Slow march to professionalism in public relations

Slow march to professionalism in public relations

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Public relations may be a maturing professional discipline but unlike other areas of management it has yet to adopt the qualities that mark out other professions, such as formal qualifications and life-long learning. This is the key finding of the European Communication Professional Skills and Innovation Programme (ECOPSI), a research programme that explores the competencies required by communication professionals in Europe.

In order to continue its development towards a profession, public relations needs to shift away from a hands-on, learning on the job approach to more focussed knowledge acquisition and development.

ECOPSI gathered data via an online survey of 2,200 practitioners in 42 countries, and 53 interviews with corporate communicators from organisations including Daimler, Henkel, McDonalds and Shell.

Professional development

As communicators shift from operational to managerial roles, building competencies and skills is one of the key challenges facing individuals and organisations.

The report suggests that communicators align their development with academic learning. Media and technologies may change but a solid grounding in theory is one of the best ways to future proof your career.

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I caught up with the ECOPSI’s project director Professor Ralph Tench from Leeds Metropolitan University earlier this week and asked him if there were any other professions that have gone through the same evolution from a craft to a profession in recent times.

“There are a number of fields of practice that have similarities some are comparable management style fields such as human resources which is perhaps more logical for endorsing Continuing Professional Development (CPD) particularly. But they have done a very good job of reinforcing professional entry through qualifications at post graduate level.

"I shy away from citing the obvious professions for reasons of incomparability but this does not mean we cannot aim to emulate some of the standards and benchmarks they use to monitor intake to the professions and maintain and develop standards of practice. These improve key criteria of transparency, behavioural principles and performance,” he said.

Learning on the job

Aside from initial university education, communicators in Europe rely on professional associations and commercial training for providing further professional development. Academic knowledge is only valued by a quarter of respondents, while self-evaluation is valued by less than a fifth.

In my view, this single issue lies at the root of communications and public relations being understood by senior management.

The majority of respondents (84%) said that a lack of understanding of communication practice is the main barrier to the development of professional practice.

That old devil called digital again

The survey reveals a gap between the perceived importance of social media for communication and the rate of implementation in European organisations.

Three-quarters of European communicators consider online communities the most important form of social media, yet less than 56% have adopted them in their communication.

Unsurprisingly digital skills increase as age decreases but only half of respondents think formal training is useful. 80 per cent of European respondents think that the best way to learn about online tools is to simply use them.

The study also found that the industry also needs to examine how it can foster intercultural relationships and cross-cultural working by setting up accredited and recognised programmes of exchange, secondment and internship.

Future of the profession

A university education in communication is the most valued asset in new hires, according to the ECOPSI study, suggesting that this is an indication of an occupation that is on a journey to professionalism.

There are however marked differences in the selection processes for young professionals from different counties. In the UK, a university education in public relations is only rated half as important as the European average.

The study suggests that this either results from PR not having a formal disciplinary foundation or practitioners simply preferring to recruit graduates with generic degrees who can be trained on the job.

Diagnostics for professionalism

The conclusion is clear:  public relations needs better alignment with academia, formal qualifications and life-long learning if it is to make the shift from a profession to a management discipline.

ECOPSI has developed a self-diagnosis tool that supports practitioners in benchmarking their current knowledge and personal attributes as communicators with those of colleagues across Europe.

A copy of the ECOPSI study is available for download here.

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