“For decades a stream of bright young men and women, most of them with college degrees ranging from B.S. to Ph.D., have been coming to my office to ask me and my wife how to enter the profession of public relations.”
These words were written by Edward Bernays in his 1961 publication: Your Future in Public Relations.
In 1943, a chapter in Averill Broughton’s book: The New Profession, asked ‘Do you belong in the public relations field? Broughton noted:
Let us grant that any really intelligent man or woman of imagination and sensitivity, who also possesses good business judgment and a wide experience with people and the practical world we live in, can become a successful public relations executive.
It seems there was real encouragement for those with intellectual capability to work in public relations. Indeed, Bernays saw public relations practitioners as a bridge between thinkers and doers. But I’m beginning to believe the majority of modern practitioners view PR as a non-intellectual trade, where craft skills count most, along with a friendly personality and a preference to spend time churning out releases and Tweets rather than thinking about anything more important they should be doing.
Stephen Covey has a useful time matrix comprising four quadrants. My view is that public relations adds most value in the important and not urgent quadrant. This is the place of pro-active, results-oriented matters; where it is necessary to “act to seize opportunity, to make things happen”.
Instead, many practitioners seems to spend their time oscillating from the stressful situation of fire-fighting the important which is urgent and the pointless position of trivial, busy work. Just check out the typical ‘day in the life’ features about PR you can find online.
Which leads me to the question about being too smart to work in PR.
According to a report of the CIPR Profession Typology Report at PRMoment, two-thirds of UK PR practitioners (sorry I refuse to call them professionals) say their career development has mostly come from magazines. Yes, really!
Let’s be charitable and assume they don’t mean reading Heat magazine, and are referring to articles in trade publications such as PR Week (rather than scanning job adverts). The validity of the survey as summarised in this piece seems questionable as ‘mostly’ implies selecting a single response, where I suspect a ‘which of the following’ question was actually asked. Nevertheless, the answers do not appear to reflect a highly pro-active approach to robust career development strategies.
This is both surprising and disappointing in the current economic climate where it is essential to demonstrate genuine continuous professional development regardless of whether or not you are looking for new opportunities. If you are not moving ahead, then you are automatically slipping backwards as the world is moving at a fast pace.
Relying on articles in PR Week reflects a typical ‘learning on the job’ mentality which values Other People’s Experiences even when reported in a superficial, primarily positive way. This is easier than constructing reflexive practice on a basis of intellectual frameworks that have been considered and critiqued by academics, and senior practitioners, who recognise the importance of knowing why, not simply, how to operate successfully in public relations.
This more challenging ethos is understood by many of the bright and intelligent young men and women still attracted to working in this field who have made the commitment to studying public relations at University. This week alone, I came across two impressive examples:
- Tyler Orchard in Canada (via Judy Gombita’s usual high connector standard), a Masters graduate and Director of Communications and PR – who wrote an informed blog post railing against social media groupthink
- Rachel Barkley, studying PR at Leeds Metropolitan University– who has written two recent posts I’d recommend on What is PR? and the threat of PR apprenticeships
If we are to attract and retain the best young professionals, then we need to be smarter as an industry. We have to:
- stop bashing academic study and intellectual understanding.
- stop arguing that University courses should focus primarily on teaching basic starter-job practical skills.
- stop recognising reading magazines and watching videos as career development.
Instead, I’d like to see us:
- set a baseline expectation for practitioners (especially those migrating from journalism, marketing or without a PR degree) to acquire professional post-graduate qualifications.
- make a commitment to career-long intellectual development based on acquiring Masters or PhD qualifications, engaging with research in our own field and elsewhere (whether that means technological developments, business management or even neuroscience) and mind-expanding communities of practice.
- celebrate what is intelligent and valuable in PR work rather than focusing on the glitzy and glamorous in PR awards, case studies and profile pieces.
I don’t want to see the smartest people avoiding public relations as a career option. I don’t want to feel too smart to work in PR myself. Do you?