The great PR profession debate: An update from Wadds

This month, I asked the PR community why is it obsessed with being a profession? It currently fails on at least two of the five points that are generally accepted by academic literature to describe a profession:

1. Barrier to entry in the form of qualifications

2. Community of practice between academia and practice

3. Mandatory code of conduct

4. Body of knowledge

5. Continuous professional development.

It’s a conversation about confidence, education and standards. Below, PR ‘professionals’ and academics discuss whether PR can really call itself a profession, and whether it really matters.

Barriers to entry
Kerry Coope, account executive, PR Agency One: “In some areas of PR there are still people working who have no credentials in PR at all. People have just found themselves in the profession and have built themselves up. Not necessarily a bad thing – for some these people might be the best in their business and only found their calling after university. But the issue is still there, where higher up the table are people not qualified in the profession, telling juniors they're wrong, don't know what they're talking about etc, etc, when they have qualifications and credentials and are heavily invested in the sector too.”

The march to professionalism
Sarah Billings, head of department – marketing, enterprise and leisure, University of Wolverhampton: “What is interesting from my research with practitioners is that they rarely reference the concept of PR as a profession, they just get on with it. The narrative of PR as a professional project seems to be mostly advanced by trade associations and professional bodies. When they do reference professionalism or talk about professional behaviours, they describe managerialism or managerial traits.”

William Murray, president and CEO at National Coffee Association and former CEO, PRSA: “Interesting question to ask – perhaps more revealing of the disconnect between the academy and practice than anything else. There are literally hundreds of thousands of well-qualified, successful practitioners who would be considered ‘professionals’ by any other measure. Perhaps the definition of ‘a profession’ should be updated to reflect common understanding, colloquial usage, and a rapidly evolving economy.”

Dr Cara Reed, lecturer, Cardiff University: “That notion of what constitutes a profession is also debated in professions literature with some arguing that is being redefined as new professions emerge. In this context the likes of PR have an opportunity to be at the forefront of that redefinition.”

Sarah Hall, managing director, Sarah Hall Associates: “We want to be taken seriously by employers and the wider business community – and it's where the opportunity lies, not least in terms of earning potential.”

Generation gap
Francis Ingham, director general, PRCA and CEO, ICCO: “The PRCA PR Census highlights an interesting age gap: older practitioners are far more likely to describe it as profession compared to younger ones.”

Alastair McCapra, CEO, CIPR: “There's no reason why we should expect people to make these commitments in their initial years. Only once they become 'lifers' does it make sense. That's why milestones to progress is better than barriers to entry.”

Professionalism naysayers
Melissa Arulappan, head, corporate communications, IQVIA India: “Whilst I think all your five points are valid and need more focus, does the ‘profession or not’ question really matter? I’ve never had to defend what I call our ilk.”

Ruth Wilson, freelance: “Is it, though? I’ve worked in PR for over 20 years and this has never bothered me, any of my colleagues or any of my clients.”

Work in progress
Alastair McCapra, CEO, CIPR: “A lot of established professions fall short on one or more of these points. Accountancy and HR don’t have barriers to entry, and medicine only introduced CPD 15 years ago.”

David Gallagher, president, Omnicom PR: “I believe all five points exist but are insufficiently met. And I believe this is because they’re not legally codified. And I believe this is because our higher aims are either unclear or invalid in the eyes of wider society – and this is the source of our infernal insecurity.”

Ali Yaseen, associate account director, APCO Worldwide: “The first two points are crucial. They are already there, although not very well established.”

Ben Verinder, managing director, Chalkstream: “The only impossible journey is the one you never begin (although I might make an exception for travelling by rail on a bank holiday). The drive to professionalise PR has benefits in and of itself, independent of whether we achieve the five core elements.”

Smokescreen for other issues
Richard Houghton, consultant, Agency Doctor: “An obsession with professionalism is easier than tackling issues such as evaluation, shortage of talent, low fees, and over service. And of course – ego.”

Craig Fleisher, dean, Business School at the College of Coastal Georgia: “As one of the researchers publishing refereed papers on this for decades, PR also falls short on the public understanding of the net benefits and harms it delivers, and organisational recognition of the value delivered.”

Written by Stephen Waddington, managing director of marketing agency Metia; and visiting professor, Newcastle University.