The hard easy job paradox

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Macnamara 2023
Macnamara 2023

I think the same paradox may explain the two main – and apparently contradictory – findings from PR Academy’s research into public relations education published last month.

The paradox is that public relations or communication roles look easy to outsiders (we all communicate so how hard can it be?) yet they are always challenging and are never easy in practice.

One headline from the report was the steep and possibly terminal decline in undergraduate public relations degrees after three decades. I was there at the peak and I’m still there towards the end, so have seen the paradox in action.

I’ve seen public relations degrees recruit well, but struggle to shake off a reputation for being lightweight and non-essential. In short for being easy.

Yet university administrators across the country now seem to have reached the same conclusions: that public relations is better taught as a part of marketing. There’s certainly a logic to a more integrated approach (as taught by the PESO model) but I suspect the real driver is that marketing courses recruit well and are much more of a textbook ‘chalk and talk’ course to deliver. In other words, they’re relatively easy to teach and easy to study.

A well-known practitioner and author used to help out with some teaching at our university. He described the marketing modules taught alongside public relations back then as ‘painting by numbers’.

I’ve specifically been talking about undergraduate (BA) courses because a different dynamic affects postgraduate (MA/MSc) courses. These are currently recruiting well and are proving especially attractive to international students.

Yet I suspect the same paradox applies. If the driver for much (if not all) of this international recruitment is the attractiveness of a UK student visa for many young people from the global south, then why choose an all-consuming and challenging degree? Surely it makes more sense to choose an ‘easy’ and unchallenging course that would allow more time to pursue other activities.

Then there’s the surprise finding that if you add up all those studying on undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses in the UK last year, that number is surpassed by those studying for public relations professional qualifications.

How does my paradox explain that?

Professional qualifications are offered to practitioners, to those in public relations and communication roles.They’re rarely suitable for absolute beginners.

Motivations will vary, but a common factor I’ve noticed among those studying the flagship CIPR Professional PR Diploma is that they’ve already mastered the day job. What they’re looking for is help elevating their understanding of what they do to grasp what it takes to explain the importance of this job to the senior management team. To develop beyond an understanding of ‘what’ and ‘how’ to explaining ‘why’.

This group has a thirst for academic insight: not theory for theory’s sake, but for the insight it can give into their problems and challenges. Public relations and communication teams are typically small. It’s not unusual for an internal communicator or public affairs practitioner, say, to be operating alone. So a course is a rare opportunity to share their challenges with others and to recognise that while every organisation is unique, some of these challenges are familiar to others. They may even have been explored and contextualised in the academic literature.

Nor am I suggesting that the ‘what’’ and ‘how’ can be taken for granted and the only reason to study for a professional qualification is to explain ‘why’.

The supposedly easy job of communicating is getting harder and harder. There are practical reasons for this (more channels and apps to master, more data to make sense of) and there are social and psychological reasons too (we’re all more easily distracted while putting up more barriers to protect our precious time).

No part of the job is getting easier: not internal communication with employees; not external communication with stakeholders; not media relations with journalists.

That’s despite the burst of optimism I recall around the millennium when we realised the power we were gaining for ‘disintermediated’ communication – that is, direct communication to individuals and groups that did not rely on our messages being mediated by third parties such as journalists.

Where are we now? We’re faced with the problem that playing nicely, seeking consensus rather than conflict (surely almost a definition of the public relations role) gets us nowhere in a social media world governed by algorithms. That the best way to gain attention is to pick a fight.

The problem of doing an apparently easy job that just happens to be hard is that we’re forever on the defensive: having to explain why our message did not land; why click or open rates appear so disappointing; and ultimately having to justify the value of the role.

Evaluation. The perennial hard question at the end of the seemingly easy job. How did we do?

I can offer three rays of hope to address the hard easy job paradox. One is you’re not alone. The other is that if the job were that easy, we’d be facing extinction because AI and algorithms would already have replaced us. And the third ray of hope is that decades of research and scholarship can offer the practitioner some help and guidance.

Not all scholarship aims to provide easy answers; critical scholars are dismissive of their work being merely ‘instrumental’. Yet the scholarly process can act as a form of filtration, leading to greater clarity.

I’ve illustrated this article with one such example of filtration leading to clarity. Australian scholar Jim Macnamara has summarised decades of scholarly and practitioner insights into evaluation and presented them in one universal model applicable to strategic communication.

It’s hard to make complex things easy. There’s another version of the communication paradox.


Jim Macnamara (2023) A call for reconfiguring evaluation models, pedagogy, and practice: Beyond reporting media-centric outputs and fake impact scores, Public Relations Review Volume 49, Issue 2, June 2023, 102311