I’ve been following, with great interest, the noteworthy discussion Toni Muzi Falconi provoked with his recent post on the research conducted between journalists and public relators. Fairly early on I concluded that Toni’s real intent was a call to action of “PR for PR,” which was borne out by his later comments. When Toni began talking about the need for professional associations to step up to the plate, I also realized it was time to write a complementary post I’ve been sitting on for awhile; namely, some of the differentiators between a professional and trade association, plus the challenges (and opportunities) to achieving “professional” status for public relations. Are we there, yet? I don’t think so. Here’s why.
This is actually an axe I’ve been grinding for awhile with colleagues and friends: public relations (and, by extension, strategic communication management) don’t qualify as “professions,” at least in the traditional sense. I say we practise in trades or industries, and that we are practitioners…not professionals.
This point of view doesn’t tend to make me too popular, as many see this as a slight to the quality of work performed on an individual basis. I don’t dispute that my peers are highly skilled practitioners. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t hang with anyone whom I didn’t think to be intelligent and ethical in all of their employment and personal dealings. Many I call upon often, to source information and get advice or feedback. But that’s because these are practitioner friends who have carved out on an individual basis a career hallmarked by excellence. Sometimes this has included an educational component or accreditation, other times acumen was simply acquired through years of hands-on work experience.
I don’t believe any of these colleagues are stellar practitioners solely because they belong to an association and all that it entails (particularly as many of them have never had an affiliations or, alternatively, they let their trade association membership lapse, with no apparent consequence).
And here’s another thing: in North America at least, the terms “public relations” and “PR” are unregulated. For most there is no recognition by government of being a profession; no requirements for completion of a program of professional study; and no requirement to belong to a regulatory, standard-setting association, in order to obtain things such as intermediate- to high-level positions in the field. Perhaps that’s why (or at least it seems to me) that every second internal communicator or marketer, technology or social media evangelist, seems to have hijacked the title, function and realm of “public relations.” It isn’t defined. It isn’t regulated. It’s kind of a free-for-all.
It’s not that I think that public relations will never achieve “professional” status, individually or through our associations. It’s just that I think we have a long road ahead to achieve this.
Several months ago I asked a valued colleague and friend, Chitra Reddin, PhD, to detail to me what constituted a profession. (Like me, Chitra worked for a period in a Canadian professional, regulatory association; ergo, I thought she was well-placed and informed to answer my query.) Her “four pillars of professionalism” are reproduced here with permission.
Chitra Reddin’s Four Pillars of Professionalism:
1. [Acceptance in an association dependent upon] the mastery of a recognized body of knowledge, (i.e., research, best practices and training/education).
2. A focus on the public interest (e.g., similar to law, accounting, medicine or education). In our “profession” I would see it as a principled balance of organizational and public interests, as in corporate social responsibility. (A very critical current and future focus.)
3. A globally harmonized and enforceable code of conduct and ethics.
4. Global standards-setting body and regulator. I’m not sure a license to practise is absolutely necessary—trying to work it through a gazillion global government jurisdictions would be a bureaucratic nightmare and take several centuries to achieve—but perhaps a meaningful professional designation, granted by the standard-setting body and its partner associations, might be useful, practical and achieveable.
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It’s probably helpful to know (in terms of credibility) that prior to being employed in the not-for-profit and corporate sectors, Chitra served for many years as an assistant professor, public relations, in Mount Saint Vincent University’s bachelor of public relations (honours) program in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And later associate professor, management communications, in the Richard Ivey School of Business’ MBA, HBA and executive programs at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.
I would add to Chitra’s four pillars that the public relations role needs to be defined, that the program of study should be competency-based and that a practical work component (i.e., experience in the field) should be part of the curriculum. After achieving this professional qualification, there should be ongoing, mandatory continuing education requirement for “maintenance” of certification or accreditation in public relations (or strategic communications management). Only then can the educational component of an association be taken seriously for the long term, by the people making business and hiring decisions, as well as the media and general public. Plus, of course I heartily endorse Chitra’s emphasis on “enforceable” (and enforced) codes of conduct and ethics.
The Elephant in the Room
Close to two years ago Warren Bickford, ABC (a Canadian), then chair of the International Association of Business Communicator, addressed the question of “professionalism” in a post in the IABC Café, I say, is that an elephant in the room? For the purposes of my argument, I found it worth revisiting. Not surprisingly, Warren’s controversial post received only two comments (both quite good). More interesting was that fact that neither commenter was a member (at least at the time) of IABC. So, you had non-members taking an interest in the focus and future direction of an industry association to which they didn’t belong. In particular, I point you to an excerpt of Sean Williams’ comment, where he stated:
“My first boss in communication, Rob Gill, told me early on: No one knows what we do or how we do it. They think it’s easy. They don’t appreciate it. Until they need the help, and then the gratitude lasts only as long as the specific assignment. We always have to figure out how to do things better, faster and cheaper and never forget that we are serving customers.
We need to do our best—and commit most, if not all of, our effort—to serving our customers. Otherwise, we’re just another media-hungry interest group.”
Now I don’t claim to know the “professional” status of all (many or most) national PR associations. One member-based association that seems to be making progress is the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Yet despite achieving charter status with the UK government (a very significant achievement) and introducing challenging diploma programs, its About website page still makes a clear distinction of serving the public relations “industry,” not profession.
Getting Further Down the Road with the Global Alliance of Public Relations and Communication Management
Helping us to get closer to professional status is the work being done by the umbrella organization, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, which includes codifying the public relations industry through its international PR Landscapes series. As per the GA website: “PR Landscapes are a series of practical guides profiling the public relations industry and business, cultural, political and media landscapes in countries throughout the world.”
I also draw attention to the comment made in an earlier post by Jean Valin, APR, CPRS Fellow (second elected chair of the Global Alliance) on the work being done:
“…most of these objectives were at the cores for the rationale for the creation of the Global Alliance. That is why I pursued so vigorously the establishment of world standards, in particular to solidify our grasp on what the profession stands for. Ethics was number 1 on our list and we have achieved that by analysing and subsequently prescribing a global code of minimum standards of ethics. We are in the process of doing the same for accreditation and have also begun work on curriculum standards.
The latter is a long-term piece of work as it requires consideration of a lot of things, such as the role of culture and the effect of globalization on the profession. Nevertheless, we need global standards in these three areas to call ourselves a true profession. It is simply not good enough to each have our own set of rules and say that we all practice public relations.”
Agreed. And it’s interesting how much Chitra’s four pillars of professionalism line-up with Jean’s wise words.
Challenges to Achieving Professional Status
1. Our role as public relations practitioners is not codified and defined consistency, although several efforts have been attempted (real and aspirational) here on PR Conversations, including posts by Heather Yaxley and Benita Steyn.
2. Education standards vary, nationally and internationally. Minimum standards need to be set and accepted by the majority of PR-related trade associations.
3. From available evidence accreditation programs test existing knowledge. By contrast, certification or diplomas or programs of study teach a body of knowledge. I think it behooves public relations associations to move towards being curriculum-based education providers, or else work towards building formalized relationships with established educational bodies (i.e., universities and colleges) that can offer the same.
4. More commitment by individuals and associations is needed regarding the importance of belonging to a targeted public relations association. If, as estimated, only 10 per cent choose to belong to an association that is not going to cut it for us to be defined as professionals. Can one be a “professional” alone? I don’t think so. I doubt the business world or media or general public think so. If 90 per cent of public relations practitioners choose to go it alone, why are we surprised that our role is not appreciated or understood by the majority? Like Toni and Jean, I think we need our associations/organizational bodies to be spending significant time on growing targeted membership, plus defining and promoting our roles and work.
5. The dilution of effort and resources, resulting from the existence of competing associations is a big challenge. I’ve chosen to be a member of my national PR association, but others opt for more generalists ones related to communications, marketing-oriented groups, and so on. This challenge could be overcome if the various national and international bodies worked more closely together (i.e., in harmony), focusing on differentiating and marketing their (authentic) strengths, rather than competing for membership numbers, willy nilly.
6. The current online environment allows competition from social networking groups and other loose affiliations, which was covered off so capably by Catherine Arrow in her post, Where next for professional associations? How can associations overcome these no- or low-cost competitors?
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What Say You?
This list is not exhaustive. There are other challenges (and opportunities) that I hope others will provide to help us move forward. Or maybe you disagree with my assessments on what constitutes a public relations “professional” and “professional” association. If so, I’m very interested in hearing your reasons why. I would appreciate it if gaps were filled in by knowledgeable readers on the progress being made by individual associations on the areas detailed above, as well more information on what I see as the exemplary work being done by the Global Alliance to codify and set standards.
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Note: I’ve deliberately stayed away from the regulatory or licensing aspect of professional associations. I do point you to a recent report by the the Competition Bureau of Canada on Self-Regulated Professions: Balancing Competition and Regulation (full report as a PDF file). Alternatively, check out the Executive Summary or Table of Contents. (Not surprisingly, the section that interested me the most was the one specifically related to professional accountants). As you can see, regulation brings its own set of challenges, not only within, but from third-party bodies.
Update (1/10/08): The debate continues in Brazil
Afinal, temos uma profissão?
It was a pleasant surprise to discover that Pedro Souza of the Brazilian blog Horizonte RP (“Buscando mais para a profissão”) took the time to translate much of this post into Portuguese. And if my Babel Fish translation was at all accurate, he supplemented the translation with commentary and a critique on the state of the public relations association/profession in Brazil. Thank you, Pedro, for the tremendous compliment. Best of luck in continuing the discussion in Portuguese to set benchmarks and raise the bar. JG