by Betteke van Ruler,
Professor emerita, The Netherlands

The Commission on Public Relations Education have delivered a fantastic and very profound report on the essentials in educating entry-level public relations staff (http://www.commissionpred.org/). Yet, on the concept of listening as an essential element, the report has some confusing data. Indeed, a survey among practitioners shows that practitioners do believe that listening is an essential ability for entry-level staff (87% strongly agree). Yet, only 32% believe that the ability to conduct research, analyze data and go beyond numbers to identify implications is a desirable ability. So, what does this listening skill mean?

Educators do teach research methods, but educators and practitioners have doubts whether it has its effects. Educators rated the level of research ability of their students after graduation on a B level. Practitioners rated the extent to which entry-level hires actually have research skills even lower, with a 2.69 mean, suggesting that courses are not as effective as they could be. The commission concludes that either the courses are not providing students with the necessary skills to conduct research and analyze data for the public relations practice, or the students are not translating these skills to practice.

On the other hand, we all know that practitioners themselves are not that much interested in doing research. At the 2018 conference of the International Communication Association (ICA) in Prague, a panel of public relations researchers concluded that practitioners are much more interested in speaking and writing than in listening. A culture in public relations practice to systematically gather data and convert these to insights, is not mainstream, they concluded. The Australian public communication scholar Jim MacNamara, even sees listening as the missing element in public relations practice (he is the only one who wrote a book on listening in our field).

So, on the one hand everybody – educators and practitioners – do believe that listening is important and most believe that research and analytic skills are essential for public relations practice, education practice is not sufficient, while at the same time practitioners themselves do not have a professional culture of systematic listening. This looks like a vicious circle. How do we get away from that?

The commission is convinced that the ability of conducting research is necessary, but so is the ability to analyze and make sense of the results of that research. Making sense of data goes far beyond statistics. It requires creative thinking and critical thinking, it requires out of the box thinking and, as Karl Weick concludes in his books on sensemaking (1996), ability to invent and improvise. It could very well be that we, as educators, should reconsider our focus and lean not so much on sophisticated statistics as on the ability of sensemaking itself. What do you think?