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

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


  1. Well said. I entirely agree, but as long as we become fully aware, study, absorb the concept that public relations, as any other trade o tool, can and does also produce negative consequences for ourselves, the profession at large, clients, employers and society.
    Professional associations represent, in the best of cases, a bare 10 per cent of operators and are not famous for their ability to improve the knowledge and the practice, nor for reaching out to the other 90 per cent many of whom are not even aware of being public realtors. Maybe as you are, with my admiration and courageously, running for president of the cipr you might, in parallell with the substance of this post, also wish to envisage a groups of experts, drawn from the best critical observers within and outside the profession, who committ to analyse the modes, the extension and the economic, political and social impact of those negative consequences. Good luck

    • Thanks Toni. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. One of the things that I’d be really keen to do as President is engage with the CIPR’s governing body to discuss the opportunity to use Continuing Professional Development (CPD) as a means to drive up standards in the profession. I’m also keen to engage with Accredited and Chartered Practitioners in a conversation about how we establish these accreditations as a benchmark for excellence with employers and other members.

  2. Hi Stephen! Such an interesting post. really got me thinking about PR and what it means to work in this competitive industry.

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