As I sat judging entries for the CorpComms Magazine awards last week, I was also thinking about the industry language that Public Relations is a ‘profession’. Is it really? Is our work not more like a ‘craft’ or a ‘trade’? One that is mainly learnt as one goes along (a bit like most journalism!)?
I suspect that if you asked 100 people in the street whether they consider PR to be a profession, few would agree. They see lawyers, accountants, doctors, architects, scientists, engineers and surveyors to be members of a profession. PR does not exhibit the accepted characteristics of a profession.
Fundamentally, professions and professionals are governed by professional bodies that tend to have secured a monopolistic privilege to perform their work. Such bodies control the actual work of the profession and the conditions that surround it (institutionalised admission, examination and licensing, ethical and performance standards, professional discipline). Members must satisfy minimum requirements to be granted the right to call themselves a member of their chosen profession; they are then required to participate in continuous learning to remain a member.
This is not the case in PR. There are no barriers to entry – if there were, perhaps more CEOs would hold the PR person in the same esteem as the finance director. While the PRCA and CIPR have taken significant steps to introduce elements of professionalism, the stamp of their approval is not compulsory in order to practice PR; few PRs are asked by clients or employers for such a stamp.
Because of the way in which they are structured and run, professions are also characterised by a high level of public trust and confidence both in the profession and in individual practitioners. Professionals – collectively and individually – are supposed to possesses a body of abstract knowledge and a repertoire of behaviours and skills not possessed by the non-professional. It is why it is newsworthy when a doctor or lawyer does not display them. And why when a PR practitioner or agency does wrong there is more of a ‘tell-us-something-we-didn’t-already know’ shrug.
It has been oft-commented that the PR industry seems to crave esteem – and that it has managed its own reputation poorly. There is much we do in our world of PR and communications of which we should be vocal, proud and celebratory – as the awards judging showed.
But maybe we not try and kid our publics that we are yet something we are not. Otherwise they might think we’re spinning them. And we know how long it has taken to live down that moniker!