Bournemouth University’s Professor Tom Watson on the business of public relations: profession or craft?

Speed 13 June 2012

Professionalism remains a huge chip on the shoulder of the public relations industry. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to discuss the issue with Professor Tom Watson, a former agency head and chairman of the PRCA, and now one of the leading academics globally in the field of public relations.

One of the conclusions that we came to in Brand Anarchy is that the public relations industry must set its sights far higher if it wants to take its place at the boardroom table. We must adopt the rigor of colleagues in other professions such as accountancy, legal and management consultancy.

A survey of communication leaders published in May by Ipsos MORI in May suggested that the industry’s inability to explain its value lies at the heart of the issue. 29 per cent of practitioners said that their senior management didn’t understand the impact good reputation has on the bottom line and half said that they found demonstrating the value of reputation management problematic.

Its depressing.

As AMEC’s European Summit kicks off in Dublin today surely we can do better?

Growing pains
The CIPR has taken a great stride in the last two-years in moving its Continuous Professional Development (CPD) system online but participation is voluntary. 2011 saw 761 members successfully complete the annual CPD programme and at the year-end, 1,098 members were registered. It’s not perfect and in my view should be a mandated as a requirement of membership.

But it’s a start.

I recently had the opportunity recently to raise this topic with Bournemouth University’s Professor Tom Watson. He recognised the issue immediately.

“Public relations shows some characteristics of a profession such as a professional body and trade bodies, aspects of education in universities, a body of knowledge that is available but accessed by few, and codes of ethics and practice. On the other hand, it is similar to a craft which has no thresholds for entry. Indeed, anyone can style themselves as a public relations practitioner or ‘PR’ person,” he says.

“Major communications groups, such as Omnicom, have sizeable training and education programmes. They are excellent exceptions rather than the norm.”

Industrial inaction
According to Professor Watson it has always been thus and attempts to formalise training have been resisted.

“Despite efforts going back 25 years, public relations and communications management are not embedded in MBAs in this country which demonstrates their lack of standing amongst business and management. So we have an occupational field which exhibits more craft characteristics than professional ones; in which ‘custom and practice’ is held in greater esteem than ‘best practice’ or informed judgement,” he says.

Professor Watson argues that public relations is in fact two parallel industries: PR/publicity which emphasises tactical, short-term activities and the more strategically-oriented organisational communications. Since the middle of the las
t century, PR/publicity has become the dominant practice model.

“It is the organisational and corporate communication practitioners who are more engaged in life-long learning because they work in environments that value knowledge and informed judgement, and understand the need for personal development,” says Professor Watson.

“As a former consultancy managing director, it has long concerned me that so few consultancy directors have any formal management training. I don’t mean MBAs but there should be some training they go as they enter middle and senior management appointments. PRCA attempted this a decade ago with its Diploma in Consultancy Management but that faded away. Perhaps it is time for a revival.”

Time to grow up
So what should be done? Professor Watson’s prescription to shift the industry from craft to profession is uncomfortable. The simple fact is that the public relations sector can’t keep aspiring for professional respect without major changes.

He outlines a six point plan.

  1. Re-start CIPR with higher entry standards and a robust CPD and training tariff for continuing membership, like the long-established professions;
  2. Turn the CIPR’s CPD programme into a proper training programme where doing a visit to a local radio station doesn’t count for CPD points;
  3. Encourage publicists, who are often very good at their craft, to form a UK Publicity Society that focuses on ‘custom and practice’;
  4. Expand PRCA’s Consultancy Management Standard to include formal mid-career education as one of its measurable benchmarks;
  5. Get more investment in education from the PR sector. At present, its ‘investment’ is placements, internships and guest lectures. That’s very welcome but it is at nil cost. The sector should be fostering training and education to develop its own future managers and leaders.
  6. Promote UKPR as the world leader in organisational and corporate communication, with the best trained strategists, managers and leaders.

Professor Watson believes that this is the starting point of a discussion and others will be able to add to this list – and challenge it.

“Too often the discussion about talent for the PR sector focuses on entry-level training. It’s time that it looked at development and retention of that talent that it already employs,” he says.

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