A taste of public relations

image On 1st September, we’re presenting an evening with Alison Theaker, Peter Brill and me in Bristol as a taster for the CIPR qualifications, and also to celebrate the launch of the 4th edition of The Public Relations Handbook.  If you’d like to join us for free seminars, expert insight and advice, see further details and booking at: http://tasteofpr.eventbrite.com

This event is partly to promote the qualifications and the new book, but also aims to show the importance and value of connecting theory to PR practice.

For many people, public relations is little more than a craft – a set of skills to be learned, probably ‘on the job’ much as one learns to cook, knit, or paint (or use the photocopier, telephone system or latest computer software).  A survey published in PR Week confirms this with an article on “Career development” that purports to identify 5 key skills for the future.

Its methodology is a little muddled however since it has surveyed “the most important attribute for a successful PR person/team” by asking “96 in-house comms professionals for their views on the issues they face in daily work life”.  It is this casual approach to understanding work in PR that partly stimulated my interest in studying career theories for my PhD.  There has been little robust research into career development in relation to public relations, but lots of assumptions and opinion expressed in such articles, books and so on.

The big problem for me is that career thinking in PR is based on approaches which have long been seen as outdated in the career studies field.  For example, we see ‘matching’ in factors such as “charismatic personality”.  Indeed, as in much reflection on public relations, the focus is on the tactical ‘doing’ of the job without any real depth of understanding of either the terminology of careers, or developments in career studies that reflect the modern world of work.  So the concept of “success” is not examined in the context of contemporary career thinking but appears to be thought to evidence climbing a career ladder (another outmoded concept).

The PR Week study also lacks clarity in the attributes listed – with the choices combining totally different concepts.  For example, ‘creative and strategic thinking’, ‘open minded and able to see the bigger picture’, good organisation and leadership’.

Skill: practised ability, facility in an action

Attribute: a quality ascribed to a person

Competent: state of being adequately qualified

The number one skill for the future is stated as: digital and social media skills (the survey was even more practical stating: ability to work with social media and technology).  This would seem to reflect a current pre-occupation with little vision of how such abilities are already commonplace among the next generation and will shortly be hygiene skills (ie a minimum requirement).  This is something I wrote about at PR Conversations earlier this year: There’s no such thing as online or digital PR anymore.

Like knitting, cooking and painting, learning about public relations is often promoted through training courses rather than gaining qualifications.  I’m not criticising this, since it seems more relevant than attending conferences to hear other people share their experiences – another popular approach to professional development in PR.  I suppose that’s a bit like watching television programmes about cooking (we don’t get many knitting and painting shows however!).  Training courses can be underpinned by wider knowledge than simply the trainer’s own experiences, but it is practical experience which is predominantly promoted as evidence of someone’s credibility to run a course.

If I can take the analogy with cooking further, it is certainly possible to serve up superb meals without any depth of knowledge but plenty of skill.  But an understanding of science and other underpinnings that explain the rationale for certain approaches help avoid the trial and error that many of us experience as amateurs.

Do celebrity chefs necessarily make the best trainers or educators of future talent?  Are we happy for PR to involve this approach to developing expertise?  Or rely on a development approach akin to learning to cook at home?

Yes, practical experience is vital in a vocational occupation such as public relations.  Studying PR without being able to operate in practice if that’s your occupation is of little use – although conceptual research can open up new perspectives beyond immediate practical application.

Surely it is the grounding between knowing why and how; being informed about practice and being able to explain rather than simply tell, that is evident in those who have mastered their chosen ‘craft’.  Professor Timothy Coombs talks about the advantages of “evidence based management” in crisis communications in this YouTube video.  At the least, we need to underpin our work by informed analysis rather than unsubstantiated opinion and continuation of poor practice through unquestioned habit.

I was interested to read how the world leading England cricket team has taken a more analytical approach to managing its operations.  I’m not convinced about its use of the Myers-Briggs psychological test, but the philosophy of investing in developing talent is something that needs a similar commitment in public relations.

There is discussion in football too about the merits of a dedicated centre to train and develop young players and coaches, where education and analysis are combined with practical skills practice.  Such approaches tend to focus on spotting young talent – rather than career long development.  But in PR, we don’t really have either.

Of course, historically people have “fallen” into PR by change rather than choice.  Someone recently told me that no-one grows up wanting to be a PR practitioner – which may be true (unlike wanting to play a sport, be a chef or other craft-career).  But surely we should be encouraging talented individuals to look at PR as a strategic career option from a young age?  And, developing a culture of maximising potential for practitioners by stretching their brains rather than just their smartphone typing muscles.

There are many good undergraduate and postgraduate courses at a variety of UK universities, alongside the training and qualifications offered by the professional bodies (CIPR and PRCA) and other providers.  There are development programmes run in-house, within consultancies and companies.  There are many practitioners who are devoted to their own development and plenty of “communities of practice” (online and real world).  CIPR has developed a Research and Development Unit to connect teaching, practice and research and PRCA is also launching a partnership programme to create a formal relationship with a number of select of universities.  The new Public Relations Inquiry journal (launching in early 2012) aims to “stimulate new research agendas in the field of public relations”.

All good stuff – but PR needs to address its lack of intellectual credibility more cohesively and strategically.  Could we combine the various initiatives to create more recognition of the cerebral dimension of PR?  Can we change the focus of PR’s reputation away from being party organisers, flacks and spinners of truth?  Shouldn’t PR Week be reporting academic journal research rather than just quick and dirty surveys?  Can we ever move away from seeing PR as involving nothing more than craft skills?

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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.

10 thoughts on “A taste of public relations”

  1. A banqet of an article here, rather than just a ‘taste’.
    Can I just pick up on one point you cover about how the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘creativity’ have seemingly, and sloppily been used in the PR Week survey.

    Yes, you need to be what I call a ‘bigger box thinker’ to create strategies, where you look at the needs of the future rather than the immediate, and to the wider context of your situation.

    Yet there are many in PR who would consider themselves creative, although invariably at a tactical rather than strategic level, who create new ideas within their existining context and timeframe.

    Thus all strategists need to be creative, but not all creatives are strategists.

  2. Heather, there is a war on over just this topic. On one side, the PRs who grew up in the business, usually coming over from journalism, and on the other, the newbies. These two sides seem to denigrate each other — and any suggestion that they should know the theoretical basis for their work. The newbies eschew any thought that the oldsters know something valuable (“they don’t get how the world has changed!”) and the oldsters think the newbies are just playing (“I bet they can’t even put a press kit together!” )

    The future of PR, however, is as a true business discipline. To be credible, we have to be the experts in communication, not mere media relations or social media. We need to know why certain tactics are more likely to succeed than others, and why some stakeholders are more or less likely to help us realize our objectives.

    Merely being a good writer (no matter that it’s still a vital skills) or an excellent visual communicator, or presentation expert, etc., isn’t enough. We have to understand how business works, what leadership and management styles are at work, and the theoretical underpinnings of our profession. Otherwise, we’re button-pushers. The world doesn’t need many button-pushers.


  3. Successful leadership is achingly difficult to achieve in any discipline whether it’s finance, marketing, HR, PR or whatever. Getting through the job interview and being given the title is the easy part.

    In my opinion successful PR leaders engage with their peers in the organisation and win their respect (not necessarily their friendship) by clarity of vision and delivery against it in PR which gives them the opportunity to deliver honest commentary and challenge other business issues across all areas – where appropriate.

    If your sole contribution to the Board agenda is to turn up, describe the details of a campaign and wave the press cuttings then this the rapid route to ridicule, reinforcing your peers’ opinions that PR is little more than low-budget marketing. But this is where lots of (senior) PR execs are comfortable and feel equally uncomfortable and unqualified to debate business issues outside of their comfort zone.

    Academic insight, clear and demonstrable experience, an analytical understanding of the business issues you’re involved with and a genuine interest in other people are the building blocks to success. The construction skills needed to assemble these blocks into a solid leadership reputation are then down to the individual’s interpersonal skills and ambition..

  4. Sean – interesting point. The “war” you describe though seems to have the old and young ones on the same side – they just don’t see it. They are both focused on tactics – whether that’s the traditional media relations or the contemporary digital PR aspects.

    I agree that PR needs to improve its status based on expertise and depth of knowledge. Although, I see PR as bigger than a business discipline and wider than communications. I will probably expand on this shortly as a result of my current reading of von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory work. My thinking is that PR is in the nodes – the interface of relationships (which is where communication comes in) as well as the underpinning connections of values and other reasons why members of society are mutually dependent.

    So yes, to all the knowledge of how business works etc – but also we need to understand how people work, how societies work, how the world works – and how all of this is changing or not. I’m also reading around chaos theories which again has some nice system perspectives as we seek equilibrium as well as change.

    Which means that all generations are connected – and we don’t need to be the button pushers in the system.

  5. Al – love the concept underpinning your comment of continuous development. None of us are ever perfect and anyone who believes they know it all is deluded. Everything you describe is a process that needs to be managed, so as you indicate, if we think we can rely on our tactical successes our comfort zone will get increasingly smaller.

  6. Enjoying the discussion here – good forum, thanks Sean, Heather and Andy.

    Today’s news that Simon Walker (ex PR director Royal Family, British Airways, advisor to Prime Minister etc) is to become next CEO of the Institute of Directors makes the case that great PR minds are also great business minds. Let’s hope his new role will provide inspiration and be a trailblazer for others in the PR world..

  7. Hi Heather (and Al and Andy) — I’m not sure just how many business people ARENT tacticians at heart. I recall the quote, probably apocryphal, saying that once you get on the battlefield, all strategy is useless — and am also aware that cogitating over and over without taking action is a strategy unto itself. However I agree with your Tweet that regardless of generation, we prefer our comfy armchairs. It’s scary to contemplate deep change… Much as in political discourse, I wish there were more air and less heat —

    I’d like to better understand what motivates people — even in these hard times, the interwebs seems to have been added to Maslow’s heirarchy.

    In the latest PRTactics from PRSA, there’s a piece that says popularity should be the determinant for which social networks in which to participate. This is a continuation of the tactical mindset that can’t permit one to see how actual business objectives might affect which one to join!

    I fear that the intellectual in our profession will remain stymied here in the States as long as PR remains outside the business schools. Or perhaps I’m totally wrong, and moving PR to Business will bring about its total sublimation to Marketing! Regardless, we still seem to produce too many PRs who cannot rationally examine a business problem and apply appropriate theory to forge a potential solution or at least, response. More thorny dilemmas needed? More critical reasoning exercises?

    p.s., thanks for the reminder to come back. Busy week. ;-/

  8. Sean – thanks for your further reflection and of course, strategy and thinking without action in PR is worthless. Although it seems to me in PR the practice predominantly acts without ever thinking. The entire debate about AVE’s demise seems often based around “clients like them” without every considering that clients would actually like to know what PR is proposing to achieve and whether or not it does so. I wonder if those still advocating AVE ever even set an objective for the level of these that will result from their actions. So on the battlefield, it would be like just killing people and counting number of corpses rather than ever worrying about what the objective or outcome actually is.

    Regarding whether PR should be in business schools – I’d like to see strategic PR on the syllabus of business qualifications, although I fear that this is there but not under the name of PR (stakeholder relationships, CSR etc). You are probably right that if PR moves into these functions now it will do so simply in terms of the tactical reductionist marketing perspective.

    Interesting that at Bournemouth, marketing is moving from media school to business school, but leaving behind marketing communications which is often taught in integrated form with advertising and PR.

    Another issue with PR in business schools is that we lose the wider societal perspective and critical thinking that challenges the dominant view of PR as simply involved in helping organizations get their way.

  9. Al – interesting on Simon Walker and we definitely need to acknowledge more those who are inherently PR people who move into CEO and other executive positions. Too often the pinnacle of a PR career is seen as being head of communications – yet, there’s an argument from PR’s strategic vantage point that senior practitioners should be equipped to take on the biggest job. Mind you, that means engaging with areas such as finance, law and so on, not just communications.

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