Competence in public relations

Competence in public relations

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I hosted a roundtable at Ketchum in London last week on behalf of the CIPR, to discuss the opportunity and benefit of developing a Competency Framework for the public relations profession. This is typically a requirement for career progression in a profession.

But the public relations business isn't a profession. There’s no barrier to entry in the form of qualifications, no requirement for registration in a way that can be publicly tested, and no mandatory continuing professional development (CPD).

We also lack a community of practice as a forum for discussion and exchange of ideas between academia and practice.

The issue of Competency Frameworks has risen up the agenda within public relations in recent years.

The pace of change, and the shift from publicity to true public engagement has left practitioners scrambling for a robust framework for skills.

It’s one of my projects this year as past president of the CIPR. It’s also an issue raised as a critical priority by the #FuturePR network that Gemma Griffiths and Charlotte Winslett have created.

But this isn’t a new issue. Dr Jon White defined a Competency Framework for the CIPR as long ago as 1987. He was kind enough to send me a copy after the roundtable event.

ECOPSI (opens as a PDF) and the Government Communication Network (opens as a PDF) have tackled the issue in recent years. If you’re interested in this area I’d urge you to investigate each of these projects.

Tabling the issue

The roundtable was well attended with representatives from recruitment, academia, agencies and in-house practitioners. The CIPR, Global Alliance and IABC were all present.

In fact we were joined by 14 very smart people.

But here’s a thing. I couldn’t tell you with any degree of certainty if any of them are competent at public relations because we don’t have a standard framework.

Time-served is the only real benchmark of competence in our business, and while experience is an important metric it’s no yardstick for ability or expertise.

Why the public relations business needs a Competency Framework

Back to the roundtable event; we decided that building a Competence Framework for public relations would be a good thing for a number of reasons:

#1 Benchmark It is not currently possible to benchmark the skills of one practitioner against another, or one agency or in-house position against another, with any level of assurance.

#2 Recruitment Hiring the wrong person is costly for an organisation. A framework would streamline the recruitment process and have the potential to improve hiring decisions.

#3 Career route map There’s no route map for career progression within public relations, and worse, it isn’t possible for a practitioner to define with any assurance what skills they need to develop to progress.

This is an issue that roundtable attendee Alex Singleton picked up on in a follow-up blog post, suggesting that a Competency Framework would give younger practitioners a clear career path and longevity in the business.

#4 Professional development It would prevent professional obsolescence which happens when the body of knowledge acquired at an earlier stage of a career becomes outdated. In public relations this is a particular problem because of the pace of change and is a powerful argument for CPD.

#5 Definitions It would help define what public relations is, and what it isn’t, and provide a means to defend our turf against the encroachment of advertising, marketing and management consultancy.

Competency Frameworks are commonly used in other professional disciplines to address these issues but no such unified framework has been defined or adopted for public relations. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Developing a Competency Framework

There was less agreement on what a Competency Framework should look like and how it might be developed.

The public relations business is undergoing tremendous change.

Our business is diverse as it shifts from publicity to influencer management, community engagement and social business. The skills required to work in this fast growing discipline remain a work in progress.

Many of the contributors were concerned that a framework would either be too vague or too rigid to have practical application.

Then there’s the challenge of capturing the various levels of practitioner and addressing both broad experience and deep specialism.

The T-shaped model is oft debated as a skills model for modern public relations practice combining deep specialism in a particular area with broad expertise.

Heather Yaxley has made a useful contribution to the discussion on the PR Conversation; I urge you to review it.

Working toward a Competency Framework

The CIPR has commissioned a team at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, to undertake a research project into future skills in public relations.

The project being led by Professor Jacquie L’Etang and Magda Pieczka is reviewing literature on skills and is expected to report at the end of Q1.

Meanwhile ECOPSI is due to update its work, and the Global Alliance will report on a research project into Competency Frameworks developed by its member public relations organisations around the world, in a similar timeframe.

We’re going to wait on these different groups to report before determining how to map competencies on behalf of CIPR members, and the broader profession.

After the roundtable I have no doubt that defining a Competency Framework for modern public relations practice won’t be an easy task but that doesn’t mean that we should dodge the issue.

Thank you

My thanks to roundtable attendees for their contribution: Liton Ali; John Brown; Louisa Bartoszek; Stella Bayles; Simon Collister; Tanya Ferris; Prof. Anne Gregory; Russell Grossman; Aston Lincoln; Alastair McCapra; Alex Singleton; Steve Ward; and Dr. Jon White.

If you’d like to be involved in this project on an ongoing basis please let me know.

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