Francis Ingham, PRCA director general, discusses what skills are most useful in PR

I have a small confession to make. When I was 18, I had to choose a topic for an extended school essay. I chose PR. An early sign of interest in the industry? Actually, no. For me, as something of a political obsessive at the time, PR meant proportional representation, not public relations.

Well my interest in politics has remained, but my knowledge of PR (public relations, not its much less interesting sister acronym, proportional representation) has certainly grown immeasurably.

Like many people in PR, though I didn’t plan to work in it, I am remarkably glad that I’ve ended up doing so. It is full of vibrant, talented and – the most important thing in my view – optimistic people. And that holds true right the way from new entrants all the way up. There is a positivity and energy that I genuinely believe to be absent from many other industries.

I do use that word industries deliberately. I know that there is a body of opinion that believes PR must strive above all for the trappings of the established professions and until it achieves those trappings, it somehow doesn’t count. I disagree with that perspective. There is too ready a move to equate professionalism (as in skilled and accountable conduct) with the way that the old professions operate. Continual professional development (CPD) for example is a fine concept, but it runs the real danger of not being about skills gained and honed, but instead being about boxes ticked. CPD should give employers reassurance that standards have been met, and that skills claimed are skills held. Gaining points for attending meetings or for reading books simply do not serve that function – it measures inputs rather than outcomes.

In the same camp is the view that the best interests of the industry can be advanced by pushing PR degrees as the principal point of access into PR. We will shortly be announcing the results of our investigation of PRCA managing director and communications director attitudes towards PR degrees. They make striking reading, and show broad and deep reservations within much of the industry about the value of such degrees.

Put simply, the industry views higher education’s offering as highly variable, ranging from excellent to awful. At one end of the spectrum are good universities, equipping their students with robust intellectual content and practical skills too. At the other end, there are institutions doing their students no favours whatsoever, and probably deluding them about their employability. In times of plenty, that probably didn’t matter so much – but it certainly matters now. We have not just one cadre of students leaving university and looking for a job, but two – this year’s and last year’s as well.

So where does that leave us?

There are things we can agree on. That the industry needs portable, validated skills. That students need a clear view of which degree courses employers rate. That post-graduate, employer-led skills training can be at least as valuable as PR-specific degrees.

The difficulty of translating this into agreed action might be a little tougher of course. But surely it can’t be as hard as understanding the other PR? And even an 18 year old can do that.

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