Last year I wrote about ‘excellence‘ suggesting that PR needs to stretch beyond specified performance standards or comparative pre-eminence. I’ve been thinking about this during my recent hours spent marking student work – and when looking at the winners of various PR industry awards. My conclusion is that I’d like to see much bigger ambitions than I currently see in most such work.
One idea is to abandon all percentage marks or grades in assignments. Instead, the starting point would be to set very clear criteria for work that is good enough to receive the qualification. And I’d like to emphasise GOOD – so that a pass is a clear indication of competence at a high level. Not average, okay or satisfactory as I see in many marking criteria – but at least GOOD. Let’s go further and say that perhaps the majority should not pass an assignment as seems to be the case today. Expectations are often of at least an 80-90% pass rate (frequently 100%). That seems nonsense and we should establish a clear demarcation of what is GOOD that is agreed by all markers.
That is my second area for change. Much in PR is subjective and for me, this implies that qualitative analysis should be applied to the process. One of the dangers of many of the marking approaches I’ve seen is that they overlay a mirage of quantitative analysis with tick boxes and breakdown percentage points, which have the ultimate result of grade inflation. Instead of this spurious approach, let’s engage with, and embrace, qualitative aspects with greater upfront debate around an assignment and what our standard of success should be. Indeed, accompanying the high pass rate, we’ve had hyper-grade inflation with many students expecting to get top grades rather than these being the exception.
More time for guidance
I’d much rather spend my time working with students on formative guidance to improve their work than on marking and providing summative feedback. Similarly, we should spend time as a body of assessors on determining what constitutes GOOD work that we are proud to hold up as evidence of meriting a qualification. I’m not saying that a high bar can only be reached by a few students, but let’s encourage more students to stretch up and over this rather than setting it at a toddler level.
Another change I’d make would be to offer real recognition of work that is outstanding and exceptional. This would need to be agreed by a number of markers, and hold up to wide scrutiny. But we need to encourage the smartest, most intelligent people working within public relations. I see too many times when we reward what is little more than good work – or the best that we have seen this time around – with the highest grade, often at the lower end of any such criteria. Or, even worse, I’ve seen trends to give over-inflated marks to work that is nowhere near perfect.
Of course, any such gold standard has to be justified and not subject to the bias of particular perspectives or favours. When we supervise individual students it is easy to give credit for their achievement or development over time. That is understandable but it doesn’t cut it in the real world where being nice or overcoming difficulties isn’t judged when you are required to stand up to clients or bosses to justify your work.
Qualifications are different to continuous professional development although they can be part of it. The latter is a spirit of kaizen, where we should set ourselves ambitious goals alongside smaller incremental improvements. Gaining a qualification should be an ambition that when realised carries kudos and pride. This is not time for a certificate of participation – that’s training!
No more mediocre Award winners
Which brings me onto Award programmes. Frankly most of the winners of these are mediocre and immediately forgettable. They may be judged on being a clever idea or submissions with unsubstantiated measurement (i.e. when is an entry ever independently verified?). Or perhaps judges are swayed by a brand name or a ‘celebrity’ consultancy since few if any programmes have any anonymity in entries. Again subjectivity is at the heart of such work – this needs consideration in a robust methodology – alongside more verifiable quantitative measures. Plus we need to judge harshly and by experienced and qualified practitioners, and academics, if awards are to be a blue riband standard.
Of course, we know that the reason for giving out awards and qualifications like Halloween candy is too often financial as these are revenue generating rather than strategies to improve the standard of practice and recognise those who stand out in our field.
We are in effect working in a ‘cash for honours’ world and I’d like to have bigger ambitions for PR than that.