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Is PR a profession?

PR may be full of hard-working, conscientious and professional people, but it is not a profession, at least not in the same way as law and accountancy. As Stephen Waddington, chief engagement officer at PR firm Ketchum, puts it: “Marketing and PR have a long way to go before they can be considered professions. Over the last decade they have started to exhibit the qualities of professionalism, but there are a range of changes that need to be made.

“During my time as president of the CIPR, we studied this issue in detail and found that there were five distinctive characteristics that can be found amongst professions such as medicine, accountancy and architecture. These are; professional qualifications and conversion into practice, continual professional development, operation within an ethical framework and a code of conduct, an open exchange between research and practice, and a sharing of knowledge. At present all these points are a work in progress.”

In agreement that PR cannot be called a profession is Trevor Morris, professor of PR at Richmond University and co-author of PR Today, but he does believe that PR is getting more and more professional thanks to PR training, degrees, apprenticeships and support from industry bodies. But Morris is not sure that it is a good idea for PR to aim towards becoming a profession:What wouldn’t you be allowed to do if you hadn’t got a recognised PR qualification? Would it be talking to the media? Restricting who can speak to the media would be unfair on small organisations such as charities, undemocratic, very unpopular with the media – and unenforceable. It would also mean top journalists could no longer turn to PR without years of study and training.”

Another problem with making PR a profession, says Morris, is that it is difficult to define PR: “What is the similarity between a City PR, a public affairs practitioner and a celebrity publicist?

“PR operates in an open market place where poor practice seldom threatens life or society and is quickly corrected by media attack or the mechanisms of free enterprise. Basically, if you are no good you get sacked or exposed. If you are corrupt then, as for everyone, there is the law. Let’s just be happy to make PR more professional.”

Do professionals earn more?

Becoming a fully-fledged profession may not be the best thing for PR, but having recognised PR qualifications surely can’t do you any harm. Especially if it can increase your pay, which it could well do. Koray Camgoz, public relations manager at CIPR, explains: “Whilst not all CIPR members engage with CPD, a rapidly increasing number are – and every member of the CIPR makes a personal commitment to ethical practice by signing the Institute’s Code of Conduct. So when it comes to judging whether those committed to professionalism earn more, it’s worth comparing the salaries of CIPR members and non-members. Data from this year’s State of the Profession research evidences that CIPR members earn an average of £6,661 more than non-members.”

Francis Ingham, director general of PRCA, also extols the benefits of professional qualifications: “We know from the PRCA annual benchmarking data that employers pay the holders of PR professional qualifications more. But there is more to be done here – that's why we are creating the first all-encompassing UK and international CPD programme.

“It won't be self-serving. It will recognise every one of the many sources of professional development that exist in our industry. It'll be possible to meet your annual career goals without spending a single penny. And by doing so, it'll set a brand new, transparent professional standard.”

The ‘PR profession’ debate

View from the industry bodies

Koray Camgoz, CIPR: “Public relations is one of many occupations evolving from a craft to a profession. Academics have debated the components of professions since the beginning of the 20th century, well before the emergence of public relations as a management discipline. But the term ‘profession’ is inherently problematic – it’s largely subjective and means different things to different people. Whether you’re talking about controlled barriers to entry or the need for a defined area of competence, characterising a profession is a laborious challenge.

“Rather than sweat over whether PR is a profession, practitioners should strive to be more professional. Two of the most important ways you can demonstrate your professionalism in public relations include signing up to a code of conduct and committing to continuing professional development (CPD). These commitments are the hallmarks of professionalism in PR and offer you the opportunity to showcase your standards to clients, colleagues and wider society.”

Francis Ingham, PRCA: “PR is professional, but it certainly isn't a profession. The obsession that some people have with turning it into one is pointless and ultimately therefore self-defeating. Why? Because there are no barriers to entry in a way that there are for accountancy and law. There will there be none in the foreseeable future. And the fact there aren't is one of the reasons why PR is such a dynamic and creative industry – a professional industry. 

“What there is however, is a distinction between the 20,000 professionals who make themselves accountable via the PRCA Professional Charter, plus the 9,000 who abide by the CIPR Code; and those PR practitioners who choose not to belong to either organisation.”

Personal perspective

Antonella Scimemi, senior account manager at PR agency W: “I do consider myself a PR professional and not just because I have a master’s degree in PR – yes, I am one of the few – but because over the years I have developed a very specific skillset that is unique to the PR role. Of course, if we consider the official definition of the term ‘profession’ – an occupation that requires prolonged training and formal qualifications – then PR isn’t one at all. Many PR practitioners don’t have any formal training and yet have still managed to build a successful career just by learning on the job, which isn’t something, say, a cardiologist (thankfully) or a lawyer could do. Indeed, experience counts more than education in an industry used to embracing raw talent from any walk of life.

"In fact almost everything I’ve learned so far has been through hard work and a supportive system at W, which has enabled me to rise (fairly) speedily through the ranks from work experience to senior account manager. Many of my colleagues don’t even know that I have a PR degree and people normally laugh when I tell them about it.

"The PR industry has undergone huge change over the past decade, with the role increasingly one of critical, even bottom-line importance to businesses. Yet, while I don’t think a PR degree is essential, despite having done one and really enjoyed it, I do think that more formal and in-depth training would help change the perception of what PR is, beyond the sadly still widespread notion that ‘anyone can do it’.”

David Alexander, managing director at agency Calacus Public Relations: “The problem PR has faced over the years, ironically, is one of its own reputation. Because of some high-profile publicists whose names and reputations have become synonymous with the industry, PR has had a bad name akin to that of estate agents. It also doesn’t help that anyone with a phone and a computer could claim to be a PR consultant.

“It’s only over the past few years that the governing bodies have grasped the nettle to give the industry greater voice and relevance both externally and internally and extol the virtues of professional training and development. And the CIPR’s Chartered Practitioner qualification has now been adapted to encourage more experienced consultants to apply. Chartered status certainly provides added kudos for clients for whom professional qualifications are a benchmark of authority.

“I do believe that more agencies, particularly the larger global agencies, need to do more to take professional qualifications including PR diplomas and CPD more seriously in order to raise the standards of the industry as a whole.”

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