Can I see your PR licence?

There are some very interesting views expressed as a result of ‘s  Leader’s Perspective at Strumpette, where he argues for professional licensing of PR practitioners.  Further reflection takes place at .

The discussion has spread to  covering both ethics, and distinguishing PR from marketing.

I’m always reminded of in this matter – who called for licensing in the 1992 when he was 100 years old.  In many respects, Bernays’ argument has merit – but his views highlight the challenges too.  cites Bernays as critical of the fact that anyone can say they work in PR, countering:  

“Whereas, by my definition, a public relations person, who calls themselves [sic] that, is an applied social scientist who advises a client or employer on the social attitudes and actions to take to win the support of the publics upon whom his, or her, or its viability depends.”

But Bernays was seeking differentiation to underline that those working in PR should be “a member of that intellectual elite which guides the destiny of society”.

This might sound like working in the “public interest”, but in practice, acted to protect the interests of a select few – primarily government and big business.  No wonder that (citing from Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton) says:

Bernays’s celebration of propaganda helped define public relations, but it didn’t win the industry many friends.

I think the starting point for professional public relations is a recognition that we already are regulated – by a wide variety of laws.  Secondly, we need to take personal responsibility and not only adhere to ethical values, but to stand up against things we feel are wrong.

Between the societal and personal levels of regulation, PR has a role in ensuring organisations act responsibly, and then there is the professional level of responsibility, in relation to representative bodies and our commitment to our chosen career.

Although you don’t need to be licensed to work in PR, you can certainly be professional in your practice.  I would like to think that gaining a licence might help improve the reputation of PR – but there will still be poor practitioners with licences (like bad drivers, unethical lawyers and unskilled doctors).

There is certainly much to debate on the topic – what do you think?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

8 thoughts on “Can I see your PR licence?”

  1. Heather, I believe professionalism and quality of work will not come from licensing, but from:
    1) better education (including more on p.r. in college business curriculae)
    2) better training (especially for beginners, when they get their first jobs in p.r.)
    3) basic ethics and manners (I’m not so sure these can be taught in school or mandated by licensing.)

    Here in the U.S., the primary public relations organization, the Public Relations Society of America, has done a poor job of promoting the profession or quality work in the field. The leadership seems to be preoccupied with internal politics and there seems to have been some serious financial mismanagement as well. I wouldn’t entrust PRSA to license or oversee the profession here.

    There appears to be a more encouraging situation in other nations when it comes to professional organizations.

  2. By the way, although Edward Bernays is revered as the “father of public relations” (and I learned about him when I was going for my MBA in Public Relations years ago), if we look carefully at some of the work he did and tactics he used way back then, we might question some of his ethics.

  3. David – thanks. I suppose there is an argument that the first two aspects (education and training) would be key elements of any licensing programme – carrying endorsement of those who had made such a commitment.

    With respect to ethics and manners, surely these have to be taught somewhere. We need to learn to have respect for others – and families, schools, wider society should all play a role in this.

    We certainly study ethics and mutual respect in relationships in the PR courses that I teach. The issue for many students though is that what they learn in the classroom is countered by practitioners and clients in the work place. So I feel we also need to teach them how to stand up for what they believe in. Then the personal values can be transferred more widely to the profession.

    I do believe we need strong professional bodies – and again I feel it is up to those who care about the profession to get more involved and help them become better at guiding the profession. I hope the more established organisations will be prepared to learn from those in other nations, which as you say appear to be building on good foundations.

    I remain open minded about licensing – I’d like it to offer a positive endorsement, but feel it certainly won’t be a solution to the negatives of the profession at present.

    Regarding Bernays – I wouldn’t say we “revere” him in the UK. There is a fabulous video (Century of the Self) that you can find via Google Video shown on the BBC a few years ago. It certainly highlights the negative side – in terms of the lack of ethical practice, or rather his belief that the masses could, and should, be controlled by business and government.

    Unfortunately, though, many of the tactics used then are still in evidence today. I think it would certainly prove difficult to eradicate these with any licensing programme – especially as they still seem to be effective from the perspective of those who simply want to get their own way in society.

  4. Yes, I’ve seen that program from the BBC.

    Money is a powerful motivator and it often motivates people who should know better to behave badly, license/certification or not.

    I agree about the need for strong professional bodies who can help improve, educate and even oversee a profession. Here in the U.S., it should be PRSA, but they don’t have the best reputation within our field here. It’s so inbred now that it would be difficult to make changes. I’m generally a fighter for what I believe in, but I don’t have the time or energy to fight that fight. I think many in p.r. here feel the same way, so we simply ignore PRSA, which becomes irrelevant to most of us working in the industry.

  5. Thanks for your perspective on PRSA – seems a bit of a viscious circle since without strong bodies, there isn’t clear guidance and control over what is practised.

  6. David Reich has posted on this further, over at the Marketing Profs Daily Fix blog:

    License and Registration, Please

    (So far there doesn’t seem to be a lot of support for licensing, although it appears to be mainly marketers weighing in, rather than those who practise in the discipline of public relations.)

    And I just noticed the last line of your post, Heather, where you talked about “unskilled doctors.” Do you really feel that unskilled medical doctors are practising in the UK? If yes, that is very scary. I’m going to see if any UK doctors appear in Monstropedia. 😉

    On a related note, one of my current, favourite radio series on the CBC is White Coat, Black Art. Check out the last paragraph of the show’s description:

    Dr. Brian Goldman takes listeners through the swinging doors of hospitals and doctors’ offices, behind the curtain where the gurney lies. It’s a biting, original and provocative show that will demystify the world of medicine. The show explores the tension between hope and reality: between what patients want, and what doctors can deliver. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals will explain how the system works, and why, with a refreshing and unprecedented level of honesty.

    “I’d noticed a difference between what doctors say to patients directly and sometimes what they say amongst themselves,” says Goldman. “Sometimes doctors and nurses, I won’t say that they lie, they might shade the truth. For instance, if you’re talking about prognosis, it may be that they have to marshal the patient’s hope.”

    And the show’s provocative title? “The white coat is one of the symbols in the hospital, while black art refers to the voodoo of medicine, the black magic. It’s what you don’t learn in medical textbooks but it’s the knowledge that gets passed from doctor to doctor, nurse to nurse.”

    (The shows are available as podcasts, but not all of them have been posted yet.)

    Would that there be another series, White PR, Black Art….

  7. Judy – I think you are right about the possiblity of White PR, Black Art – as much the same kind of considerations will apply, probably in most “professions”.

    In respect of unskilled doctors – there will naturally be a range of skills in evidence and similarly variation in commitment to keep up to date, be at the top of the profession etc. Some will be incompetent and there will also be those who act unethically and inappropriately – hence there are bodies who moderate the licensing process.

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