How many PR practitioners does it take to change a light bulb?

change The answer: “I don’t know – I’ll get back to you on that”.  This joke is a reminder of the importance of having a solid understanding of your subject matter in PR practice.  This is the topic of my second post looking at the future of work in public relations.

When looking at the traditional academic models of working in PR, a division is made between manager and technician.  The distinction here is between having the competencies (behaviour patterns that reflect knowledge and skill) to conceptualise and direct PR activities or to carry out communications activities at the behest of others.  Knowledge and skills tends to be PR specific (albeit with relevant administrative expertise for the more senior role).  Expertise is emphasised in media relations, communications and relationship management; alongside competency in planning, implementing, and (at least in theory) evaluating PR programmes.

This hierarchical approach is also evident in the training frameworks offered to PR practitioners, which are largely structured around a ladder concept based on length of experience or progression to management level.  Likewise, the structure within consultancies, and in-house departments to an extent, has reflected a pyramid approach of junior executives, middle-manager and senior directors.

But in studying the career literature, it is evident these ways of thinking reflect the bureaucratic model which dominated the 20th century.  Climbing the career ladder within organizations (in-house or consultancy) offered a pathway that involved rising through the ranks, with management competencies replacing tactical ones.  Depending on the size and nature of the organization, a career path could offer specialism in public relations, or see the PR function as one step – perhaps as a starting point, or a development opportunity for those already progressing up a more generalist ladder within the organization .

Those without opportunities within an organization, would probably forge their own career journey stepping between different employers, but again following a specialist PR technician to management route.

GolinHarris recently launched its G4 model of the future of PR, claiming to have “replaced the standard, seniority-based hierarchy with global communities of dedicated specialists who are embedded in every account”.  Their four roles are strategists (business analysts), creators (bold thinkers), connectors (channel experts) and catalysts (change agents).  The argument is against the “generalist multi skilled individual” in favour of specialist skill sets.

This approach runs counter also to the military/bureaucratic model where careers start with a specialist responsibility before taking a more general perspective to become, well a General.  It is not clear whether there is a career dimension within the GolinHarris conceptualisation, or whether someone is deemed able only to execute one role for all time.

What is evident is that this supposed new approach continues the focus of PR career thinking on communication competencies.  The roles divide up the planning progress, but combined retain the focus on acting as the mouthpiece for others, or counselling them on how to best communicate their knowledge.

In 2006, I conceived a model (presented at the MIPAA PR Masterclass) for the future direction of PR based on two key dimensions:

  • content – knowledge, ability and control of what is communicated in terms of actual messages, branding, technical means of communication etc
  • relationships – knowledge, ability and control of connections with publics or stakeholders on whom the organisation’s success depends

Using these as axes, I proposed four possible scenarios for PR where:

  1. PR is a sub-set of marketing, focused solely on achieving media coverage, where agencies were used for creative and other tactical work that did not require organizational or other specialist knowledge.  This plotted both low expertise for content and relationships.
  2. PR operates as a virtual “call centre” operation.  Here,  expertise in content is high (but relationship expertise is low), being driven by technology – this model is evident today in the Ford Content Factory, for example.
  3. PR’s expertise is oriented towards stakeholder influence, particularly in respect of managing risk, issues and crisis situations.  Here the function would be research and results-oriented, with a primary focus on relationships driven by a dynamic external environment – so high on relationship expertise (but low on organizational content expertise).  This could involve PR as a strategic external counsel function.
  4. PR is a strategically influential function managing reputation and responsibilities. This would involve an all-encompassing understanding of internal and external forces and be driven by both strategic organizational and societal goals.  It would necessitate high expertise for both content and relationships.

Content includes expertise in the what and how of communication.  I therefore envisaged three core requirements for PR practitioners: competence in managing people, processes and product (my concept focused on motor industry PR).  This led me to the following diagram illustrating seven roles for tomorrow’s PR talent:


My premise was that the fully rounded, ultimate PR person needed to be an AMBASSADOR – an expert in organizational/topic content (product), public relations (process) and relationships (people).

Someone whose skills are essentially on the people side of PR, I termed a socialite, with a focus on product expertise creating a mechanic and skills in the process of PR resulting in a bureaucrat.

Combining two of the three requirements results in an enthusiast (knows the product and able to build relationships, but not a strategic PR person), a technocrat (lacking in the people skills), or a diplomat (lacks knowledge of the organization/topic).

I never tested these ideas further and feel they lack some emerging aspects of career theory that I have since studied.  In particular, it is a static model which, as with the GolinHarris concept, lacks connection to career strategies, although I saw the ambassador as the pinnacle role – a five star general if you like.

For me, the future of work in PR has to involve knowledge beyond an ability to communicate, and also beyond building relationships (this latter a topic I recently considered at PR Conversations).  Perhaps the model I am looking for already exists in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.


The connector is my relationship expert, the maven is my product expert, and the salesman being the expert in engagement and persuasion, arguably embodies the PR competencies of two-way communications (as in the mixed-motive or collaborative advocacy conceptualisation).

So what do you get if you combine all three of these categories in one person rather than seeing them as discrete (which was Gladwell’s idea)?

Is it my original idea of the ambassador?  Although the title conveys the seniority and also the idea of the PR person as a strategic representative, it feels old-fashioned and perhaps too related to a hierarchical image rather than a more creative, personal and contemporary view of careers in PR.

What I’m looking for is an idea that relates to the career literature around flexibility such as the protean and boundaryless career models.  This proposes that in future we will need to be ever more pro-active in identifying and seizing opportunities.  Something I believe applies as much to PR work as those undertaking it.

So, I’m exploring the concept of the entrepreneur and looking in particular at the entrepreneurial personality and its relevance to PR practitioners.  I see the entrepreneur as someone who understands risk and opportunity with a focus on executing effective solutions to problems.

Should my new question be how many entrepreneurial PR practitioners would it take to change the lightbulb?  Any thoughts?

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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.

5 thoughts on “How many PR practitioners does it take to change a light bulb?”

  1. Heather, thanks for a thoughtful post on the future of PR. I’ve been thinking of some of the new roles we now play with the growth of social media: curator, content marketer and (social media) community manager. It’s interesting to try and fit these roles into your model.

    Now to offer several cheeky answers to the question: ” How many PR practitioners does it take to change a light bulb?”
    1 Four. One to write the news release. Another to edit it. A third to tweet, tumble, blog, and post it to Facebook and LinkedIn. And a fourth to ask, after the fact, did we really need to send a news release about the light bulb?
    2 Is that a new “green” bulb? Let’s call a news conference.
    3 What I can say is our light bulb is going to radically change the way we deliver light to consumers.

    Yours in good humor.

  2. Once again, Heather, your thoughtful analysis hits the nail on the head. I am teaching MA students right now about what is so strategic about PR, and your post is now mandatory reading. I like your ambassador concept- it works for me. The Entrepreneur is an interesting spin- but it may be less appropriate for those who work in-house, as they rarely “run the business” (unless it is a PR agency) which is what my definition of entrepreneur would include. Taking risks and making investments is probably not something that a CEO would welcome in his/her Head of Corporate Communications. Ambassadors can change a lot through their blending of your roles, but they do work for a government, and are accountable to them.

    And maintaining Jeff’s cheeky reply to your question
    How many PR practitioners does it take to change a light bulb?
    1. Only one if it is an ambassador who asks, “Instead of changing a light bulb, let’s open the curtains and let the sunlight in”. That’s the power of strategic advice.

  3. Thanks for the comments and the extension of the “joke” on lightbulb changing. Regarding the Entrepreneur, my concept is that this is increasingly a necessity of attitude within organizations, ie that they need entrepreneurial thinking. I don’t see this so much as “running the business”, although everyone should be responsible for developing value for their clients or organizations. Also in respect of risk – successful entrepreneurs are those who know how to take appropriate risks and manage the risk of such innovative approaches. Surely that is something we’d advocate in PR practitioners?

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