Plotting a personal path to PR career success

PR Academy is looking to document how studying a PR qualification has helped in developing careers. The “Your Learning Journey” concept involves posting a comment on its blog in no more than 140 words relating the influence and path taken as a result of gaining a qualification. As well as potentially winning a Trailfinders gift card to the value of £250, there’s an opportunity to feature in its campaign to encourage continuous learning. You don’t have to be a PR Academy student to take part (and you are encouraged to Tweet using the #learningjourney hashtag).

This initiative is interesting to me, not only because I’ve spend over a decade working with many students of public relations (including those enrolled with PR Academy), but for the connections it has to my own PhD studies into career strategies in PR.

If you are thinking about your next move in public relations, there are three concepts I’ve found running as threads through my research into the historical context of career strategies in the field.

The first relates to the variety of career starting points of those coming into public relations, who then make a post facto connection to the occupation, and echo the observation of Broughton writing in 1943 who reported those who were established in their careers in public relations “backed into the field, as it were, by accident, and sat down. Afterwards it seemed natural enough, and their preliminary experience seemed as though it created public relations opportunity later” (p77).

A second thread reflects von Bertalanffy’s 1968 concept of equifinality; “the ability to reach the same end by following different paths”. This encompasses the personal journeys taken in, for example, achieving a senior position or any other subjective/objective definition of career success.

The third aspect is agentic self-efficacy, which “may be defined as individuals’ judgements of their capability to be assertive in the protection of their rights, to persist in the pursuit of their goals, and to change their situation to achieve a better fit with interests, aspirations and expectations” (Sadri 1996 p62). In the case of the women I studied for my recent Life on Mars paper (presented at this week’s International History of Public Relations Conference), this is unexpected as Sadri (1996 p62) cites “socialization experiences of women lead to lower self-efficacy expectations with respect to a range of career-related pursuits”.

Where does education fit into this? Well so far in my historical research, it seems to be largely missing. Although PR courses existed from the 1920s (in both US and UK), and there is little discussion of their contribution in the early years. Even today, the topic remains contentious with ongoing threads in LinkedIn groups arguing in favour and against PR degrees, for example.

The PR Academy study, whilst not scientific in nature, could provide some anecdotal stories of how studies have contributed to career directions. Indeed, studying for a professional qualification mid-career is an option taken often by those who back into PR, look to find a personal route to success and demonstrate agentic self-efficacy in doing so.

Now you might think that falling into an occupation and then following your own path which your forge in a personal way is not exclusive to PR practitioners. Maybe so, but it does conflict with arguments for public relations as a profession or even a craft, where more structured routes are normally prescribed.

Indeed, I find it odd that the industry’s bodies, alongside consultancies continue to focus on bureaucratic-style ladder models for career development in public relations when every edition of PR Week contains evidence of ‘encroachment’ (a term which Lauzen (1992) uses to indicate those with expertise in other disciplines occupying senior PR roles). We can also see examples of ‘revolving doors’ (L’Etang 2004 p128) whereby ex-journalists move in and out of public relations roles, as well as the ‘circuit of power, that is a network of prestigious jobs in the media, public relations and politics’ (Pieczka 2006 p325) which has caused issues most lately in respect of the Leveson enquiry.

I believe public relations practitioners reflect a personal agency model of career decision-making (Bandura 2001 p11) whereby “in the modern workplace, workers have to take charge of their self-development for a variety of positions and careers over the full course of their worklife”.

This should be embraced as it is an approach that younger practitioners will need to adopt as they are unlikely to be able to rely on employers to provide hierarchical career paths and may well epitomise the style of ‘portfolio’ working identified by Charles Handy. Even when working within specific organisations as an employee, rather than Handy’s more independent focus, the ability to apply a range of competencies as required in various more project-style roles will be invaluable. For me, this reflects the entrepreneurial nature of the medieval occupation, commenda (who managed trade between merchants), which Weber (1889) related to contemporary ideas of the agent as an intermediary acting between two parties.  That is, it suggests PR’s boundary spanning and relationship-building roles.

Staying with the medieval theme, Richard Bailey’s IHPRC presentation linked the idea of the public relations counsel to that of the Groom of the Stool, who occupied a position of influence owing to his personal proximity to the monarch.  Given the predominance of women in public relations today, perhaps we should think of the occupation as one of Ladies of the Privy Chamber. Interestingly, a privy role was at the frontier of the private and public life of the monarch – a position that arguably reflects that of the strategic public relations counsellor.

This potentially presents us with a challenge of engendering the trust that this position requires, alongside recognition that career paths are going to be increasingly entrepreneurial and agentic in style. What I feel this highlights is the importance of a personal reputation – and I don’t mean simply ‘brand recognition’ or avoiding a legacy of digital dirt. Rather it is acknowledging the importance of adding value through your career decisions, alongside the work you have achieved and the aspects of ‘personal identity’ for which you can be recognised.

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