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Qualifications key to improving status of public relations

The debate about skills in the UK public relations industry took another turn this week.

Chameleon’s managing director Steve Loynes called out the PRCA for hiring PR Week hack Matt Cartmell as director of communications. Surely Loynes asked in an article on Huffington Post there are more suitable professionally qualified candidates?

An obsession with traditional media
The path from journalism to public relations is a well-trodden one. I made the switch almost 20-years ago.

The shift back and forth between journalism and public relations is indicative of the relative immaturity of the public relations industry, and an obsession with media relations as a proxy to reach audiences.

But that’s slowly changing.

I return to the assertion that there is little that separates public relations practitioners from car salesmen and women, estate agents, journalists or lap dancers. All are respectable occupations to varying degrees but none require a professional qualification or any form of formal training to operate.

Like spoilt toddlers public relations practitioners demand a place at the boardroom table alongside other professions. There are notable individuals that operate at the highest levels within organisations but they are the exception rather than a rule.

The public relations industry isn’t going to make progress in building its own professional reputation until it sets a threshold for skills and mandates Continuous Professional Development (CPD).

I’ve made some personal progress towards this goal this week by getting the green light on the first stage of my Chartered Practitioner qualification.

Chartered Practitioner: Stage two
The Chartered Practitioner qualification is pitched by the CIPR as “a benchmark for those working at a senior level and a ‘gold standard’ to which all PR practitioners should strive to reach.”

I’ve been critical about the qualification in the past but after a recent debate with colleagues on the CIPR Council I’m putting myself through the process in a bid to experience the process and earn the right to comment.

I’m also blogging about the process and my progress.

In my view Chartered status and Continual Professional Development (CPD) are the best opportunity that the public relations industry in the UK has of shifting from a craft to a profession as measured by other occupations.

Stage two of the qualification is a 3,000 to 4,000 word paper. The paper “must be an original piece of work and should demonstrate the attributes defined as essential to Chartered Practitioner status.”

I’m going back to basics and exploring whether Grunig’s Excellence Model and Four Models of Public Relations remain relevant in an era of networked communication.

It’d be interesting to hear the views of both Cartmell and Loynes on qualifications and continuous development in the public relations industry – as well as your own.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

5 Comments

  1. I agree that standards need to be raised, and starting near the top of the greasy PR pole strikes me as a good place to start.

    But what, as an industry-cum-profession are we to do with those people who don’t make the grade?

    And what indemnities and assurances would a professional association offer to clients that would encourage them to only hire those PR consultants and consultancies that have achieved chartered status?

    I also hail from the school of thought that says academic qualifications don’t necessarily tell you everything you need to know about someone’s ability to perform. For me, this is particularly true in PR where a genuine combination of abilities is vital and emotional intelligence is of particular value.

    It’s really hard to quantify and codify things like that.

    There’s a temptation to want to only hire the ‘brightest and best’ in a very traditional sense which, in my opinion, is being fuelled by the state of the job market. I wrote about this last December in a post I called “the recruitment mistake agency heads will make in 2012” – http://seanfleming.com/the-recruitment-mistake-agency-heads-will-make-in-2012/

    I think I was being conservative about the timeframe.

    I that piece I state “intelligence and ability come in all shapes and sizes” – because sometimes I like to state the obvious.

    Will any form of certification or qualification that puts PR on the road to professional status be able to cope with that?

    After all, PR is *not* like accountancy or surgery or law. Ours is not a uniform occupation.

    I’m not sure PR ought to be attempting to become a profession in the formal sense. I fear we will lose some of what makes it a vibrant and exciting sector that cherishes multi-disciplinary ability.

    That’s not to say we should be complacent. There’s still a lot of bad practice and worse behaviour left over from decades gone by.

  2. This is an issue that deserves the debate it gets Stephen, so I agree with the points you raise about professionalism in PR. On the other hand, I think professional qualifications are only as valuable as regulations require them to be (hence why neither we nor lap dancers, unregulated as we are, require qualifications). I’m no fan of regulation, which makes me pretty unresponsive to the arguments for qualifications. However, with the recent issues surrounding football players tweeting on behalf of brands and people who should know better tweeting about McAlpine, I worry that there are too many PRs without knowledge of the rules that govern us. Journalists, as it happens, do have a pretty good working knowledge of the laws governing organisations making public pronouncements. I am sure the PRCA has made a good hire. And I am also – against my instincts – in favour of PR qualifications. I’d even back regulation of our industry, if it gave clients more confidence that we know the rules.

  3. it’s a very interesting debate and various different answers to the questions around qualifications in my opinion, so i’ll try and be succinct.

    re professional qualifications, there is certainly a lot which could be done – i like the suggest from Peter about regulations and legislation for starters. Likewise, any industry led training which gives the industry more of a professional status can only be a good thing, but i agree with Sean that we don’t want to straight jacket the industry and not let creativity suffer for the sake of strict guidelines or qualifications.

    That said, anything which gives practical rather than theoretical insight into the daily role of a PR Consultant can only be a good thing. I think we’ve all met graduates who, despite three years or so in study, have at no point been trained to understand how the media works, how a journalist’s day looks, and how to perform what’s expected of an AE – e.g. media pitching. As industries so symbiotic to each other, it amazes me still how many legacy bad habits (many of which are very basic) there are which simply annoy journalists. Getting rid of these at an early stage with training and insight into the industry (rather than high level theory) can only be a good thing.

    The absence of such basic requirements from a practical perspective is part of why, in my opinion, PRs continue to antagonise journalists; too often we throw in the least experienced people with no training to hound them on the phone. Why such skills or experience is not part of degrees seems illogical. You wouldn’t get a bricklayer not being taught how to lay bricks, but only taught the theory of house building.

    As far as the PRCA hire is concerned, this is a journalist which has been heavily involved with the issues and developments within the industry at PRWeek, and also has agency experience before that – I don’t see how both of these cannot be a good thing for the job he has taken on. I think calling it out as a bad hire is also something of a disservice to the Board of the PRCA who know what is expected of them, and know what they look for in a good candidate. They’re no mugs, and we should respect the decision – if not as if Matt is totally new to PR. The fact he’s not made a direct transition from PR Consultant to in-house is moot.

    Chris

    • I’ll keep this short, I don’t want to appear to be some sort of “Occupy Wadds” merchant.

      I lectured in PR for a year – part-time gig, covering someone who was ill – at Thames Valley Uni (now Uni of West London) in Ealing.

      I taught a class of 30 second year degree students who had never even seen a press release, didn’t know the term case study, had no idea of what the hierarchy of roles in a PR consultancy was, and were utterly ignorant of what they would be expected to do as graduate AEs.

      It’s shameful. I doubt it was unique to that uni.

      And that course was sanctioned by the CIPR. Which is just one reason I am highly sceptical of the role the CIPR should be allowed to play in establishing and maintaining quality standards in the industry.

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