Revisiting the foundations of Public Relations Education in Australia

The early history of Australian Public Relations and the development of Public Relations Education (PRE) in Australia have not been systematically investigated (Gleeson, 2012). Sheehan notes there is a ‘paucity in recording early public relations efforts’ (2007, 20). As a result, the limited historiography contains contradictions, and more significantly, omissions. Writers such as Anderson (1999), possibly wisely, have not attempted to pinpoint the early foundations. This brief paper, extracted from a larger research project, reviews the extant material and proposes a revised history of the foundations of PRE in Australia.

PR scholarship has universally credited Mitchell College of Advanced Education (MCAE, now Charles Sturt University) with offering the country’s first PR program (Potts, 2008; Quarles & Rowlings, 1993; Turnbull, 2010; Zawawi, 2009). MCAE, along with the Queensland Institute of Technology, NSW Institute of Technology and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology offered PR degree majors or courses by the late 1960s (Johnston & Zawawi, 2000; Zawawi, 2009). The emphasis on MCAE recently led a senior PR practitioner to note that 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of PRE in Australia (Rutzou, 2012).

On the basis of an examination of the official publication of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, it appears that MCAE’s diploma program did not commence until 1971, corresponding with a detailed outline of its topics (Public Relations Australia, 1971). Potts says that ‘towards the end of the 1960s, when I was complaining about the lack of trained recruits in the PR industry, MCAE in Bathurst asked me to design courses for them in PR and journalism (2008, 52). He subsequently designed a three year diploma course, which was first taught in 1971 (Potts, 2008, 52-53).

This paper offers a revisionist account of the historiography and traces the origins of Australian PRE to Melbourne, and at an earlier time. In 1961 several industry approaches to Melbourne and Monash universities were rejected on the basis that PRE was not considered to be an academic discipline. Undeterred, a small group of PR practitioners began lobbying the Board of Studies and the School of Management at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). After 18 months ‘detailed negotiations’ Australia’s first PR program – a three year certificate commenced at RMIT in 1964 (Reid, 1965). The first intake resulted in 19 successful students (Reid, 1965). In 1967 RMIT converted the certificate into a three year Associate Diploma in Management in Public Relations (Public Relations Australia, 1967).

Potts (2008, 52), who says ‘there was no model in Australia’ when he was developing the MACE diploma, appears to have been unaware of the RMIT precedent.

It is also noteworthy given (ongoing) debate as to location of PR in academia that the RMIT PR program was housed in a business faculty. This development would be fairly short-lived, with most PR programs established in the following decades adopting the American model of being located within communication disciplines. As Starck noted, the growth of Australian PRE occurred in a fairly haphazard manner, leading to ‘no codification of public relations teaching at university levels’ (1998, p. 5).

Meanwhile, in Sydney in the mid 1960s, several initiatives occurred. The NSW Institute offered a short course with students attending two nights a week for five weeks (Public Relations, 1965). In the following year, 1966, the University of New South Wales became the first Australian university to offer post-graduate PR studies. A ‘pilot course’ was conducted by the university’s Division of Post-Graduate and Extension Studies (Public Relations, 1966). Interestingly, as early as 1947, the UNSW Institute of Technology (later UNSW) had a high profiled Public Relations Committee advising the governing Council.
August 2012 University of New South Wales

Citation: Gleeson, D.J. (2012, August) Revisiting the Foundations of Public Relations Education in Australia. Sydney. MSS.


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