Guru Keeps Track Of PR’s Landscape

February 23, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — As Grand Valley State University’s lone public relations professor and a local blogger, Tim Penning has become a public face of a profession he laments is too often maligned.

Penning maintains a Web log at gr-pr.blogspot.com, where he posts updates, opinions and commentary about the Grand Rapids public relations scene. He has been at once a defender for the profession and a critic when he sees it gone awry, a role that has taken a former board member of the West Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America into tricky territory of late, as he comments about the situation that Meijer Inc. and local firm Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson face in the Traverse City area.

“I wanted the West Michigan community to know you've got a major company and a major PR firm that have done this thing, and it was wrong,” Penning said of his decision to blog about the role of the two companies in Acme Township politics as they tried to wrangle approval for a new store there. “They’ve done a lot of other good things. I think they slipped up here.”

Penning said he’s received lots of feedback on the issue, both public comments posted at his blog site and private reaction.

“It’s been entirely positive,” he said, acknowledging that there may be some people who wish he hadn’t blogged about it, but he hasn’t heard from any so far.

“Many people have told me, ‘Thanks for standing up, thanks for telling what PR really is. We don't want the whole profession to be painted. This is one incident and we think it was wrong.’

“People at other PR firms have said to me privately, ‘If I had said something like this, it would just look like I’m trying to be competitive.’”

And the PRSA code of ethics would agree, Penning added.

“I tell my students, ‘Be able to speak truth to power.’ I’m just doing the same thing myself.”

A native of Grand Rapids, Penning graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School and Central Michigan University in the 1980s. A journalism major, he worked at internships for Washingtonian magazine and Grand Rapids Magazine, a sister publication to the Business Journal. After graduation, he was a freelance writer for The Grand Rapids Press, until being hired by Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. He returned to the Grand Rapids area to write for Advance Newspapers, but after a short stint at the chain of weeklies, his journalism career took a dramatic turn into public relations.

Penning started working for the Christian Reformed Church’s World Missions as an editorial assistant. He earned a master’s degree in Western Michigan University’s organizational communications program.

“I got a couple of promotions there, so I started doing more, including direct mail and fundraising and videos. I really broadened the things I was doing. When I got there, they had a two-page, black-and-white newsletter that I grew to a four-page newsletter, two-color, then a four-times-a-year, 16-page, four-color glossy magazine.”

That experience led to Penning’s fateful introduction to academia and Grand Valley State University. He shifted to a media relations post at GVSU, then started teaching as an adjunct professor.

“I got bit by the teaching bug really early,” Penning said. “I found I really enjoyed that, and I found I had somewhat of a knack for it. Obviously, I had a few things to learn about pedagogy, but got some good advice from programs that Grand Valley has and then just from experience.”

Still, the future professor wasn’t convinced. He worked at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation for two years, still teaching as an adjunct until a retirement opened up a spot on the GVSU faculty seven years ago. “I threw my hat in the ring; then I got the job to be a full-time, tenured professor,” he said.

Penning said that his lack of doctorate degree apparently bothered him more than his supervisors, as they did not make it a condition of his employment, as it is with most professors. He’s decided to pursue one anyway, and is completing coursework at Michigan State University for a Ph.D. in media and information studies, concentrating on public relations and advertising.

Teaching three courses, with 80 to 90 students per semester, Penning also is involved in student advising, community service and professional development, such as staying active in public relations organizations. Enrollment in the advertising/public relations program has nearly doubled over the past five years, reflecting the student population explosion at GVSU, but also, Penning said, a surge of interest in public relations and a growing reputation for the Allendale-based university.

“We are now having students come here saying they came to Grand Valley to major in

PR. It used to be they’d come here because Grand Valley was a good value, or had a winning football team, or they heard good things about us in terms of faculty-student ratio.

“People have hired Grand Valley grads who majored in our program, and word is starting to get out, certainly in Michigan and, to some extent, regionally.”

Ultimately, Penning said, he’d like the program to employ three advertising professors and three public relations professors, supplemented by visiting professors and adjunct instructors. But finding full-time faculty with Ph.D. credentials in public relations is tough, he said. Only in the past 20 years or so has public relations become an academic major at the undergraduate level, and graduate and doctoral programs are even more scarce, he said.

“It’s hard to attract good candidates,” he said. “There’s lots of things I want to do to make our major stronger, but it’s all dependent on faculty.”

Penning, a marathon runner who lives with his wife, Cindy, a social worker, and a cat in Spring Lake, still does public relations consulting for clients, in particular for the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative.

In the meantime, he continues to post to his GRPR blog.

“I see it again and again and again: The media cultivates this idea that public relations is synonymous with deception and trickery and lying and all of these devious stunts just to get attention and influence people,” Penning said. “Nothing could be further removed from what I teach, what my colleagues in education teach and from what PRSA advocates.”

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