Two glaring gaps in an otherwise glowing review of senior PR practice in Canada

A report and commentary on the Canada-specific Generally Accepted Practices (GAP) VIII Survey results

By Natalie Bovair, APR

It’s official: Canadian public relations practice is distinct and progressing well toward best practice. This is according to a Report of the Generally Accepted Practices (GAP) VIII Survey (Canadian) presented to CPRS members and other practitioners in early September 2014, by lead researcher Amy Thurlow, PhD, APR, associate professor at Mount Saint Vincent University.

Following are study highlights gleaned from the CPRS presentation* as well as some commentary from my perspective as a senior Canadian practitioner with experience in a variety of sectors.

Some background on the Canadian study arm

Thanks to the initiative of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management (Global Alliance), the long-running USC Annenberg GAP study was expanded beyond the borders of the United States to include study arms in Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

A report on the overall global GAP VIII study is on the agenda at the eighth Global Alliance World Public Relations Forum (WPRF) in Madrid, Spain. Prior to the WPRF, Canadian study highlights were shared in an open webinar, thanks to the four Canadian study arm partners. The Canadian GAP VIII study was funded by the Communications + PR Foundation, conducted by the Mount Saint Vincent Department of Communications Studies, and jointly presented by Mount Saint Vincent, the Canadian Public Relations Society and the Global Alliance.

Its results reflect the experience of 120 senior Canadian public relations professionals (i.e., members of the dominant coalition holding full responsibility for organizational communications), considered a representative sample yielding statistically valid results, according to Thurlow, who during her presentation thanked the Canadian respondents who completed all 72 survey questions!

All types of organizations are using senior PR talent in Canada

Right off the bat, it was made evident there are significant variances in the place and scope of practice in Canada.

According to GAP VIII results, Canada’s senior PR professionals are apt to have a local or regional scope of practice. “This tight focus stood out in the Canadian results,” stated Thurlow, further noting, “US and Australian practitioners have much more multinational and international scope.”

In terms of practice areas, governments and not-for-profit sectors have emerged as Canada’s largest employers of senior public relations professionals. Considering that Canada’s private companies employ three times as many staff as its governments, and exponentially more employees than non-profit organizations, this result is surprising.

It makes one wonder whether Canadian corporations prescribe less value to public relations as a strategic management function. Alternatively, perhaps public relations is a best-kept secret in corporate Canada.

Public relations education now trumps journalism

For the first time, more than half of Canada’s senior PR professionals have an academic degree in public relations or communications. This is new, according to Thurlow, because, “Historically in Canada, most PR practitioners had a journalism degree.”

When I made the decision to study university-level public relations in the late 1980s, there was only one degree program offered in Canada by Mount Saint Vincent University, and only a handful of advanced-degree programs.

Since that time there has been a proliferation of quality education programs at the university and (provincial) college levels, and a noted desire for higher education across the profession, including the attainment of master’s level credentials by many senior practitioners. This has all served to make higher education in PR more accessible and more attractive for its potential value to employers.

I find it gratifying to realize that the public relations body of knowledge now supports senior practice in Canada. The narrative of what we do must also be shifting away from storytelling as the primary function of public relations toward framing PR as the strategic management of organizational relationships.

In the results determined via research such as the GAP study, I can see this happening. I wonder if colleagues also are bearing first-hand witness to this shift within their own workplaces.

Women in PR draw 25 per cent less for work of equal value

As for gender and wages, it is unsurprising the GAP study found more Canadian female than male senior practitioners (72 per cent female to 28 per cent male), drawing an average salary of $105,000. Nor was it unexpected to find the average female senior PR professionals earning less than the men do ($95,500 versus $127,000).

By my calculation, that’s 25 per cent less salary for work of equal value.

Today, many national PR associations are grappling with how to assist female members in rectifying this imbalance. On my own, I’ve been proactive about it for a long time. Armed with this gender pay gap knowledge, one of the strategies I have used to try to ensure a fair wage is to obtain concrete salary-range data prior to entering into the discussion of wage with prospective employers, and then seek a salary toward or at the top of the scale.

Such data may be available through related PR/communication associations. I also find useful federal and provincial government websites related to employment and labour or job site tools such as the Canadian Workopolis salary calculator.

Canada’s senior PR professionals have secured strategic functions in the dominant coalition

“That Canadian PR professionals have got a strategic function in the dominant coalition came through loud and clear,” reports Thurlow.

According to the study results, more than 80 per cent of respondents have decision-making authority over their organizations’ communications goals and strategies. As well, they are active in counselling executive members of the C-suite on communications issues. Another 70 per cent contribute to their organizations’ overall strategic direction.

Hallelujah!

Social media management dichotomy

In contrast, perhaps the most depressing GAP VIII results come under the banner of social media.

It’s clear that public relations staffs exert control over the organizational use of social media, nearly double that of the marketing/sales team. It was pleasantly surprising to learn that the organizations of 86 per cent of Canada’s GAP VIII respondents have a social media policy, although just 53 per cent have a social media content strategy.

This reality can be explained (in part) by knowing nearly half of all respondents reported their organizational senior management teams are concerned about the loss of control and its possible impact on reputation through social media.

No matter the apparent reticence in the C-suite (whether by CCO or PR lead or other leadership colleagues), I’m of a mind this is an inadequate excuse for senior PR professionals from providing leadership to social media content.

Thurlow puts it this way, “Are we about controlling and protecting the brand or are we about creating a dialogue between the organization and its publics?”

PR professionals aren’t being vigilant about program measurement and evaluation

That we need agreement across the profession about the need for rigorous PR program evaluation was also made evident in the GAP study results.

A significant number of senior PR practitioners in Canada (17 per cent) are not measuring and evaluating their organizations’ public relations activities and another 13 per cent are “considering adopting standard measurement” but have not yet implemented them.

“We can count things,” adds Thurlow, “but what does that tell you about where you’re going strategically?”

Over the past 25 years in practice, my own approach to measuring communications programs has become more sophisticated, but I still need to follow developments in order to keep current.

I recently found Giselle Bodie’s step-by-step approach to PR measurement helpful for quick reference, found in The PR professional’s definitive guide to measurement, along with AMEC’s Dictionary of public relations measurement and research. There is also Ketchum’s 10 golden rules of PR measurement, which contains this gem, “Realize that communications experts are not necessarily measurement experts.”

In other words, it often takes a PR professional to know what needs to be measured and a research professional to determine how best to go about measuring it, not to mention isolating the statistically significant results versus its baseline.

All of which brings us to the kicker in GAP VIII (Canada): Seventy-five per cent of respondents say the C-suite values PR for its strategic value to the organization, but just half say the C-suite believes public relations programs contributes to financial success.

The evidence that public relations drives up organizational value is iron clad at this point, so I want to believe that this widely held view will change in time, provided we do better a better job at things such as qualitative measurement.

Key takeaways

In conclusion, as a baseline data set, there’s value in the GAP VIII results for Canadian PR professionals.

Canadian PR practice appears to be progressing toward the model of Excellence in public relations and communications management described by Grunig. et al. (1992).

Most importantly, there is evidence of:

  • leadership in core PR practice areas
  • strong acceptance of the strategic value of PR
  • the opportunity to correct gender bias; and
  • the means to advance the profession by connecting PR action to the bottom line

*Access is open to the archived webinar and/or the accompanying slides.

Recommended additional reading

Generally Accepted Practices (VIII) Survey (Canadian)

More about GAP (from the USC Annenberg Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center)

Follow developments at the 8th World Public Relations Forum in Madrid (September 21-23, 2014), at first via the dedicated Twitter account or hashtag #WPRF2014 and later on the Global Alliance site

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Natalie Bovair, APR, is a self-professed “freshly minted” solo PR practitioner and public relations nerd, who follows developments in the profession and strives to establish the link between communication action taken and the desired public reaction.

The majority of her 25-year career history is in the healthcare practice area, including public relations agencies, continuing medication education companies, and health-related charities. Natalie’s experience also includes six years as an association communications executive. Most recently she has branched out to teaching public relations to post-graduate students.

Her interest in professional issues and the advancement of public relations practice in Canada dates back to involvement on the student steering committee of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) in Toronto (1987).

She is currently a member of the CPRS National membership committee, and chair of accreditation with her home society, CPRS Ottawa-Gatineau. She is accredited in public relations (APR) and has won four national awards for public relations work. Natalie holds a BBA degree in marketing and earned an advanced diploma in public relations, prior to first entering practice.

For more information, check out Natalie Bovair’s website or LinkedIn company page or follow her on her personal Twitter or LinkedIn accounts.

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11 Replies to “Two glaring gaps in an otherwise glowing review of senior PR practice in Canada

  1. Natalie – thank you for the post and sharing some insight into the GAP study in relation to Canada. Whilst finding such research interesting, I am always nervous of extrapolating too broadly, not only because of issues that Fraser notes of ending up comparing apples and pears but that the fruit in the bowl is always self-selecting.

    I know that those undertaking such research always say it is statistically reliable, but as Judy illustrates with her comments about the mining industry’s representation (or not), I’m just not convinced. We have to remind ourselves we are talking about percentages of respondents, not overall practitioners IMHO.

    What also bothers me is that such studies invariably use a quantitative method of research which is favoured for the numbers, without any real depth of analysis, application of statistical significance tests, and so on.

    Another concern is that they rely on what respondents say, and we would benefit from some ethnographic studies to be able to get a better insight into what senior practitioners actually do.

    But as ever the question comes down to funding such research – and ensuring the involvement of those who are less likely to respond to the standard surveys.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Heather. I can understand and appreciate your rationale for withholding complete confidence in these survey results as well as the caution that we avoid drawing any firm conclusions given the relative depth of the research query in this case. You are also right to point out that the results analysis is limited given the study study design.

      I am less concerned about self selection in this case given that the respondents were primarily members of the CPRS and PRSA, screened to ensure that they met the criteria of the most senior practitioner in the organization. I’m comfortable taking it on faith that the ethos of the respondents is more or less homogeneous; that these results reflect the views of practitioners who are a) professionals that b) subscribe to the generally accepted principals of excellence in public relations.

      While I agree that the survey measures only the self-reported scope of practice and the perceived value of public relations to the organization, the results paint an interesting picture of the current practice setting.

      I understand that researchers will view my report as daring or even folly but what’s a PR practitioner to do in the absence of anything better?

      1. That’s an interesting observation Natalie, which has got me wondering about the idea of “in the absence of anything better”. When we don’t know much, is it okay to base our thinking and actions on limited, likely flawed data? Yes and no, would be my response. We need starting points – stake posts – against which other ideas, data and perspectives can be positioned. And sometimes rough and ready calculations are good enough, intelligent guestimates, which although wobbly, may be sufficiently solid for our purposes of understanding.

        But, but, but – doesn’t our acceptance in PR of wobbly foundations continue the perceptions both inside and outside of the occupation about our lack of a real evidence base? There’s a classic joke – how many PR people does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: I don’t know, I’ll get back to you on that!

        GAP and other such studies are definitely something that is better than nothing. What we need to do though is ensure that they are able to increase their reliability and engage others so that we are able to get better understanding, a broader underpinning and something more solid going fowards.

  2. In response to this post, I’ve received an email from Fraser Likely, President & Managing Partner, Likely Communication Strategies Ltd., that’s so interesting it bears repeating here. In it, he notes that the variance in the Canadian and US public relations practice settings are explained, in part, by virtue of Canada’s “branch-plant” business structure and suggests we not get too excited over the GAP VIII results.

    “Since the Canadian sample included fewer […] larger – particularly for-profit – organizations,” says Likely, “we appear to be “better”. But, the comparison is apples to oranges. There is nothing unique about us – other than we have smaller organizations.”

    It is clear from the GAP VIII results that Canadian PR professionals are more likely to have a regional/local scope (57 per cent in Canada to 36 per cent US) while American practitioners are more likely to have a global scope (36 percent US to 13 per cent Canada).

    Does this mean, given the same opportunity, US professionals would enjoy just as much management support as Canadians currently enjoy? Is there nothing special about this particular place of practice?

  3. Thanks for the shout out, Jean.

    This GAP VIII (Canada) data is really very interesting, even as a baseline data set.

    I am also excited about the pending global GAP VIII report from Madrid in the coming days since it will be possible to compare the relative scope, scale, and status of public relations in Canada to all of the other countries taking part this year.

    I suspect Canada will fair well in comparison. And you?

  4. Great post Natalie and good analysis of differences coming out of the study.

    The real value of GAP studies is a comparison on an international basis (and this is what motivated the Global Alliance to globalize it), which is exactly what you did: Compare ourselves to others and that can be fertile ground for future researchers. Also, we now have a benchmark to track trends.

    My only observation on the regionalization of Canadian public relations is that our geography is so vast that our context if often defining our mindset and markets. Just a theory.

    And welcome to the PRC guest posters club!

    1. Jean, it will also be interesting to hear (after Jerry Swerling of USC presents the “global” results at the World PR Forum’s Research Colloquium on Sunday) whether Canada stands out in the national/regional scope when compared to Brazil, (maybe) New Zealand and South Africa.

      I say that because the US probably has more global multinational companies than any other country in the world and the companies HQ’d in Australia (because it is quite isolated, despite being a huge island nation/continent) would naturally branch (and brand) out to other countries, because of the vast potential of the Asian Pacific markets. For example, Australia’s large and very solid banking sector.

      I do know that more mining companies (with global reach) are HQ in Canada than any other country in the world (believe Australia is second largest home), but if none of the 120 senior PR practitioners were from that sector, this wouldn’t be reflected in the survey results.

      And besides the vast land mass (second largest in the world after Russia) with a relatively small population, the fact that it’s a country built on Two Solitudes (and more recently, one of multi-cultures “accommodation”) means that the dual/multinational aspect of public relations is de facto built in. 🙂

      I thought Natalie Bovair did a wonderful job on this report as well. In particular I appreciated her commentary, based on her own significant work experience and research.

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