employer demands and counter current negative perceptions of graduates? Earlier research (Fedler, Counts, Carey, & Santana, 1998) showed that senior faculty members were present and qualified to teach writing skills courses. Were they unwilling to upgrade their skills to match changing writing demands in the field (Masse & Popovich, 2007)? More research is needed to determine why senior instructors are not more frequently assigned to public relations writing courses.
The resource-allocation question appears especially important at Carnegie doctoral universities. Waymer (2014) discovered that non-tenured instructors accounted for only 24% of full-time public relations faculty members at Carnegie doctoral universities. This study showed that non-tenured faculty members at doctoral universities taught three public relations writing courses to every one taught by a tenured or tenure-track faculty member. If three-quarters of public relations faculty members are in tenured or tenure-track positions, should more of those human resources be allocated to helping students hone the top skill that employers want? Future research should explore this question.
Expectations about what candidates for tenure-track public relations faculty positions should be expected to do could be another constraint. Most ads for tenure-track candidates in 2015 did not specify that candidates needed the ability to teach writing, but most ads for non-tenured candidates did. Do public relations program administrators need to identify and manage this expectation under the theory of constraints as the weakest link in faculty resource allocations? More research is needed to answer this question.
Data from this study give evidence that Carnegie master’s colleges and universities and baccalaureate colleges assign non-tenured instructors to writing classes differently from doctoral universities. That finding complicates the analysis of management thinking about constraints. The average number of writing courses taught by tenured and tenure-track instructors at master’s colleges and universities (M = 1.2) is almost the same as the number taught by non-tenure faculty members (M = 1.1). At baccalaureate colleges, the mean number of courses taught by tenured/tenure-track faculty members is higher than for non-tenured instructors (M = 1.05 for tenured/tenure track and M = .85 for non-tenured). Both findings could be products of differences in program size, scope, and instructional demands. Master’s-level institutions do not have doctoral-level graduate students who might teach classes. Therefore, these schools might not have as many non-tenured resources available as doctoral universities to teach writing classes. Baccalaureate colleges are generally small and do not have graduate programs. These programs not only lack graduate students who might teach writing, but they also might not have many non-tenured faculty positions or budgets for hiring adjunct instructors. Data in this study could not address those possibilities. Future research will need to probe faculty-allocation differences at master’s and baccalaureate Carnegie institutions.
Learning that schools with PRSSA chapters rely heavily on non-tenured instructors to teach most public relations writing classes does not imply any value judgments about the quality of instruction. This study looked solely at resource allocation by faculty category. The analysis did not explore how faculty members in each category approached writing instruction or check for differences in student outcomes. Future research might interview instructors or compare syllabuses of courses taught by tenured or tenure-track and non-tenured faculty members to see if their methods or expectations varied. Analysis of course assessment data might reveal if the faculty status of the instructor was related to student outcomes.
Some might say that results from this study were not surprising. The authors agree. Nevertheless, these findings do document the reality for the first time. We have heard many explanations for the current paradigm:
(a) Writing courses take lots of time to teach and grade. Tenured and tenure-track faculty members need to use that time for research, a higher priority.
(b) Using higher-paid senior faculty members to teach basic skills courses, especially at doctoral universities, is too expensive. Tenured and tenure-track faculty members are needed more for high-level courses than for skills courses.
(c) Tenured and tenure-track faculty members may not have as much practical writing experience as non-tenured instructors, who have often worked in public relations positions for many years. Therefore, tenured and tenure-track faculty members may not be as qualified to teach writing as non-tenured instructors, or the skills of tenured and tenure-track instructors might be out of date.
All or none of these explanations may be correct. More research is needed to determine why public relations program administrators are managing their writing courses the way this study has found. That information may help confirm if faculty resources are indeed a constraint that needs to be managed in the process of preparing competent writers for public relations work.
This study was very limited. It simply took the first step in what could become a long, complicated analysis of management in public relations education. The examination of faculty status did not consider faculty rank among tenured and tenure-track instructors or how many non-tenured instructors were full-time, adjunct, or graduate students. The study gathered no information on management or operational considerations that might influence decisions at each institution about who should teach public relations writing. For example, this analysis did not try to determine if public relations programs outside mass communication units approached faculty allocations for writing courses differently from journalism-based programs. Future research should explore faculty rank, gather data on backgrounds of writing instructors, and include feedback from program administrators on how they assign people to teach writing courses. Such information could give a more nuanced picture and provide more helpful information for management decisions.
Public relations practitioners and educators have long maintained that writing is an essential skill for public relations work. The Commission on Public Relations Education recommends a writing course as one of five requirements in every public relations curriculum. Nevertheless, public relations employers have complained for years that public relations graduates do not come to entry-level jobs with adequate writing abilities.
This exploratory study looked at one small part of the writing education process: who is teaching the courses. Findings add specifics to the body of knowledge about public relations education and establish basic benchmarks for future study. Data on personnel resources used to teach this essential course should help educators better manage the situation, address complaints from potential employers, and prepare more qualified graduates for work in public relations.
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