A recent post on whether our license to operate should be renewed to professional associations has attracted some very interesting and authoritative comments which, I believe, allow us to make a step forward. I sincerely hope that others, who have not yet expressed opinions, might be encouraged to do so by realising that some added value was gained in the first round. In no way does this mean that I intend to specialise this blog, only that it is encouraging to realise that when more minds interrelate, the analysis becomes clearer and some progress is accomplished.
By integrating various comments by Heather Yaxley, Brian Kilgore, Catherine Arrow, Judy Gombita and Jack O’Dwyer (a purely arbitrary operation for which I take full responsibility and of course each of them is more than welcome to express their disagreement…) I believe we seem to agree that:
a- public relations is about ‘building and maintaining relationships’ through two way and tendentially symmetric communication between organisations and influential publics when the actions of either of the two induce consequences on the other. You may well find fancier words, but this is basically what we are talking about;
b- there are many individuals in the world today (in a recent piece of research published by the IPR I indicate anywhere from 2 to 4 million) who perform this function as an established and recognized profession on behalf of organizations of various nature (private, public, social), at different levels and with different roles;
c- there are many specific ad hoc associations in many countries which facilitate professional networking as well as comprise at least 250 thousand individual members;
d- these associations of individuals may be general or specific-practice-oriented; local, national, regional, international, global; associations of association; as well as they may be associations representing public relations agencies, again, at local, national, regional, international or global level;
e- however, summing all these professionals together, their overall number does not exceed 10% of the estimated professionals who, according to the definition under 1a), are entitled to be considered as such.
a- we all agree that the public relations function continues to grow in its economic, organizational, social and political role and impact on the public interest, and that these associations are (more or less willingly) called upon to represent not as much their respective members as the profession-as-such vis-a-vis member stakeholders. And this particularly pertains to public policy makers, business, social, financial, academic communities; associations of other liberal professions bearing higher indicators of representation; and the media both trade and general;
b- when asked, members indicate that the association’s primary role is to: a. undertake ‘PR for PR’ and focus on improving the overall reputation of the profession, externally (in society) and internally (within the enlarged professional community); b. explain the value and function of public relations to the world at large; c. set and maintain standards of public relations practice (and this encompasses everything from codes of practice to ongoing training and relationship with education institutions).
Associations are therefore induced into the operational paradox of being called upon (by society, as well as by their own members) to represent the profession-as-such and to operate for the improvement of its overall reputation. However -being well aware that reputation is mostly the result of operational behaviour, and knowing (just as well) that they may in the very best of circumstances… govern, influence or leverage behaviours of, at the most, 10% of the professional universe- associations find themselves forced to ‘spin’ the profession’s reputation, thus –as we recognize- contributing to its deterioration. This seems very much like a ‘vicious circle’. A vicious circle which is only bound to accelerate as the profession continues to gain public recognition and also stimulates more individuals to take it up.4.How can we interrupt this ‘vicious circle’? This is the real challenge.
There seem to be three possible answers: a) deciding to only represent their own members and explicitly advocating such position in society; b) adopting a full licensing policy for all professionals members or not; c) seeking legal recognition and stimulating organizations and stakeholder publics to select and trust mostly professionals who are members.
My impression is that this latter solution is rapidly becoming prohibitive as it would take too much time, given the very rapid deterioration of the profession’s reputation in most countries. Personally I would have however very little interest in belonging to an association which represents solely the interests of other members in an environment in which anyone’s behaviour may affect our reputation. It would be like swimming uphill, ending up in belonging to exclusive clubs of ‘excellence’ where the recurring naming games would regain strength in order to differentiate ourselves from others. This would leave only the full licensing option which, I am sure, is not the perfect solution and has a number of constraints. However it would at the very least transit the onus of representation of the whole profession to other ad hoc public/private organisations, and leave professional associations to do their job of defining and advocating increasingly higher professional standards and ensuring that at least their respective members adopt them.