The argument for public relations to be considered a profession is championed by industry bodies such as the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). So the case is a familiar one.
In this article, I’ll look at the less widely-aired counter argument. In general, the difference is between idealists and pragmatists.
Lee Edwards, in her new book Understanding Public Relations (which we reviewed here) prefers to use the word occupation to profession (though profession and industry slip into her analysis).
She argues that public relations fits alongside other knowledge-based occupations such as management consultancy, project management and recruitment.
Most analyses of professions start with elite occupations such as law and medicine. In these cases, professional status generates significant rewards and the focus is on ‘formal training, ethics and codes of practice, a public service ethos, closed membership, powerful industry associations and different specialisations.’
The problem comes when this analysis is extended to other professions, such as teaching and social work, that share most of these characteristics but don’t bring similar financial rewards or status.
Then there are distinctive problems that public relations must face. If the claim is that public relations manages reputation for organisations, how to distinguish this work from that of all the others who also affect an organisation’s reputation?
If the work is considered promotional (and part of the promotional industries), how to separate it out from marketing, advertising and other promotional activities?
So it’s important to consider the company we keep. Some in public relations look admiringly at the advertising industry which, as we saw last week at Cannes, still has stronger claims to ‘the big idea’ or the creative execution of campaigns.
Stuart Bruce eloquently explores PR’s problem with Cannes in this blog post:
Others look to management consultancy for competition or collaboration (crisis management specialist Regester Larkin is now part of Deloittes).
Yet more look inwards and make comparisons with human resources. Others with project management.
All are having to learn lessons in digital and in analytics (and to learn to use numbers in addition to the traditional strength with words).
The arguments against the professional project can be summarised as:
In short, Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy summarised this counter-argument in their book chapter heading: ‘Professional - but never a profession.’
So what does it mean to be a professional if there’s no recognised profession?
Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.