Public relations – career agency or apathy?
In 2011, I asked Do you know where you’re going to? in relation to careers in public relations. Beyond the individual career context, this question continues to have relevance for organizations and the wider occupation.
Within the wider occupation, debate is often over whether PR is a profession or a craft. However, each has specific career implications, which are rarely considered. Ironically both concepts date to the Middle Ages – a profession being an occupation for gentlemen, whilst crafts focused on apprenticeship training, for example, in Guilds. Both sought to control entry into their fields, and presented a formal, restricted career path involving serving time and learning from those with more experience (although in a profession, a body of knowledge had to be mastered as well).
In organisations, public relations careers seem to be something of a challenge as they do not generally fit within the 20th century hierarchical or bureaucratic model. There is confusion over whether PR is a specialist function (as it seems anyone can work in the field) and/or if it develops generalist skills (where is would be more common for PR managers’ careers to move beyond a head of function position). For consultancies, the career model conceptually reflects a hierarchical model, rather than the professional approach more common in other practice based occupations, such as law or accountancy.
Regardless of the traditional conceptualisation of the form of work in public relations, a ladder metaphor remains whereby those entering the occupation (with or without a degree in PR), are expected to work their way in and up. Others leapfrog (encroach) into more senior roles or continue to ‘fall into PR’ – often from a journalist background.
This leads me to question whether we have career agency or apathy in public relations. Discussions of careers in public relations reflect a very narrow focus – and lack connection with modern career thinking. Chance and opportunism seem to be the primary drivers of PR careers. Which suggests a general apathy at the individual, organisational and occupational levels.
Bandura’s distinction of personal, proxy, and collective agency offers a way of considering influences on career behaviour. Within public relations, personal agency can be seen when individuals act independently in developing their skills and making career moves. Bandura argues proxy agency involves “the competence, power, and favors of others” – this could reflect role models, mentoring or management support for career moves. The importance of collective agency is proposed by Larissa Grunig in respect of women working in PR, positioning them as operating in a communal rather than an individualistic manner.
Although ideas relating to hierarchical careers (found in bureaucratic, professional and craft models), have been presented as reflecting a traditional male sequential path, it may not be helpful to be looking at gendered models of career success and work. Often this simply results in arguments for women being suited for PR because of an affinity with communications – which seems a career limiting proposition to me.
The dynamic nature of social media may indicate increased agentic self-efficacy in keeping up with new skills and knowledge. It also opens up an argument for entrepreneurial careers – which doesn’t simply mean setting up a business. Rather, it considers how the individual needs to be innovative, adaptable and flexible in creating value in their career (for themselves and their employers).
Such ideas also feed into consideration of how the world of work is changing and that individuals cannot rely on organisations for a life-long career. This is extended further to occupations with concepts such as the portfolio, protean or boundaryless career, where people may not work exclusively in one field and need to be pro-active in creating their own career tapestry.
The emphasis is increasingly on the personal agency dimension. This may seem particularly applicable to work in PR which requires a certain level of independence, creativity and adaption to changing circumstances.
But what does this mean for organisations and the wider PR occupation? People do not create or manage careers in isolation from those who employ their talents. Neither can we ignore a variety of societal pressures. Indeed, few people can be free agents in career terms. At the same time, organisations (particularly PR consultancies), and the wider public relations occupation, should not be excused – or allowed to be apathetic – in relation to careers in the field.
Both proxy and communal agency dimensions need to be better understood in relation to careers in public relations. We need to look at the role of career gatekeepers, supporters and influencers, and ideas such as communities of practice, alongside traditional professional bodies and informal networks. The social fabric on which modern careers are sewn also needs to be considered
Modern careers are more complex, messy and chaotic than implied by the current industry suggestion of a neat linear ladder route from technician to manager in PR. Public relations is an interesting field of work, where the interplay of individuals, organisations, society and the wider occupation influence career agency. It deserves more attention than the limitations of the pre-occupation on profession vs. craft, barriers affecting women or efforts to create a more diverse demographic make-up of practitioners.