Royal Charter or spiv’s charter?

16 Jul

As my main contribution to Global PR Blog Week 1.0, I have chosen to write about the state of PR professionalism in the UK. I’m hoping this experience will resonate with others around the world. Is public relations a profession? Should it be? What are the risks and rewards of professionalisation?

In summary, we fall short of meeting most attributes of a profession, yet we have professional aspirations and we are beginning to pull in the right direction. This Global PR Blog Week 1.0 is an example of the growing confidence among a diverse group of PR practitioners, commentators and academics to push forward and challenge our understanding of what we do.

The professionalism debate has also taken a step forward in the UK in recent weeks with members of the Institute of Public Relations (IPR) voting at its recent AGM to pursue chartered status.

This will involve the granting of a royal charter, complete with archaic language, conferring some rights and responsibilities on the IPR. It will bring PR’s professional body in line with the marketing industry’s Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). Yet is marketing notably more professional than PR? And is the archaic granting of a charter an appropriate step for a forward-looking industry?

Seeking parallel perspectives

Rather than tackle these questions directly, I thought it would to helpful to look at the experience of another industry that has its chartered (ie professional) side, and its unchartered (ie cowboy) world.

Welcome to the weird world of house buying in England and Wales (different laws apply in Scotland).

Though there has been some enthusiasm for selling houses directly on the internet, most people enlist the support of an estate agency (realtor) to handle the sale on their behalf. The estate agent will be selected from several who will have been offered the chance to view the house and advise on its value and ‘marketability’.

In estate agency as in PR consultancy, the winner is often the one who pitches highest. The estate agent who sounds most bullish about the price to be asked for the house (remembering that agents work on commission) will often be given the chance to sell it. In consultancy, this is the equivalent of overpromising results.

The estate agency (like the overpromising PR consultancy) then has to deal with the realities of the market (ie number of affordable houses and availability of willing buyers; or strength of news stories in a competitive media market). These realities almost always act as a damper on the initial expectations, leaving the agent/consultant to manage expectations. Either the expectations (and the price) get lowered, or the relationship falls at its first hurdle.

The seller (or the client) often feels disappointed and let down by this experience. But their only recourse is to take their business to a competitor. Not all estate agents are members of the National Assocation of Estate Agents; not all consultancies are Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) members. So there’s usually no third party to take a complaint to. And no sanctions to impose against those who fail to meet the standards expected.

In other words, both are constrained by operating in competitive free markets – but both do not fully meet the definition of a profession. Barriers to entry are low: anyone will the knowledge and the nerve can set up an estate agency or a PR consultancy. Many provide a great local service. Some do not. How is the buyer to choose between them?

Yet some estate agents also act as buildings surveyors. This is the professional wing of the business. As part of the house buying process, it is usual to commission a building inspection. This report is prepared by a building surveyor and is an important part of buying as it allows you to assess whether the house has major structural problems. If it has, you have the chance to withdraw from the purchase before it’s legally binding – or to renegotiate the price.

Though some buyers invite an experienced builder to offer an opinion on a house, the surveyor’s report offers greater reassurance because it comes from a professional – you would not rely on a surveyor who was not registered with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). Should your surveyor fail to point out serious structural defects, then you would have the possibility of taking legal action against them.

About PR professionalism

Where does this leave PR? Are we, like chartered surveyors, trusted professionals? Or are we like the unloved estate agents, running hard to succeed in business and resistant to external controls?

One problem is that we want both, simultaneously. We want the respect that comes from professional status, without wanting the inevitable restraints and restrictions, and without seeking the external scrutiny this implies. We have, like the estate agents and chartered surveyors outlined above, elements of the commercial and the professional. (But so do lawyers, and those doctors who work partly in private healthcare. They have resolved these paradoxes, and so must we).

The other problem, it seems to me, is one of definitions. It’s possible to define the role of a medical practioner or a solicitor. But public relations practitioners work across all industry sectors and in activities as specific and as diverse as investor relations and internal communications. This centrifugal force has already led to one damaging split in our industry, with the PRCA breaking away from the IPR the better to represent the interests of its consultancy members.

By extension, we could end up with professional bodies awarding membership for practitioners in public affairs, investor relations, community relations, motor industry public relations etc. etc. This could happen – but it would weaken not strengthen the external image of public relations.

The alternative is to go the way of medical practice, with everyone achieving a generic qualification before going on to specialise in a particular area of practice.

Education, education, education

However you define a profession, certain concepts always appear. There should be a ‘body of knowledge’ and some form of training and professional development. As my colleagues Ralph Tench and Johanna Fawkes argued in a recent paper (in PDF format) presented at Bledcom, ‘the majority of employers [surveyed] consider that public relations education makes a positive contribution to the industry, and is an essential component of the drive to achieve professional recognition, as it is for most professions.’

They identified resistance among employers to an over-theoretical public relations curriculum, but recognised the contribution PR graduates can make to the workplace.

I have also seen the adoption of a more flexible balance between work and study with many senior PR practitioners taking time out for block-release study to complete their IPR Diploma qualification – a theoretical course that yet has immediate payback in terms of better understanding of the role and potential of public relations within their organisations.

Practitioner and employer support for PR qualifications and continuous professional development is a necessary prerequisite in the move to professionalisation.

Another is the adoption of a code of conduct and the acceptance of the need for ethical practice. This week has seen the case for ethics in PR being well argued by Philip Young.

There are other problems to resolve, and the pursuit of chartered status by the UK’s PR professional body will not be an end in itself. But I welcome it as a milestone on a journey that we need to make collectively.

We need to do this for the sake of current practitioners, their employers and clients. And for the sake of future graduates who will enter the workplace with high hopes only to realise with horror that our generation of practitioners and thinkers had done nothing to progress the professionalism and the esteem of the industry as a whole.

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