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.

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26 Responses to “Public relations – career agency or apathy?”
  1. toni muzi falconi says:

    Intriguing questions you raise, Heather.

    I fully agree that ‘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’.

    Yet, I wonder if our professional community stopped resisting regulation and began to promote it, aligning itself to other more managerial professions like legal or accountancy, most of the issues you raise would not be such..

    We’ve had this argument before, but in reading your post I wonder if your well reputed flexibility has not come at least a little in that direction.

    Ok, let’s forget for a moment the public interest and the devastation many actions by public relators bring to it.

    Ok let’s forget for a moment that I am now fully convinced that public relations activities are much more harmful to society than traditional lobbying activities and therefore should be regulated.

    Let’s concentrate on the issues you raise in your post. Thank you

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, public relations is so confused and chaotic (not necessarily a bad thing in my book) because it is a messy trade with ill-defined barriers defining what it comprises (even, for instance, where it sits in Marcoms, if it sits at all) and with absolutely no barriers to entry. Social media multiplies the problems: every Tweet is a potential press release/policy doc/message/narrative, and anybody can Tweet. Even the PR agency world does not provide a career path one can rely on – journalists and other outsiders (diplomats, personalities and campaigners) can jump straight in at the top of the PR agency (even in-house) totem pole (again, not necessarily a bad thing in my book). So, the PR career path is a hold on to your hats and wits one.

    As to Toni’s call for PR to be regulated, I note the banks were regulated and….

  3. toni muzi falconi says:

    Paul, the highest level of bank regulation was to be found in canada and australia (no serious problems there) and the financial collapse only attracted stricter regulation in the works in all countries….

    But, more importantly, you look at your finger indicating that there is no barrier to entry, without seeing the whole picture that, in a wisely regulated environment, barriers to entry would be in place, like all other professions….

  4. Hallie Pendergast says:

    Very interesting blog post–it made me think a lot. To comment on something you said, I do not think everyone is cut out for public relations. As a current public relations student, I know the hard work and effort that goes into perfecting the necessary skills you need in PR. I agree that many people end up working in public relations even if they don’t have a degree in it, but they are automatically at a disadvantage. These people have to learn as they start their job in the PR field. I understand that I will have to learn as well, but I’ve also been practicing PR for the last four years at Kent State.

    I completely agree with what you said about PR professionals having to be able to adapt to change. In the PR field it is unlikely for someone to stay with one organization for their entire career. That’s one of the great things about PR! It’s a very diverse field and there are so many options. If you end up not liking agency you can begin to work in corporate or non-profit, etc.

  5. Bill Huey says:

    Profession or craft? Maybe that was the argument during the heyday of the media gatekeepers, but today PR is a wild and wooly free-for-all where anyone can play, regardless of smarts, qualification or background.
    As for regulation, the market is likely to weed out the unqualified or unmotivated, but apart from that the horse has not only left the barn, he’s gotten on a superfast train. I would point out that management consulting isn’t regulated, yet the firms in that industry manage to appear much more professional and command much, MUCH higher fees than PR.

  6. toni muzi falconi says:

    Bill, you seem to forget that in more than 90% of the cases management consultants do not directly operate in implementing their counsel with publics, and therefore their sole responsibility lies with the clients they consult…
    Public relations employees, agencies and solo consultants, instead, operate directly and yet they are not legally responsible for the consequences they create.
    A big difference. no?

  7. Don Radoli says:

    The profession/craft has been going on for a long time and may have originated from scribe “craftsmen” from journalism that for some time had top and middle management jobs in PR. Their services were in demand because companies had noticed they could “get their story” in various media. The confusion and accompanying skepticism to professions-based PR is still around.

    Bill: On entry gate-keeping and high salaries; the lift-repairers here in Norway have direct control of how many apprentices are trained and certified to repair lifts every year. Consequently they command very high salaries. Typograpphers in old newspapers used to have the same clout until new technology replaced them.

  8. Toni, I do appreciate the attraction of the argument for PR as a profession, with registration of practitioners seen as a way of increasing status and possibly excluding those deemed to be less professional. However, this argument has been around for a century now and it is even less likely to be achieved today when the numbers working in the field have increased exponentially since Bernays’ first championed the concept.

    Even if this is possible, what does it mean in career terms? Are we talking about a fixed, hierarchical career path after initially passing a series of exams as happens in medicine, law and accountancy? Would practitioners need to opt for specialisms and only work in those areas where they are qualified? Would those entering the occupation with more experience need to gain accreditation? Is restricting access at odds with attempts to improve the diversity of the occupation? Would it really help achieve gender parity in pay and representation at the highest levels?

    Interestingly, there is debate in medical fields about career paths and trying to shorten these as the professional agenda means that the time taken to qualify as surgeon is keeping talent away from this vital field.

    At the least, what I feel is lacking is really robust data on PR careers – hence my PhD interest. I will be focusing on individuals with qualitative research but it would be useful for the professional bodies or the public sector (which employs large numbers of practitioners) to invest in better understanding of careers. The UK Medical Careers Research Group for example (part of the University of Oxford) has collected data since 1974 funded by the Department of Health. These studies have gathered information on different cohorts, meaning there is up to 23 years career information for those who took part in the initial study. I’d love to be funded to try to start such a project in PR.

    Paul, in arguing that PR is a trade, I sense echoes of commenda, which I noted in my Origins of careers research. As I understand it, commenda were those who acted as brokers in medieval Italy (agents) who interestingly assumed liability within business trade agreements. This form of relationship is thought to underlie partnership approaches, which are common in ‘professional’ practices, such as lawyers and architects. So here are we looking at career forms that reflect, again, a form of qualification to practice. This seems to reflect Don’s observations about restricted trades such as lift engineers. Or is our trade less robust than that – and open to all. Does that actually mean that it is even a trade, since the traditional trades of plumbing, electrician, etc now require a level of training (apprenticeship or qualification) and legal liability underpinning their work.

    For me, you are both arguing for out of date forms of considering PR careers – as Bill notes. Whilst Haillie evidences the personal agency that seems to be the main driver of developing a career path in PR today, can we really let the horses just run wild (or jump on trains) as Bill’s metaphor presents? I do agree with Bill that PR needs to move into the modern world of ensuring better returns for those who invest in careers in the occupation.

    This highlights the issue that Toni raises about PR’s focus on implementation over consultancy. I disagree over his arguments about liability here, as there is a difference between regulation by a professional body and legal responsibility. Indeed, the latter can be a simple contractual requirement, which is evidenced by taking out insurance (at least in the UK).

    Besides, surely being responsible for the consequences, or outcomes, of our activities, applies even more in strategic consultancy than in churning out press releases. Interestingly, given the ongoing debate about evaluation, how would such consequences be evaluated, let alone tested in a court of law?

    I believe we have to accept that PR is a very loose occupation and offers a myriad of career opportunities and pathways that individuals can opt to pursue. That is a huge advantage rather than a limitation and to seek to restrict as either a profession or trade/craft model suggests, is not only futile, but unwelcome. Indeed, I would go further and remove more of the boundaries to encourage greater entry to the occupation and exit also into other functions where the benefits of experience in public relations could be immense. We should not set a ceiling of being seen just as experts in PR/communications, but able on the basis of our wide and focused career experiences to take on CEO functions. We should be a flexible career path that can accommodate good work-life balance (rather than puppy farm over-working and underpaying) and enable success to be judged by more than ascending a hierarchical management or professional ladder.

    But, there does need to be more than simply an open field for the horses to roam and decide their own direction. We do not develop our careers in isolation and so need to figure out how others (in proxy or communal agency roles) can help create career paths that are of value to individuals, organisations, the occupation and wider society. They are unlikely to be traditional professional, craft, or organisational hierarchy routes.

    My belief is that PR is potentially a vanguard of a new way of thinking about work and rather than trying to shackle our horses, we should be working out how to harness their talents in profitable and rewarding careers. If we don’t we’re more likely to end up as horsemeat than champion thoroughbreds. (Sorry to steal the horse metaphor, Bill).

    • Don Radoli says:

      Heather,

      My reference to lift repairmen who control how many young men get recruited each year to enter the “fraternity” was meant as an example of entry control to command higher wages. It was not meant to suggest a similar professional model for PR. Paul has understood it correctly.

      Despite your exposition here, I don’t quite understand your preferred “professional” organization of the field.

      Unlike Paul, I don’t advocate the trade route. The knowledge base and professional associations are in place. The missing link is to invite the “unqualified” in by requiring them to satisfy knowledge/ethical standards. The market would in weed out the “press agents.”

      • Thanks for the clarification Don. I don’t prefer conceptualising PR as a profession, but do think that those working in the occupation need to be professional. The word profession has actually been extended, which Hughes noted in the 1930s was a result of an industrialised society where occupations sought the status and restrictions of a profession. Abbott notes that over the past couple of decades, not only have most occupations sought to present themselves as a profession, but that the traditional professions have faced challenges to their own status and practices. The concept of a profession is changing.

        I particularly object, however, to the way in which so many PR practitioners (and academics or professional bodies) use the word profession as synonymous with occupation, yet implying all the perceived benefits of being seen as a profession. As my post argued, I also don’t see these considering what a profession means in career terms and whether that’s appropriate or helpful in PR.

        For me the profession argument is stale and if it hasn’t happened in a century is unlikely to happen until the term becomes so meaningless that it doesn’t matter. So why not embrace what PR is and does and look at how careers can, are and should be managed in the occupation.

        • Don Radoli says:

          Heather,

          I don’t quite understaand your aversion to “conseptualising PR as a profession”. Suppose we were to embrace “what PR does” and look at how careers can and should be managed, how would this be done. Would there be any qualifications? Would there be any standards?

          PR does not operate in a vacuum in today’s diverse workplace, it is in cinstant interaction with other professions in the marketplace, management etc where recognizabe benchmark for performance and service delivery are in place.

          For the sake of argument let us take the teaching profession/occupation. There are different levels and grades of teachers from a primary school teacher to a university professor.

          The level of competence and grading in the hierarchy is based on a combition of academic qualifications, experience and personal qualities.

          One cannot demand to be a teacher without the required qualifications no matter how proficient he may be in the subject matter he/she teaches.

          Why can’t this simple model be applied to PR?

          • Don – my question back is what does a career look like if PR is a profession, and how is this managed (individually, within organisations (including consultancies) and the wider occupation? Is it necessary for practitioners to obtain qualifications and adhere to standards? What are the penalties for those who do not comply with the concept of PR as a profession?

            Considering these questions, from a career perspective, PR is not a profession. Although some individuals can reflect a career path that could be seen as reflecting what might be found in a traditional profession, this is not necessarily the norm (nor is it mandated).

            Unlike teaching, which you mentioned, there are no specific levels/grades in PR, nor are specific competencies found in a hierarchy (if indeed, one can put a hierarchy on PR work) – and any advancement does not specifically depend on qualifications, experience or recognised personal qualities. I also think you’d be hard pressed to find a progression in teaching from primary school to University (and indeed, who is to say that there should be a hierarchy depending on the age of the person being educated)?

            Most teaching (at least that which is mandated to have qualified practitioners) is undertaken within a legal framework, often with employment by the state. That is not the norm in PR. Indeed, where PR practitioners are employed within the public sector, there is no more evidence than elsewhere that the aspects of being a profession that you mention are viewed as having any significance in a career path.

            I just don’t think it is possible to prove that PR is a profession – it hasn’t become so after a century of such demands, and personally I’m not convinced the concept is even worth pursuing from a career perspective.

  9. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, I think I need to clarify some points..

    When Don speaks of a trade and cites his Norway lift-repairers by way of example, he is describing a closed shop (similar to the one that operated in Fleet Street many years ago). Such trade-based closed shops – or at least their principles and mechanisms – can be traced back to medieval guilds and to the emergence of 19th Century militant trade unionism. But I’m not talking about that – or advocating it – when I say PR is a trade.

    In the modern world, PR is a trade, as opposed to a profession, because you cannot stop PRs from being PRs because they break a particular code; whereas, by contrast, doctors and lawyers can be struck off and legally prevented from practicing their profession. A profession is a compulsory body or it is nothing. Moreover, proper professions have bodies of knowledge specific to it (law, doctors, accountants) but the subject matter of PR is “everything”. PR is no more of a profession than journalism is (anybody with a computer/pen/internet, a voice and the knack to communicate can practice it). However, that does not preclude creating career paths within PR agencies or even in-house.

    However, I’m not suggesting we should underestimate the effort involved in terms of acquiring the specialisation required to learn the knack and ways of the trade (one that is big business, after all).

    One begins to see the scale of the problem involved in controlling or regulating PR when one reviews the problems we encounter when we even try to define what it is we do (PR Conversations has covered this controversial issue extensively).

    Moreover, there is something fundamental about freedom of expression – rights and autonomy – and associated other principles/ethics/morals, which should make us all keen to resist calls to regulate PR or journalism, or limit the right to freedom of expression and opinions. There are very good reasons to resist calls to restrict the right of people and organisations to advocate this or that – either for free or for money – on behalf of themselves, their causes, their employers or third parties in the public domain.

    As to Toni’s points about PR’s capacity to do good and harm in the public interest. Yes, freedom is a messy business: get over it. But, please, let the public sitting in the court of public opinion assess where its interests lay; and don’t hand over their power to “experts” ten steps removed (as Leveson, for example, proposes).

    In short, I think the founding fathers of the USA got it about right when they wrote their constitution.

    But problem today is that Enlightenment, freedom-loving thinking is being challenged.. so the battle is on.

  10. toni muzi falconi says:

    thank you Heather. Many of the things you say are valuable and con-vincing.

  11. Judy Gombita says:

    Do you think the average, more senior-level practitioner (say 15 or more years of experience) feels like her or his career is this random, Heather? To be honest, I find this premise rather depressing.

    Yes many grab hold of the title of “public relations” for self-identification purposes, but besides the formal education programs (and industry associations), isn’t the practice of public relations defined–at least in part–by the organizations that have a dedicated public relations/communication department?

    I know this was the focus of the IABC Research Foundation study that Fraser Likely headed up. It would be great if he weighed in with the final conclusions.

    • My research is going to focus on mid-career practitioners as this is an under-researched group compared to those starting out in their careers. From what I understand to date from literature – and people who have spoken with me about their careers once they hear what my PhD topic is – most people do not develop their career in any purposeful manner. In terms of careers within organisations, how many are large enough to have career paths for PR practitioners within them? In the motor industry, for example, I often see managers moved into PR as part of their career path, but fewer PR people seem to have a career path. One exception that I am seeing these days is where international career opportunities are being offered, notably to Brits in the international car companies. This again brings its own social challenges – we had a MIPAA seminar on the topic a month ago which was really interesting.

      However, most practitioners seem to move organisations for career moves, not least because there are few opportunities and once the head of function role is filled, they have no where to go. This strikes me as another limitation in PR in respect of a lack of imaginative approaches to careers where the entrepreneurial ideas that Rosabeth Kanter has proposed could come in. That involves being more creative in terms of offering people opportunities for leadership, for example, in teams or projects, where there are limited upward opportunities.

      The dimension of the organisation’s role in careers is something I did mention in the post as managers, HR functions, CEOs, mentors, etc are proxy agents in career terms, both formally and informally.

      One would think that the larger agencies have career plans, although again there seems a large churn. Perhaps again, this is a hierarchical model meaning there is jousting for higher positions with the unsuccessful combatant leaving. Again another strange approach to managing talent, perhaps.

      Those working in smaller organisations probably have very little choice but to manage their own careers. Again research in the literature tends to suggest that moves are made more by chance or opportunity than any specific plan or understanding of what direction someone should head. Similarly it would appear that many women, and men also, opt to set up agencies or become freelance in mid-career for greater flexibility.

      Thanks for pointing out the IABC research on The Communication Department Structure and Best Practice that Fraser has been involved with (I see also Danny Moss in the UK is a participant). It would be interesting to see how career planning fits within this research. Also whether any consideration of careers was predicated on the hierarchical concepts that are often considered for organizational (bureaucratic) career as that is only one definition of career success. I’m as interested in ideas around those perceived to plateau as much as those who are held up as successful because they reached the top of the PR ladder (and possibly not beyond).

  12. Fraser Likely says:

    Our research on the factors that influence the structure of PR/C departments does not look at the issues you are interested in, Heather.

    Personally, I’d suggest you also look at practitioners who tie their wagons to possibly high flying executives. As these executives move from organization to organization, they bring the PR manager they trust with them. The shelf life of CEOs is short – and I suspect this is true for most C-suite executives – and thus the affect of a new CEO coming in might be threatening to the CCO and her/him management team. Might be easier to move with the devil you know.

    • Thank you Fraser. Are your findings published somewhere that I could access to understand what you did research – and didn’t as of course, for PhD purposes that’s always interesting to critique!!

      I do agree that the relationship with the CEO offers substantial opportunity for proxy agency – in fact, I’ve read some work about paired careers where that might be a dimension to explore. The other side of course, relates to strategies employed to sustain a position when a new CEO (or even marketing director, etc) is appointed. I recall my first director was very adept at developing strong relationships with CEOs without enduring the ducking stool when the post-holder changed.

  13. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, I share your concern about how every trade and craft, amusingly, wants to be seen – or to spin itself – as being a profession today. In the process, I accept, the lines between trades and professions have blurred. But some fundamentals remain for good reasons:

    1. A profession requires a body of knowledge specific to it: doctors, lawyers etc.

    2. A profession requires recognition by statute, which makes the possession of such knowledge (qualifications) a compulsory requirement to enter and practice it.

    3.Professions possess professional bodies – with legal underpinning – that hold a position of power and control over their market and body of knowledge and the people who practice the profession. They exercise an autonomous policing function over over its codes of practice and ethics and the supply of new entrants (both of these powers are under attack, perhaps for good reasons in some cases and, mostly, not in others).

    I add a general point (meaning I would nuance what follows if I had more time): in so far as professions are under attack – we need to defend their integrity and fight back. We would also do well if we stuck up more militantly for the integrity of professionals (and trade expertise, including ours) and resisted vigorously the demand to put the customer in control…because this undermines the value and usefulness of expertise. Hence, I accept change – things don’t and shouldn’t always remain constant – but, I maintain, much of the change today is for the worse.

    In contrast, however: PR has no body of knowledge specific to it. PR’s subject matter is everything as is journalism’s. Practicing either art or, if you like, craft, requires an acquired knack and not much more than that. Though both PR and journalism, like film-making, book writing and cookery, make for interesting academic subjects at universities.

    Points one two and three can never come into being in a meaningful (compulsory) manner to govern the affairs of our trade or that of journalism’s. In my view, CIPR misses this point, willfully, and therefore blurs the demarcation lines between it and proper professions.

    Moreover, regulation by the state of PR and or journalism is not desirable. That is so for reasons to do with issues relating to autonomy and freedom from the state – not least freedom speech and representation in democracies. (After Leveson and newspapers they’ll come for the lobbyists and then for the PRs; this is not a good or progressive trend).

    Nevertheless: all trades, like all professions, require an ethical and a professional approach to the work at hand, and their reputations depend upon on how they behave in that regard.

    • Paul – I agree with your points over PR as a profession, and professions more widely. I am not so convinced PR qualifies as a trade or craft in career terms. Ironically most recognised trades do now require some of the legal, education and compliance aspects that are found in traditional professions.

      Interesting the discussion here has focused on the profession vs trade debate (both of which I dismissed) and less so on whether it reflects a traditional bureaucratic management career which is after all, what a lot of the literature argues for the function.

  14. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, ok, so defining PR as trade might not be the best definition (maybe). BTW: Trade could be seen as any activity that involves buying and selling goods and services (a profession being an elevated form). Then how would you describe our role? As a bureaucratic management function (there’s a good case to be made for that, I agree)?

    Here are two useful links from Harvard which usefully explore the issues you and others have raised here. The first link backs Don’s thinking rather than yours or mine, but it does so so well that I recommend it as a challenging read:

    http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/4650.html

    http://hbr.org/2010/07/the-big-idea-no-management-is-not-a-profession/

    • Thanks for those links Paul. As the first reference Hughes and Abbott, it contains concepts that I’m familiar with (although interestingly both Hughes and Abbott raise critical questions about the idea of professions).

      Interesting in your reflection on trade as buying/selling, there is the element of commenda that I’ve already discussed here as the agent. I’m not advocating PR as a bureaucratic management career path (although, as with the profession, some may reflect that in their career paths). The traditional notion of a ladder approach, let alone the agentic influence of the formal HR planning of careers, is not as common as it used to be.

      My interest mainly is in discussion within careers literature of new forms of work and careers – and this may well suggest new forms of conceptualising PR work. Trade, profession and bureacratic careers largely reflect the world as it was in previous centuries where there were more boundaries and hierarchical frameworks. Although these can still be seen, they are not necessarily the experience of the majority of PR practitioners and certainly seem unlikely to reflect those of the next generations.

      Also, although this loss of the traditional pathways may suggest greater reliance on individual strategies (personal agency), this ignores that careers still occur within an organisational and social context and so the other aspects of agency on careers is of interest.

  15. Bill Huey says:

    Of course, there is another use of the term “professional” that we are completely overlooking, and that is as applied to all sorts of professional athletes, poker players, magicians, rodeo riders, etc.

    This means that you get paid for it (presumably enough to earn a living); you’re pretty good at it; and you practice it constantly, even devoting all of your time to it.

    That is the sense that applies to PR practitioners, and, in that sense, they are “professionals.”

    • Bill – I take your point about professional rather than profession, and am not averse to using the former term myself with the meaning you indicate. But not sure this helps with understanding of what is meant by a career in PR – it does imply that being paid as well as investing in gaining skills and experience (with or without formal education) would be useful. Which suggests perhaps that PR could reflect an entrepreneurial dimension that is relevant in careers – ie the personal agency that I mentioned. Still leaves me with the open consideration of where others contribute towards the development of the careers of PR professionals (as opposed to professional careers).

  16. Shiobhan says:

    Heather, I am really interested in your views and research about career progression within PR as there seems to be a complete dearth of information/debate on this. For this reason and my personal experience, I am inclined to agree that PR careers in the main, tend to be incidental and less structured. Of course, my views are informed by my own background and experience – government communications in the UK Civil Service, and Australian State Government, as well as the Australian corporate sector. I have not worked in a PR agency nor the NGO sector. My impression is that agency careers are fixed upon being more entrepreneurial/revenue-focussed to reach senior levels – unless you are sector expert (or journalist) brought in for contacts/to polish agency credentials.

    My thoughts – applied not academic:

    1. The UK’s ‘Government Communications Network’ has a well established career structure which culminates in ‘Director of Comms’ level. Although not board members, these are very senior and prestigious roles because of political sensitivity, working with Ministers and the most senior officials. Within the Civil Service (CS), Communications is highly respected and probably second to the Graduate ‘Fast Stream,’ which is a senior management breeding camp. Many ‘Faststreamers’ undertake a comms placement as part of their training, and specialist comms people are generally also seen as the brightest and talented.

    Therefore, the ‘profession’ constitutes a mixed bag of internal transfers (as I did – rather than staying as a ‘generalist’), or enter externally – usually as second careers from journalism, and at junior level, PR agencies, and NGOs. Many have politics/social science as degree subjects (as I have) but not a pre-requisite at all. Although my office department received PR interns, its probably too early to ascertain whether PR qualifications are now a route (particularly, given the current scenario of low graduate vacancies and public sector recruitment freeze).

    The CS has a defined grading structure which facilitates specialist PR/Comms career planning alongside traditional management skills. Having left this structure, my corporate experience suggests careers are definitely more incidental and possibly, more narrow within other sectors.

    2. Is PR a profession? In my view, no it’s a management function like HR and Marketing. PR is varied and heavily influenced by the sector. I don’t think PR can be compared to law or even journalism. The fact that people enter PR through multiple entry routes rather than a standard recognised qualification & training program suggests that PR is not a ‘deep’ subject. When asked about profession, I replied
    ‘Civil Servant’ (i.e. specialist knowledge of government) over PR/comms every time.

    However, this is a strength – PR is contemporary, dynamic, and diverse which makes it a very attractive career in this globalised world etc. Most modern careers aligned with information/
    technology have similar straits – i.e. the digital sector, management consultancy, etc.

    I don’t think ‘profession versus trade/craft’ matters so much anymore as a graduate degree no longer certifies entry into the ‘professional’ market place. In the UK, this discussion is heavily bound by sociological class debates. I worked on a major study about entry into UK’s ‘professions.’ A key criticism about sector representation was ‘what to define as a profession in today’s age?’ E.g. Doctors and nurses (which now requires a graduate qualification)? There actually are no set qualifications to work in Government, etc. etc.

    3. PR qualifications – in my view, unnecessary and a waste of time. Eligibility for a PR career should not be based upon how to write a press release. This demonstrates the relative immaturity of the function. PR Career paths are in reality, based upon strategic management skills – critical thinking about the external environment and organisational strategy, combined with people/budget skills as progression dictates. In Government, the challenge wasn’t writing the press release or talking to journos, most of my interest/skill was how to put forward the best argument/defence – collectively with lawyers, statisticians,policy experts etc. Or is there a difference between ‘PR’ and communications’?

    4. The intangibility of PR within the corporate world. Yes, we recognise the function when things go wrong but what does it actually deliver? Or does it SUPPORT marketing/HR/legal/commercial? For me, public sector communications has a more defined role – promoting (or marketing) the government/council’s policies – as well as maintaining reputation to the electorate (consumer). This is tactically measured by public awareness (coverage and debate in media); and strategically, support at election. Within the corporate world, the lines between PR and brand management, and marketing, or even HR are much more blurred.

    5. Is PR self-limiting? At the moment, yes. Even in Government, ‘Comms Directors’ are not on
    management boards. Its worth exploring the ‘career ceiling’ as my impression is that PR is mainly a middle management function – which is why the entrepreneurial (freelance, set up agency) route is significant within PR careers. Once you become a manager, expanding a team/budget is the only bureaucratic way forward without repositioning a career towards another management function.

    Here in Australia, its only really the major corporates who invest in substantial multi-layered or de-centralised PR departments (E.g. Qantas, the banks, supermarkets and telcos). Other corporates/NGOs usually consist of a PR manager reporting to a ‘Marketing & Comms General Manager’. Or even a single ‘Marketing & Communications Manager’ which is no bad thing for building a ‘portfolio career.’ Within global corporates, local PR/Marketing teams operate within HQ-set templates and processes – heavily blurring PR/brand management. State and Federal governments retain communications departments though still fairly lean. I think UK corporate culture is heavily bureaucratic in comparison. Large comms/PR teams are commonplace everywhere in the private, public and NGO sectors (British obsession with empire-building I suppose).

    The Australian market does not accommodate for PR as a major function. Factors include: a limited media market (only 2 national newspapers and lots of local/regionals which re-print articles, very limited trade/sector press, enough consumer titles); lots of state bureaucracy but no externally imposed regulation such as the EU influence; a monopolistic market and lack of choice and competitiveness in any sector. All issues owing to a relatively small isolated population.

    At the ten year point, I am very aware of the apparent ‘glass ceiling’ associated with PR. I don’t want to be in the same career for forty years so am already gearing my career towards another management function to progress in any organisation. My view is that PR bodies have a huge job in improving their offer to experienced professionals. Their easy route is to focus on new graduates as PR is currently in demand by students and qualifications are a good revenue source. Both marketing, IT and business studies have already gone through these phases of exceptionally high student demand.

    In my opinion, this current high demand won’t last as ‘digital marketing’ evolves over the next decade. Marketing courses will adapt. Given the high debts associated with university, students will do their research about career flexibility and management hierarchy, and will be selective in their choice of degree and occupation. E.g. In the UK, a degree in tourism management is now widely perceived as devalued, associated with non-graduate careers such as managing a gym or catering function.

    I am also very interested to hear thoughts on the career progression issue.

  17. Wow Shiobhan what a considered comment, thank you so much.

    It does seem strange to me that so little has been written about careers in PR that is more than anecdote or general opinion. As you say, an incidental and less structured approach seems to be the norm, which I’m sure in part reflects that most practitioners do not work in large organisatoins where there could be a career path within PR itself.

    I do agree with you that there are more structured options within government and some multinational organisations, and perhaps a hierarchical path within large agencies, quite probably based more on what career literature calls a ‘jousting’ approach (or Darwinism). This may reflect entrepreneurial skills, although I wonder if being entrepreneurial encourages more independence (eg setting up own agencies).

    I plan to look at such structured opportunities for careers and understand the strategies employed by those who do reflect hierarchical progression, as well as those who plateau (excuse the career jargon). I hope to also talk with HR and other career influencers within such organisations about how they see PR careers. These do seem to reflect bureaucratic careers, although the extent to which they reflect Schein’s concepts around movement vertically, laterally and centrally, hasn’t been examined. I wonder if, as you indicate, the narrow perspective on PR careers, means there is little lateral movement (ie experience in other functions) which prevents progression beyond the head of comms/PR role.

    I will also be using some of von Bertalanffy’s systems theory concepts of equifinality and multifinality to explore, as you observe, the multiple starting and (possibly) ending points within PR careers.

    The question about what is your profession is interesting – I hadn’t specifically thought about the use of ‘profession’ in that way. I wonder what other PR Conversation readers would answer? I tend to think that I am a PR person as a mindset, but think of it as my occupation. Not sure I have a profession… but I would say communications would be my craft.

    I love that you see the freedom of working in PR as a strength. I tend to agree and think you are right about the alignment of PR to modernity of career opportunity. I fear that those who seek to make it more restrictive as an occupation miss this perspective and their desire for credibility or status for PR blinds them to the advantages of being on the cutting edge of developing career thinking.

    For me this also means rethinking education – so it isn’t just about a professional entry route, but about ensuring PR practitioners are continuously equipped to manage their careers. I appreciate your view that PR qualifications are a waste of time – as an educator, I would disagree, naturally. But that’s because I see qualifications as about the higher level competencies you list rather than teaching people craft skills which is what many existing practitioners feel students should learn. There certainly are challenges for education establishments and the professional bodies both in influencing and responding to changing PR careers.

    I also don’t mind the intangibility of PR as I see that as an opportunity – again there is entrepreneurial opportunity even within the corporate environment to define your own role rather than work within functional boundaries which undoubtedly are going to change going forwards. As you indicate though, that means avoiding the self-limitation tendencies within PR to impose a career ceiling. Anne Gregory did some research into senior PR practitioners, which I recall indicated they shared some similarities with organisational leaders, but were more content to be in the supportive role rather than in the top job.

    I enjoyed your contrast of UK and Australia – not sure I would totally agree that there is still a major legacy of class and empire building, but that’s a dimension I will look out for in my research. Again, would be interesting to hear from PR Conversations’ readers from other cultural backgrounds.

    Anyway, thank you so much for sharing – your ten year career point is exactly the level I am looking to study as that’s where I think most career thinking is likely to occur.

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