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Speaking up for the public relations profession

It has become a sport for the public relations industry to chastise itself about reputation, modernisation and professional standards.

I asked my network on Facebook last week what we did really well as a profession. Three people suggested beating ourselves up on Facebook and other forms of social media.

The irony is delicious.

In PRWeek last week brand editor Ruth Wyatt returned to the issue of the profession’s image problem citing Max Clifford and three separate cases of fraud involving practitioners.

Meanwhile PRWeek columnist Ian Monk applauded Clifford’s response to his arrest for 11 accounts of indecent assault as a public relations coup.

These aren’t descriptions of the profession that I recognise.

I have long argued that we need to create separation between Clifford’s craft of publicity and the management discipline of public relations.

Instances of fraud are unwelcome but it would be interesting to benchmark our profession against the accountancy and legal professions to discover if we have a systemic issue or if these really are isolated incidents. It is almost certainly the latter.

My view is that the public relations industry lacks confidence.

The advertising and digital industries aren’t debating standards and waiting to become the adviser to organisations as media fragments and brands seek to engage in two-way conversations with audiences. They are getting on with it and taking our ground.

The public relations professional has the most potent proposition for organisations. We work in an editorial environment, listening and creating a narrative to enable organisations to build their reputation by earning attention, rather than buying it.

Increasingly thanks to developments in measurement and evaluation we can put a number on the value that we deliver to an organisation. This is the story that we should be focussed on and not isolated cases of fraud or media manipulation.

The public relations profession has a higher calling.

We are helping organisations engage with internal and external publics in two-way dialogue. That dialogue is seldom easy. You can see the evidence of those organisations getting it right, and wrong, scattered across the web.

The profession is under scrutiny like never before called out by the self-same critical publics. Our response, a shift towards the rigour of a profession, remains a work in progress.

Public relations will either become incredibly valuable as a management discipline in the next decade by tackling these issues or it will become irrelevant.

There has never been a more exciting time to work in public relations but we haven’t got much time.

This post first appeared on my PRWeek blog - Speaking up for the public relations profession.

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Stephen Waddington

European Digital & Social Media Director at Ketchum and President of the CIPR. Author of Brand Anarchy and Brand Vandals; and editor and contributor to Share This and Share This Too.