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The big problem for me is that career thinking in PR is based on approaches which have long been seen as outdated in the career studies field.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?