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Answers and questions: Evaluating the working population of PR

In 2121, future generations will be able to discover details of today’s PR practitioners when full records of the 2021 census are released. Old census records offer a fascinating insight into the past. On 19 June 1921, around 38 million individuals in England and Wales completed a census return. Of these, eight men recorded their occupation as Press Officer, 471 men and women are listed under Publicity, and 7,916 as Journalists.

Already there is much we can learn from looking at the anonymised data published from the 2021 census, as shown in the CIPR’s new PR Population Report and online. The context is that on Sunday 21 March 2021 (Census Day), 97% of households in England and Wales completed the census. As a population (in England and Wales), this amounted to 59,597,300 individuals.

That’s the main point of the Census – ‘to count everyone, in the right place

There were two categories listing PR as an ‘job type’ on the Census: Public relations professionals (a count of 43,525 people) and Public relations and communications directors (20,035 people). [Follow these links to the ONS handy tool detailing job definitions, breakdown of demographic data, and narrative that was generated using semi-automated journalism.]

Reliability of the combined figure of 63,563 PR practitioners lies in the provenance of the 2021 Census. This is true for a range of further data and correlations across characteristics recorded of people and households. While these findings offer a strong level of confidence, responses are self-selected – and this Census did not include Scotland, Northern Ireland, or the Channel Islands. Indeed, we can’t be certain it reflects the entire PR population within England and Wales (maybe 97%, maybe more or less).

Statistically the Census provides a robust base for analysis of data that is highly likely to be indicative, representative, and significant – primarily because of its size. It provides a snapshot of data at a particular time; albeit captured during an abnormal period subject to COVID controls.

Critical thinking is needed

Even with such extensive data, we need to think critically about what is apparent, what is omitted, and what cannot be determined. Ben Verinder (MD at Chalkstream) who authored the PR Population Report for CIPR touches on this point in the pdf document and a YouTube recording of a subsequent live discussion.

Answers and questions go together. In the case of the Census, results are descriptive. Completion involved counting, listing, and checking multiple choice boxes mainly with ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ question prompts. This supports generation of numerical data and statistical information.

Whenever we access answers to questions, it should prompt us to want to know more. Starting with its original source and funding, scope and method(s) of collection, and how it was analysed. Unlike the Census, research about those who work in PR may lack transparency about its process and full data sets are routinely not available. Hence figures from previous work showing the size of the PR population should be considered as ‘estimates’ or ‘extrapolations’.

Nevertheless, it could be useful to compare Census data with other studies to look at patterns (including similarities or differences) and consider what these might mean. Although we can’t gain definitive answers, we can surface suggestions, possibilities, unknowns, and also generate ideas and questions for further investigation.

As the Office for National Statistics undertakes a Census every 10 years, longitudinal trends could emerge by looking at 2011, 2001, etc. Such studies couldn’t track individuals (not until 100 years after collection) but would allow monitoring of subsets, intersections, and composites over time. Still, care is required to draw conclusions, especially as how PR is indicated, defined, and counted previously and in future (if at all) will vary because categories and coding change over decades.

Capability in research and analysis

Answers and questions are receptacles for assumptions, presumptions, bias, and subjectivity. The approach taken with the Census is thorough with questions being reviewed, tested, improved – and subject to ethical oversight. These steps should be the norm in studies about or by professional PR practitioners – along with reflexive practice methods to recognise and acknowledge conscious and non-conscious influences on projects involving research and analysis.

Adopting rigorous, evidence-informed, and values-based methods of research, data analysis and narrative presentation is essential for credibility and trust in answers to questions. This calls for competency and ongoing development of knowledge and skills in areas including data literacy, research logic, ethical considerations, and the ability to design research proposals and reports.

Aspects of research logic and design [Applause Consultancy]

Time horizons

Cross sectional: precise point of time (eg snapshot)

Longitudinal: collected over time (eg omnibus)

Research strategy

Surveys: breadth of investigation (typically closed-ended questions). Involve entire population (census) or representative sample supporting generalisations

Case studies: in-depth investigation focused on an object of interest (e.g. issue, organisation, event). Frame of reference bound by time, action, location, etc

Other strategies: action research, archival, ethnography, experiments, grounded theory, etc

Research approach

Deductive: research tests the truth (accuracy) of a theory, proposition, premise, or hypothesis.

Inductive: derive theory/propositions from research observations, make sense and identify possible meanings

Abductive: explain, develop, and adapt theory during the process, draws on existing knowledge, logical inferences and recognition that all reasoning and research is incomplete

Research choices

Mono method: single quantitative or qualitative data
Mixed method: both quantitative and qualitative data
Multi method: several methods of data collection and/or analysis

Quantitative: numerical data – suitable for counting, categorising, measuring
Qualitative:
narrative data: suitable for exploring perspectives and interpretations

Research methods

Various techniques and procedures used to gather information, for example:

Questionnaires: mainly closed questions (choice, rating, ranking, scales) to generate numeric data from a large sample of people

Interviews: mainly open questions in response to topic of interest, conducted with individuals or as a focus group

Presentation

Visualisation: exploring, interpreting, and communicating research findings using graphics, images, animation, other visual devices (commonly, tables and charts)

Data storytelling: communicating data and insight from quantitative and qualitative data in visual story form for purpose of informing and persuading.

Reporting: publication of results to notify and/or influence audiences.

As professional communicators, PR practitioners may lean towards a storytelling method of presenting data from research studies or other sources. Narrative storytelling tends to have a persuasive intent that draws on framing, argumentation, and rhetorical devices.

Storytelling requires oversight to avoid conveying misinformation or disinformation – as well as realisation of where qualitative research may be required to provide further understanding and depth of insight into quantitative data. Otherwise, we’re speculating beyond what data tells us.

Indeed, one of the most important aspects of research and analysis is to have an open mind and willingness to gather and ungather current understandings and positions. This allows space for questions such as ‘What if…?’ and answers that wonder about other possibilities to look forward with imagination and curiosity. Currently we seem to centre (pre)conceptions about contemporary practice – and where it has come from – when seeking to address findings and observations from the 2021 Census.

Let’s also ask new questions – such as how might the working population of PR be different in 2031, 2081, or 2131? – and gather insights from a wide range of stakeholders, using a variety of standard and creative methods.

Sources:

Article written by Heather Yaxley. PhD. FCIPR

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