Sunday, 21 April 2013

Are PR associations past their 'sell-by' date?

As there is a real debate-led CIPR presidential election campaign in the UK, it's time to ask whether PR associations perform any real purpose other than ensuring their continued survival.

They can offer benefits but I am unsure whether they do so at present. I'd welcome the views of the CIPR presidential hopefuls, Stephen Waddington (@wadds) and Jon White (@drjonwhite) about how CIPR or a refreshed version would perform.

My membership of CIPR goes back 30 years, so I should declare an interest here. What follows may lead you to ask "why are you still subscribing to it?" Good question!

The purpose of professions is seen in two perspectives - maintaining status quo and playing a positive role in society (functionalist) and self-promoting and restricting entry to the field (revisionist). Jo Fawkes has written recently that "traditionally professions secured (or at least asserted) public trust by virtue of their professional status (body of knowledge, extensive training, extra-moral ethical standards)".

Some commentators consider that the concept of professionalism, often called the "professional project", is under threat and professional identity is in crisis. Professional bodies, they say, are  bureaucratic mechanisms to promote exclusivity and monopolistic practices.

As CIPR is largely inward looking, is doing little to build PR's body of knowledge, is not able to control entry to the field and has a difficult ethical stance to maintain, its main contribution to the professional concept is training. However, it is not alone in either offering training or setting standards. PRCA and numerous training companies offer the same services, not forgetting the extensive university sector.

So what is the purpose of CIPR if it is not able to offer the objectives of most professional bodies? And it can't achieve the negative aspects (according to revisionist critics) of restricting entry to the field to those of established knowledge and professional standing. 

All evidence of recent studies is that PR=publicity and is practiced as a craft, not a profession.Recently, I wrote about inspecting 70 papers that reported on PR practices in UK organisations. I can't think of one that demonstrated high professional standards. Reading entries to CIPR's own AVE-laden PRide regional awards reinforces that impression. PR is not practiced as a profession by many CIPR members, let alone the 85% who aren't.

In an earlier post (, I discussed the separation of strategic/organisation communication from PR/publicity. If CIPR wants to renew as a genuinely professional body, that is a serious option to consider.

So my question to the two candidates is: what would they do to develop the professional project for public relations in the UK of, if is is bust, how would they reorganise CIPR for a post-professional organisation age? At 65 years old, CIPR is an OAP. Retirement may be a valid option.
  • My thanks to Jo Fawkes's article, "Interpreting ethics, public relations and strong hermeneutics", published in Public Relations Inquiry, 2012, Vol. 1, No. 2, 117-140 for its discussion of professionalism.


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  2. Hi Tom

    The profession faces two massive challenges: getting to grips with media fragmentation, and shifting from a craft to a profession.

    There’s also an important role in upholding professional standards through a code of ethics and rigorous complaints process.

    The CIPR is tackling media fragmentation via the Social Media Panel which I chair, training for members, and initiatives such as Share This and Share This Too.

    We’re making good progress on professionalism through changes to the membership structure and by putting qualifications and training at the core of the CIPR’s proposition.

    The Charter gives us a key point of difference.

    I’d like to see a roadmap to make Continuing Professional Development (CPD) mandatory with Accredited and Chartered Practitioner status the goal of every professional.

    I think that this would give us the best opportunity to tackle the craft versus profession issue that you have written extensively about.

    My job as President would be to work with the CIPR Council and Chartered Practitioners to make this proposition relevant to clients and employers.

    This is what I’ve done through both practice and thought leadership as a member of the CIPR in recent years through thought leadership via my blog, books, coaching and speaking opportunities.

    All the best,

  3. Tom

    Thanks for your contribution to the debate through the questions you've raised. I've begun a discussion on LinkedIn -- pending -- to address your points and open debate.

    You'll see from previous LinkedIn discussions that I disagree with Stephen on most of the points he kicks off with -- which is making our whole debate very interesting, and highly relevant to the future of the practice.