Is PR a Profession?


By Sarah Williams

March 19, 2012 | 3 min read

Many in public relations would describe PR as a profession, but what does this actually mean? Even the CIPR is vague on the issue, describing itself as ‘the advocate and the voice of the public relations profession’ without defining what it means by the term ‘profession’. Two stories last week called into question, for me, the status of PR as a profession.

The first was that of the debate surrounding the PRSA’s new definition of public relations, which stuck close to traditional textbook definitions of public relations without acknowledging a public interest role for PR. This latest attempt to define the field caused consternation among some senior practitioners, including Harold Burson, who felt that the crowd-sourced definition was not only not fully representative of the US PR industry, also missed the point of public relations; namely persuasion.

The second was Lord Bell’s claim in PR Week last week that questions about the conduct of senior Bell Pottinger PR practitioners had had no effect on trading. Bell Pottinger was, last year, subject to a sting operation, carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and published by the Independent, in which senior members of the firm appeared to be boasting about their influence in Westminster.

These two stories highlight two inter-related issues which are central to notions of professionalism, and which the PR industry has yet to fully address: ethics and public interest.

All definitions of professionalism cite public interest as a key element of a profession. In other words unless practitioners can demonstrate that their work acts in the public interest, for the good of society in some way, it cannot claim to be a profession. For me, occupational ethics is integral to this; working in a way that is morally sound is part and parcel of acting in the public interest, and neither Bell Pottinger’s alleged actions nor the PRSA’s words seem to acknowledge nor encourage a role for ethical behaviour in the public interest for PR.

So is PR a profession? For me, no, it isn’t. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily; perhaps it is time for PR trade bodies and practitioners to spend less time pursuing the ‘professional’ agenda and more time extolling the many virtues of the occupation. The PRCA’s strategic focus on ethics in PR is a good start but needs commitment from the entire industry to be truly effective.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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