PR Pedagogy Research: It’s Where It’s Happening in the PRD


By Karen Freberg, Assistant Professor, Strategic Communications, University of Louisville

Public relations professors have been at the forefront of current changes, dynamic technology advancements, and heightened expectations from practitioners and society for students to be well versed with what the profession expects them to know.

While professors are actively engaged in research across different specializations and concentrations within the field of public relations, there is one area that has huge (and untapped) opportunities for extraordinary research opportunities: public relations pedagogy.

I remember the first time I worked on a research project was when I was a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee. It focused on which PR programs were more practitioner-based and which ones were more theoretically-based and focused in their courses.

It was a fun project and one I felt taught me a lot. I learned about pedagogy, but it also was the first time where I realized that some people had a perception that pedagogical research was somewhat less important than researching the practice. I remember several people telling me during this time that you should only do one pedagogy piece if you want to get tenure.

That was so 2009, but now it’s 2016, and the view towards public relations educational research has drastically changed. This is one of the fastest growing areas of research happening right now in the field of public relations.

I would have never imagined this would be one of my main research areas, and one that has brought forth huge professional opportunities with practitioners, brands, and even the popular press. I have found with each project and professor I talk to about this research, the more excited I am about the future of both research and teaching in public relations.

So, you may be asking yourself: What are some of the opportunities for public relations pedagogy research? There are a lot of opportunities in doing pedagogical research in public relations:

  • It’s a topic on the national, and even global, level. We are seeing more and more people talking about what is happening in higher education. Is online the best way to engage our students? What should we be teaching our students when it comes to these emerging media tools? How do we keep up with the trends? Everyone has questions, and the way to get answers is to propose a study to try and answer these questions. There are always new trends, features, questions, and areas to cover, so you will always have something to research. Teaching always has to evolve, so research and the body of knowledge has to as well.
  • The PRD has a great teaching community. We are very invested and passionate about teaching in the PRD. We have a journal (Journal of Public Relations Education) as well as a strong online community with fellow researchers and professors who are active in teaching research. These are some of the most generous and welcoming group of educators, and they are always willing to bounce ideas, share resources, and brainstorm ideas for future research and teaching projects.
  • Practitioners are extremely interested in this research. Whether it is at the agency level or the corporate level, everyone is looking at the next round of talented public relations professionals. There are certain skills, topics, and areas of practice that PR pros want to make sure our students know. Before every semester, I revise all of my syllabi and share it with fellow colleagues and professionals for their advice and ask them: (1) What do you think, and (2) What are some potential research ideas we can work on together?
  • You will always have ideas to test and research in the classroom with your students. We see a lot of trends, new tools, and platforms being implemented in practice. Why not try and incorporate this as a study to potentially (1) explore whether the students are achieving the learning objectives of the assignment and course and (2) determine what skills professionals are looking for with these new tools and tactics? This is what sparked the infographics project I had a chance to work on with Tiffany Gallicano (University of Oregon) and Gee Ekachai (Marquette University) a few years ago. We found a lot of practitioners creating infographics for their campaigns; this trend was even highlighted by Richard Edelman at the 2012 Edelman Academic Summit. It was a rewarding research project exploring different perceptions from social media influencers, professionals, and students from three different universities.
  • Establish a partnership with a brand through research. With pedagogy research, there is always an opportunity to explore possibilities in how programs can be used in the classroom, how they are received in practice, and what some of the responses are from the students before and after the assignment. This is what Emily Kinsky (West Texas A&M University), Carolyn Mae Kim (Biola University), Matt Kushin (Shepherd University), and William Ward (Syracuse University) did with our Hootsuite study. We wanted to determine whether or not Hootsuite is a good program to incorporate into our courses. We wanted to know what professionals thought and what the longitudinal impact this had on students a year or so after graduation.

I would strongly suggest you consider submitting to the teaching category of competition in the PRD. There are many, many fellow professors and graduate students who are getting their start in teaching who are asking these questions and looking for assignments, research, and ideas to incorporate into their own courses.

Teaching is at the heart of what we do– why don’t we capture what we are doing in research and share with the public relations community? We need to have more research to help build the foundation and growing area of public relations pedagogy, and this is your opportunity to be part of it!

I hope you all consider submitting to the PRD Teaching Competition! I’ve always walked away with creative, innovative, and strategic ideas from the presentation and research to incorporate into my classes.

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