In praise of the amateur in PR

Photograph: Vadim Trunov
Photograph: Vadim Trunov

I tend to refer to public relations as an occupation or practice rather than as a profession (although sometimes I use the term public relations professionals as well as practitioners). Bill Sledzik’s 2010 post Is PR really a profession? sums a lot of my thinking.

In 1969, Goode reported the “industrial society is a professionalizing one”, with sociologist Everett Hughes earlier arguing that a profession was seen as “the prestige show”, with middle class occupations seeking to achieve professional status in part for social advancement with “the collective effort of an organized occupation to improve its place and increase its power, in relation to others”.

I often hear PR practitioners along with journalists refer to themselves as professionals to signal a difference from others. In the case of media contacts, this is commonly to argue against bloggers or others they deem as untrained and amateur.

This superior attitude often seems to me to be misplaced.

I’ve illustrated this post with an image from the self-taught Russian photographer, Vadim Trunov, whose work I think is truly magical. All authors are amateurs until they get that break and become paid once published, although few make enough money to describe themselves as full-time professional writers. Likewise, musicians, actors and artists frequently hone their craft for love whilst dreaming of fame and fortune.

In public relations, it is not unusual to read criticism of those who seek to enter the occupation after studying for a specialist degree with experience and learning on the job often held up as more desirable. Not so much a profession as a group of people earning money whilst practising a craft, perhaps.

Various skills and knowledge employed within public relations certainly can be mastered by amateurs. For example, to gain publicity, change public opinion, secure support, build relationships and enhance reputations. Amateurs in public relations may be volunteering for an organisation (such as a charity or community group), championing a cause or acting on behalf of themselves or others. Their work may be of a high standard – professional even – but they are not PR professionals or likely to associate themselves with the ‘profession’.

But we should remember the etymology of the word, amateur, from the Latin amare meaning “to love”. As Wikipedia notes:

An amateur (French amateur “lover of”, from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, “lover”) is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science in a non-professional or unpaid manner. Amateurs often have little or no formal training in their pursuits, and many are autodidacts (self-taught).

This contrasts with profession as deriving from the vows taken on entering a religious order, or in relation to work, professing (declaring openly) to be skilled in an occupation.

The amateur could be considered as more focused on improving their competencies than the professional who declares their formal identification with public relations. Likewise, why shouldn’t we praise the blogger or enthusiastic campaigner who lives and breathes their chosen passion, puts unpaid hours of effort into pursuing their interests and doesn’t invest energy only when they are being paid?

There’s more to being a profession than seeking status, more to being a professional than being paid, and much to learn from those who are true amateurs, that is, lovers of what they do.

N’est pas?

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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.

2 thoughts on “In praise of the amateur in PR”

  1. Hi, Karen. Sure, there are people who “do” PR at a local level. Many do great work and achieve success. However, I think lauding PR as something “amateurs” can doesn’t do the sector any favours; particularly as it has (for years) tried to become more accepted at boardroom level. I’d like to think my more than 30 years as a daily newspaper journalist and PR “professional” equips me with a great deal more skill than the sports club volunteer. I’m not asserting superiority, just sticking up for the profession. I’m a professional and I’m also passionate. For the record, I volunteer with PR for two community groups.

  2. Greg – thank you for the comment. May I point out the little professional faux-pas as my name is Heather not Karen (as clearly evident under the title of my blog).

    Anyway, to return to your comment… You may well have more skill as a paid and qualified PR practitioner than a volunteer for a local sports club, and bring that skill to your own voluntary work. You may also reflect a passion for public relations, and profess your commitment as a professional. This may also ensure you have the credentials and competencies to be accepted at boardroom level. Fortunately, you are not alone in this regard and there are thousands of impressive practitioners employed in public relations.

    There are also too many paid ones who lack ability, enthusiasm, integrity, intelligence, initiative etc, yet profess to be professionals working in a profession. In my view, such people are doing little more than a paid job but want the status and rewards that are traditionally associated with recognition of an occupation as a profession.

    My point is evident in my final paragraph – that such claims to be professional or for the occupation to be recognised as a profession are frequently done to distance from the amateur – implying this ‘other’ is not competent or credible. I feel this reflects a lack of confidence in what we do.

    If we wish to demonstrate that the professional in PR is different from the amateur, we need to do so from a stronger position than our craft skills as the non-paid PR practitioner can certainly master those. I will unashamedly praise the amateur in PR who can deliver strong outcomes from tactical skills much as I celebrate the work of the non-professional photographer Vadim Trunov. Indeed, I’d go further and employ a talented amateur for their craftskills rather than a lacklustre professional.

    If the PR occupation is to be recognised in organisations as an integral function within the boardroom, it has to prove that it adds value at the executive level. If it wants to be publicly recognised as a profession, it has to demonstrate it offers value at a societal level.

    This is much like the accountant, who brings more than the ability to balance the books that can be found in the sports club volunteer, but recognises the latter is an equally valid job to be done.

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