On PR degrees and professionalism…

Around this time last year I attended the PRCA’s PR and education ‘debate’ at the University of Westminster in London.

Staged in the University’s Old Cinema building, the panelists included Richard Ellis, Communications Director at PRCA (stepping in last-minute for CEO Francis Ingham); Sally Costerton, Chairman and CEO of Hill and Knowlton Europe; Professor Trevor Morris, author of PR Today: The Authoritative Guide and ex-Chime Communications CEO; Lucy Laville; Senior Lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University and Cathy Bussey, Deputy Editor PR Week.

Firstly, for the sake of both background information and transparency, I think some context might be useful. I’m an Account Manager at Wolfstar PR, working in London. I’m originally from Leeds and worked out of the agency’s Northern HQ for around 18 months before making the move down to the Big Smoke.

I didn’t study public relations, instead I read English at Northumbria. I came close, very close, to applying for PR course – I looked into public relations degrees and even tailored my personal statement accordingly! I changed my mind at the last minute though and opted to study English for a number of different reasons. Firstly, English: reading, writing, critiquing etc. has always been ‘my thing’ and I felt it would still grant me applicable skills I could use to gain entry into the PR world.

Also, my Mum’s friend, a partner at a local PR agency, had told me PR degrees were ‘mickey mouse’. I experienced this sort of snobbery then, and continue to do so today and this was my main reason for attending the talk.

Employer understanding of public relations education was the focus of the discussion. Each panel member spoke for around 10 minutes, each framing their piece around this, and how the PRCA is seeking to challenge perception through partnering with twelve educational institutions to add value and improve the standards of PR courses.

I’ve worked with a number of people from PR degree backgrounds and they’ve been some of the most competent and astute practitioners I’ve ever worked with.  But equally, so have the people who studied English, Law, Marketing, Business Studies, Advertising…

It’s not just snobbery that exists around PR degrees; it exists around the profession as a whole. To some, PR isn’t and will never be a respectable profession – but that’s something I’ll come back to.

Outside of the marketing sphere, PR has a ‘murky’ perception. Some of the most well-known PR figures are Alastair Campbell, Andy Coulson and Max Clifford. They’re not famous for the right reasons though, instead they’re all known as spin-doctors, manipulators and behind-the-scenes Svengalis.

Within marketing, PR is often seen as fluff – wacky stunts, activity without hard business value and of course, boozy lunches a’ plenty daaaahling!

Think about this – when we see successful, ethical PR it’s a ‘campaign’; when it’s anything but ethical it’s ‘spin’; and when it’s downright murky, it’s ‘propaganda’.

Crikey, I’ve painted a bleak picture haven’t I?

Well, it gets worse. As I said before, PR isn’t actually a profession. I guess it depends on your definition of a profession, but isn’t a profession a licensed practice with restricted entry confined by qualifications based on rigid legal necessities and training?

I think so, but there’s nothing wrong with not having a ‘profession’ in the traditional sense. Would the same restrictions that confine lawyers, doctors and accountants work in PR? No, because universal restrictions in healthcare PR wouldn’t apply to celebrity. PR is a multi-faceted creative industry that houses practitioners from a huge range of backgrounds; it’s an industry that lives, dies, but ultimately thrives on its fluidity.

So, the PRCA partnering with educational institutions to improve the standard of PR degrees can only be a good thing. But surely that isn’t enough – I think there’s equal, if not more value in universities forming formalised relationships with local and regional PR employers.

Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive – in a perfect world, wouldn’t it be great to have a public relations degree supported by a national trade body and localised consultancies. Surely this combination of theoretical and practical contribution would be immensely valuable.

In my opinion the marketing and PR industry houses some of the best graduates, because it’s so bloody hard to get your foot in the door! This difficulty acts as a filter as those that aren’t prepared to go above and beyond the call of duty and work long hours for little money, ultimately fall by the way side.

So I thought it’d be appropriate to finish with some of things Sally Costerton looks for in graduates:

  • The ability to recognize and respond to trends shaping our industry. Some of these currently include:
  • The influence of political campaign models, in using data to scientifcally shape and evaluate activity.
  • The ubiquity of smartphones forcing the ‘democratization of everything’ by giving everyone a voice.
  • Key qualities of curiosity, bravery, passion and of course, experience and qualifications.

Above all, Sally placed the greatest emphasis on ‘creativity’ as in an age where a campaign has an ‘innovation’ life cycle of eighteen months, there’s nothing more important than that ‘next big idea’.


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