Twenty years of teaching Public Relations - Exploring a signature pedagogy for the field

Susan Kinnear, Sarah Bowman

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Background and purpose: 2020 marks the 20th year of International Public Relations teaching at Cardiff University. At the same time, the department where the programme sits, the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, celebrates its 50th year of excellence in media training.

Over the years the programme has had several incarnations and been known by several titles. Now called the MA in International Public Relations and Global Communications Management, the programme is currently the largest Public Relations programme in the UK, taught within the oldest and most highly ranked media school in the UK. It has a very substantial international alumni of more than 1,000 PR practitioners worldwide and a highly international student body.

So how has PR education at Cardiff University developed over that 20-year period? How do these changes reflect the shifting assumptions and practice of PR teaching nationally and internationally? This paper will explore these themes through the conceptual lens of signature pedagogy (Shulman, 2005) and how this is applied to professional practice in discourse professions. Such an approach facilitates reflection on the type of knowledge necessary for specific professions, as well as the moral dimension that comprises professional attitudes, values and dispositions.
Literature Review: Barr and Tagg (1995) point to a shift in higher education moving away from the concept of the instruction or banking paradigm to the learning paradigm which focuses less on the transfer of knowledge from expert to student and more on the discovery and construction of knowledge. Knowledge is not just known and codified but exists in each person and is shaped by individual experience (Friere, 1972). Here education is about social justice with students’ lived experience becoming part of knowledge creation. Additionally, Christensen et al. (2010) urge educators to return to the purpose of pedagogy, pointing to a more radical proposition for transformative education that maximizes human potential; facilitates a vibrant, participative democracy; develops skills and competencies to enable a prosperous and competitive economy; and encourages people to see things differently supporting the views of Currie and Knights (2003).

PR pedagogy scholarship has also evolved. Jones and McKie (2009) suggest PR education was initially seen as knowledge transfer in line with concepts of instructor-led pedagogy. Willis and McKie (2011) also suggest that greater recognition needs to be given to the knowledge students bring and the role it can play in deepening PR pedagogy. They suggest that instructors of PR need to encourage intelligent participation and reflection in order to co-create knowledge. In addition, PR as a practice is being disrupted by socio-cultural-technological change with practitioners having to develop adaptive competencies. This also needs to be translated into pedagogy. Here signature pedagogy (Shulman, 2005) has merit as it allows pedagogical reflection through surface structures (looking at operational acts of teaching); deep structures (exploring assumptions about how best to impact a body of knowledge and know-how); as well as implicit structures that look at underling professional beliefs. Such an approach is well suited to understand how the pedagogy underpinning the PR discipline may have evolved in line with contemporary HE thinking and practice developments.
Methodology: This paper takes a case study approach (Yin, 2002) and leads on qualitative methods primarily through in depth, semi structured interviews with Cardiff staff who originally devised the programme in 2000 as well as those who taught it during the early 2010’s and those who deliver it now. It cross references these interviews against approval and accreditation documentation to examine how the rationale and priorities of the programme have developed over this period, and to identify the signature pedagogies present and their impact upon teaching practice.
The study identifies and investigates areas such as:
1. The original curriculum and how it has changed over time.
2. How the curriculum reflected PR practice in 2000 and how it interacts with industry now
3. How the original curriculum embodied educational frameworks at the time and what were the major assumptions upon which PR teaching was based
4. Evidence of signature pedagogies in course documentation and teaching practice.
5. What have been the major drivers for change in PR education at Cardiff University
6. Have assumptions about what professional practice is changed
7. Are these fluctuating assumptions reflected in teaching practice
8. How do we currently teach PR graduates to think and has that changed over time
9. What are the major assumptions embedded in our current curriculum and do we need to review these?

This approach is complemented by six interviews with academics that have taught on various PR programmes in the UK over the last twenty years to add more depth and to help illustrate points.

Findings and discussion: Desk research and early conversations to inform the study tentatively suggest the evolutionary nature of pedagogy in line with HE developments, yet also reveal some tension between balancing surface, deep and implicit structures of understanding practice. At the same time, teaching PR appears to have become increasingly interdisciplinary drawing on a strong rhizomatic teaching and learning culture (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980/1988) with knowledge seen as multiple, non-hierarchical, proliferating in all directions with a focus on continuous learning, adaption, an openness to new knowledge, and collaboration. Despite this backdrop, a strong thread of what constitutes PR knowledge and PR’s evolving identity is also tentatively suggested.

Conclusion, limitations and implications: It is too early to draw specific conclusions as a full data set has yet to be gathered but the signature pedagogy concept appears to have potential to improve our understanding of how PR has been taught and how it ought to be taught in the future. This paper, when completed, will have theoretical and practical value. From a theoretical perspective, it draws on signature pedagogy as a way to understand PR teaching, learning and practice, whilst also providing practical insights into what this may look like in the new decade. The limitations are based on its qualitative nature and further qualitative and quantitative studies would be needed to test various constructs with academics and communication professionals, in particular looking at teaching in different cultural settings.

Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning – A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The magazine for higher learning, 27 (6), 12-26)
Christensen, C. M., Johnson, C. W. & Horn, M.B. (2010). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns (2nd ed). New York: McGraw-Hill
Currie, G., & Knights, D. (2003). Reflecting on a critical pedagogy in MBA education. Management Learning, 34 (1), 27-49
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1988). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Trans. B. Massumi. London: Athlone Press (Original work published 1980.)

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Jones, R., & McKie, D. (2009). Intelligent participation: Communicating knowledge in cross-functional project teams. International Journal of Knowledge Management Studies. 3, 180-194
Schulman, L. S. (2005). Signature Pedagogies in the Professions. Daedalus, 134 (3), 52-59
Willis, P. & McKie, D. (2011). Outsourcing public relations pedagogy: Lessons from innovation, management futures, and stakeholder participation. Public Relations Review, 37, 466-469
Yin, R. K. (2002). Case study research: Design and Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 24 Jun 2021
Event11th International History of PR Conference, University of Boston - online
Duration: 22 Jun 202124 Jun 2021


Conference11th International History of PR Conference, University of Boston


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