What’s my name – and where’s my number?

In case you missed it, 2007 was a big year for the statisticians – and, in many ways, something of a lost opportunity for us when it comes to making public relations count.

I’m not normally a big fan of ‘numbering’ people, but I do believe that ‘public relations’ really needs a universal number of its own. Why? Because then the national and global impact of our profession could be quickly and neatly measured and problems of professional identity would be part way to being solved. Let me explain.

Last year, a major revision of the International Standard Industrial Classification Codes (ISIC) was undertaken by the United Nations and this was then followed up by various national revisions. Industries, professions and jobs moved up and down the number tree, being grouped and regrouped into various classifications. ‘So what’, I hear you say. Who cares what the number crunchers are up to? Well, we should. ISIC codes mark and measure economic activity at every level and are supplemented by lists such as the International Standard Classification of Occupations. The issue of concern to me is that public relations remains lumped together with other roles and industries giving it no clear identity and role of its own.

The good news is that during the 2007 review we moved. We were taken out of ‘Real Estate, Renting and other Business Activities (74.14/1) and popped into ‘Management Consultancy Services’ (M7020), lurking beneath ‘Professional, Scientific and Technical Services’. This doesn’t do us a great deal of good however, as we are still chucked in as an afterthought under marketing and advertising. Add to this the current International Labour Office draft review for 2008 (which is supposed to be on their site for consultation and comment ‘from interested parties’, but which is impossible to find) has us as either advertising and public relations managers or as a sub-sub category in sales, marketing and public relations professionals. To me, this illustrates very precisely the lack of general understanding and awareness as to the role of public relations in today’s society and its economic and social impact.

The bad news is that because we are located in a sub-sub category, when it comes to census time around the world, the true picture of active industry professionals and their impact cannot be ascertained. Placed as we are in the ‘business professionals’ slot, which box, for example, would practitioners in government and local government tick? Or the thousands who work for not-for-profits and charities? What happens to those who work in the ‘communications division’ – as many public relations departments have been named – or indeed, what do you tick if you are Director of Communications? You can’t tick the ‘communications’ box because that has been hived off and allocated to Information and Communications Technology Professionals, with ‘communications’ tied to the mechanics and hardware of communicating, rather than the content and meaning. Interesting isn’t it, what we do with words! Some countries vary their SIC code allocations slightly. The US, for example, has a handful of PR specific (but highly debatable) descriptions and codes under its 2007 NAICS system review, but most countries appear to follow the UN recommendations and allocated ISIC codes. For those countries where public relations is still emerging, proper classification of the function would be of real benefit.

If we had a failing as a profession or industry (chose whichever description you prefer), I believe it is a collective lack of confidence in the contribution we make at all levels of society and across all levels of economic activity. With no ‘official’ category, ‘official’ statistics’ do not come easily to hand – and if something isn’t measured does that make it unimportant? Over the years, public relations has been criticised for one reason or another and during intense periods of criticism there has generally followed a rush of new titles, new names and new descriptions as practitioners seek to distance themselves from the flack or attempt to redefine their work so it is viewed or perceived afresh. An understandable human reaction, but one that has left us with an ever-increasing number of titles and descriptions (only this morning I had cause to telephone a ‘stakeholder engagement specialist’).

Having your own number means that what you do is counted – it appears on quarterly economic returns, the profits generated by your activity are recorded and the contribution made to exports and the national economy is available. Yes, you can spend hours (well, months in my case) burrowing down through your national statistics office to get an idea of numbers, impact and so on, but the activity is buried, not easily discernible and therefore generally invisible to the community at large.

A really worthwhile undertaking – and this would need to be done quickly to have any impact on the possibly still current ILO draft occupations classifications – would be for national associations and the Global Alliance – or maybe the GA working on everyone’s behalf – to whip together a proposal for a specific public relations category which incorporates current titles as sub-categories and then feed this into the process as swiftly as possible. Once that is done, I would suggest that as a first step in any 2008 ‘PR for PR’ process, statisticians are recognised as a key community by our profession and work begins to create an understanding within that community of who we are and what we do – and why we should have our own number!

In the meantime, as individuals, I suggest you write to your government’s department of statistics and question why there isn’t a main category for public relations – or if you have one in your country, tell me, so I can use it as an example when I write my letters!

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