What are we? Industry, profession or occupation?

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.

View from the Shard @orlaghshanks
View from the Shard @orlaghshanks

The argument for public relations to be considered a profession is championed by industry bodies such as the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). So the case is a familiar one.

In this article, I’ll look at the less widely-aired counter argument. There are some powerful scholarly advocates for this alternative view.

LSE’s Lee Edwards in Understanding Public Relations (which we reviewed here) prefers to use the word occupation to profession (though profession and industry slip into her analysis).

She argues that public relations fits alongside other knowledge-based occupations such as management consultancy, project management and recruitment.

‘Knowledge-based occupations have been identified as an important and relatively new group of occupations that differ from traditional professions in that they have a fluid body of occupational knowledge, few barriers to entry, occupational professional training.’

Most analyses of professions start with elite occupations such as law and medicine. In these cases, professional status generates significant rewards and the focus is on ‘formal training, ethics and codes of practice, a public service ethos, closed membership, powerful industry associations and different specialisations.’

The problem comes when this analysis is extended to other professions, such as teaching and social work, that share most of these characteristics but don’t bring similar financial rewards or status.

Then there are distinctive problems that public relations must face. If the claim is that public relations manages reputation for organisations, how to distinguish this work from that of all the others who also affect an organisation’s reputation?

If the work is considered promotional (and part of the promotional industries), how to separate it out from marketing, advertising and other promotional activities?

So it’s important to consider the company we keep. Some in public relations look admiringly at the advertising industry which, as we see year after year at Cannes, still has stronger claims to ‘the big idea’ or the creative execution of campaigns.

Stuart Bruce eloquently explores PR’s problem with Cannes in this blog post:

‘Too many people forget what the Cannes Lions are about. The full title is the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. It’s about celebrating creativity. That’s a wonderful thing to do. But it’s absolutely nothing to do with celebrating the very best public relations and communications. The best PR is PR that works. It helps sell products. It improves employee retention or recruitment. It supports the share price. It defends against damaging legislation. It protects reputations in a crisis. It’s about an organisation’s licence to operate.’

Others look to management consultancy for competition or collaboration (crisis management specialist Regester Larkin is now part of Deloittes).

Yet more look inwards and make comparisons with human resources. Others with project management.

All are having to learn lessons in digital and in analytics (and to learn to use numbers in addition to the traditional strength with words).

The arguments against the professional project can be summarised as:

  • Practitioners should focus outward on their work for organisations and clients, not inwards on shoring up the status of the profession
  • The fluid nature of the work and the many different contexts in which practitioners operate make it difficult and perhaps unattractive to create too rigid a definition and professional structure
  • Elite professions are about exclusion. Public relations has an acknowledged problem with diversity and has a persistent gender pay gap, so would raising barriers to entry (or to continued membership) help or hinder progress in these areas?

Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy summarised this counter-argument in a book chapter heading: ‘Professional – but never a profession.’

So what does it mean to be a professional if there’s (still) no recognised profession?

  • It means we need to take charge or our own personal development (look how many have been sharing their pride at receiving their CIPR qualifications or completing their annual CPD returns).
  • It means we need to keep an eye on the future. We have all had to upskill in the past two decades because of digital media. We also need to develop our skills in data and analysis for fear of losing arguments and budgets, and ne conscious of the opportunities and risks presented by AI.
  • It means we all need to have a depth of knowledge and expertise in a specialist area (so we can continue to find work and be rewarded) while also developing a breadth of understanding of the place of public relations within organisations and in society.
  • It means the need to be vigilant around questions of ethics: these are ever-present and career-defining. Ethics has come to greater prominence because of the shift away from intermediated communication (through the mass media) to direct communication through multiple online and offline channels. Where once we could leave ethical questions to the publishers; now we are the publishers. Are we disseminating accurate and truthful information, or are we spreading misinformation or disinformation? 

In summary, public relations may not meet all of the criteria to be considered a full profession, but individual practitioners should ensure they are operating at high levels of professionalism.

UPDATE: This article was first published on 25 June 2018 and republished with new information in March 2023.