If you are visiting the Institute for Public Relations website, if you are reading this as an email update to Institute friends and supporters, or if you attend events like our Summit on Measurement in September…

There’s something special about you as a public relations practitioner, educator, student, researcher or client. That is your commitment to and respect for what we call the science beneath the art of public relations™.

Conversations is a new interactive feature of the Institute website – a forum to share and discuss research-based knowledge in our field. With every installment, you will be offered the opportunity to respond.

So, let’s start with a bit of philosophy. In the Institute’s current strategic plan – which led up to this historic 50th anniversary year – the Board of Trustees offers this thought about what we do for a living:

No occupation attains the status of a profession without certain things in place. Among these are a substantial body of codified professional knowledge, educational systems to help create and disseminate that knowledge, and a commitment to lifelong professional learning.

This is true of medicine, law, accounting, teaching – and public relations. There is science underlying the art, and it is the working knowledge of that science combined with creativity that marks the best professionals.

A column that I authored for PR News last year sought to shed light on why practitioners and scholars have such different views of whether or not public relations is a profession. The article drew on a published paper by Betteke van Ruler, University of Amsterdam. “Are PR Pros From Venus and Scholars From Mars?” the title of her paper asked, as she described four well-known general models of professionalism. Sure enough, those models seem to correspond with divergent views within the public relations community.

Academic scholars gravitate toward a knowledge model of professionalism. When practitioners show little interest in theory, and formal PR education is not a requirement for employment, academics conclude that public relations is far from being a profession.

Practitioners, on the other hand, may instinctively prefer more client-oriented models: the competition model that defines a profession based on permanent competition to provide expert services; and the personality model, in which commitment, creativity and enthusiasm are hallmarks of a professional.

Adding to the confusion, van Ruler believes that public relations associations lean toward the status model, which defines a profession as an elite group using specialized knowledge to gain status, power and autonomy. The emphasis on accreditation is one indication of status model orientation.

But what do you think? Here’s the chance to hold up your end of the conversation.

Frank Ovaitt
President and CEO
Institute for Public Relations

PS – Having mentioned the Summit on Measurement above, I should also say that time and space are getting short. Sign up today if you want to be part of the annual conference for experts in measurement and evaluation, and practitioners who want a more focused research strategy.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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17 thoughts on “Models of Professionalism

  1. Considering I had several units throughout my public relations degree entitled ‘What is PR?’ I do not think we will ever be close to truly defining it.

    The fact that we, as professionals, can go online and blog our thoughts and experiences shows just how dynamic and ever-changing the PR field is.

  2. Public Relations is a concept which cannot be defined in one single sentence or paragraph.  It is a vast and multifarious activity.  Public Relations is something beyond relations.  It is both an art and science besides a behavioural science.  It deals with the mindsets of the people. Hence, a PR man/woman must be a psychologist. 

    How best you convince or persuase your target audience or publics in the PR process is very important. Hence I suggest a model, which is most appropriate is ‘Convincing Model’.  To take up and implement any PR campaign or activity, the ultimate aim is how best you convince your target public towards your point of view.

    In India, it was Adi Shankara, the saint, who propagated his idealogy called ‘Advaita’ philosophy about 200 years ago, ultimately succeded in convincing the people from Kanyakumari, the southern tip to Himalayas on the northern border about his ideology.

    This is one of the best examples.  To cite another example, it was Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, who sucessfully convinced the masses through his PR techniques to realise the need for freedom or independence to India.

  3. I agree with Cindy Small, a respondent on the site, who said, Public relations cannot be pigeon holed into one model.

    I agree with academics who believe that education should be a requirement for employment. I agree with practitioners that argue that expert service, commitment, creativity and enthusiasm have to be a part of the public relations profession. I also agree with those that believe Accreditation is a trademark of professionalism.

    While I agree with a component of each model, I would volunteer that the best model is one requires a formal education in public relations. This education would educate practitioners in several key areas, including writing, research, media relations, communications theory, and business. It would also require practitioners to become Accredited.

    Why? During my career I have met people that profess to do public relations. Each person had a different perspective on the profession that I am passionate about, and it usually had nothing to do with public relations. Many of them confused publicity, which is the oldest form of public relations (PT Barnum), as public relations. I have even been told: Anyone can do public relations. I read a book and learned how to write a press release. It isnt rocket science. The only truth in that statement is that it isnt rocket science, but it is a science.

    A true public relations professional understands the importance of strategy, business, research, metrics, ethics, writing, and theory to the discipline and they work hard to maintain the integrity of each area. They understand that creativity is only a part of the total equation. They understand that you don’t “do” public relations.

    There is a lot of work that needs to be done to bring respect to the profession. The first step is making sure that we stop allowing people that claim to do public relations to associate themselves with our beloved profession.

    The lesson. Every public relations practitioner has a responsibility to educate others about our profession. We must challenge the notion that anyone can do public relations. We must work hard to distinguish the role that public relations plays in the business environment. We must advance our profession. Each day ask yourself, What have I done today to advance my profession? If we do that, then in time we will receive the respect we deserve.

  4. The professor’s models are interesting but, as you suggest, not easily applied to practice.  What would be the purpose, after all?

    What will bind scholars and practitioners are common units of measurement that are reliable and irreducible.  Right now, we’re at odds because we struggle to place definitions on reputation, trust, ethics, relationships, etc., but these concepts are (1) shared responsibilities and (2) are likely influenced through indirect means…which means that they’re neither the exclusive province of PR, nor are they discrete enough to measure.  We also struggle to measure outtakes and outcomes (as well as outputs), but these also have multiple sources of influence and are inherently ill-fit for reliable measurement.

    In short, we need to be looking at things we know we control and things for which our practitioners are specifically engaged.  Few can or do control reputation/trust/ethics/relationships in any direct way and few are so foolish as to take on this job.

  5. I think the most important model is one that is results-oriented, and probably combines aspects of all three identified in the study.

    I’ve gained a great deal of insight from my colleagues in academia, agencies, corporate America and associations on various aspects of public relations.

    The personality model you reference seems woefully outdated and old school to me, however. Clients want results. Creativity and enthusiasm help sell clients, but results keep them.

    It’s time to bridge the gap between PR theory and practice. Scholars can help practitioners get better results for clients by building the profession’s body of knowledge and by identifying best practices and trends. Why reinvent the wheel if you can glean knowledge from what others have done previously?

    PR is still evolving as a profession, but I believe the extensive body of research and theory developed during the past 30 to 50 years clearly demonstrates that it is a profession.

    The problem is that too many practitioners aren’t aware the research exists and/or don’t have easy access to it unless they’re also in graduate school or can tap into university collections.

  6. I think this debate has only a few years life left.

    The model of public relations that has to respond to the effects of interference with organisations, the value (asset value) of organisations that are changed by external forces and disintermediation will demand a new type of practice. If academia can deliver, it will be part of significant evolution.

    Social media is part of this but not all. But social media closes the gaps identified by van Ruler.

    The significance of three PR bibliographies published on the same day using Social Media wiki’s is pretty significant for those who seek to remove barriers between practice and academia.

  7. I agree with the argument of Dr.Ramakrishna. Public Relations is a profession which needs perfection.  Perfection in the PR activity is a must. I feel that P stands for perfection and R stands for Recognition.  There will be a recognition when there is perfection.

    Hence it is a must.

    Dr.D.V.R.Murthy, Head, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Andhra University, India.

  8. Howard Drescher writes that we’re not a profession and his criteria is convincing:  we’d need to be licenced to be that.  All that I fear in the prospect of licensing PR is that we’d be doomed to abide by so many definitions of PR as a function for serving the “public trust.” By and large, PR is a function for helping organizations compete in marketplaces and, as such, we operate by serving the “private interest.” Do we serve the public trust along the way, yes and sometimes, but that is just one strategy for maintaining or creating competitive advantage for users of PR.  To me, we are a profession that’s based on advocacy and, as such, I believe we should be licensed.  Our function and influence on society, commerce and media are simply too large to ignore.

  9. These days there are two distinctly different types of PR practitioners in operation: the old fly-the-seat-of-the-pants type and the contemporary strategy-based, research-backed professional.  If Public Relations wants to seen as an integral part of the management function, research and planning must be utilised at all available opportunities.  And if this means abandoning the traditional approach, then so be it. 

    I recall an article by Dr Glen Broom, who many will know as a distinguished scholar in the field, regarding the intangible (supposed) evidence of results that PR has been known to produce.  How can people expect to get paid if there is no evidence of what behaviour (the ultimate goal of PR programs) they have changed? If PR professionals are educated like their counterparts in marketing, advertising and management, use research to back their strategies and align their divisions with the overarching organisational strategy, there is every chance that one day PR can take a well-deserved place at the management table.

  10. As an educator I’m always interested in academy-practice divides. In this case, I think it’s caused in part by how we define “profession.” When we discuss this question in class I use a definition based on the sociology of occupations, in which case PR is not a profession. But we also talk about “profession” in the vernacular, and certainly at least some PR people can be classified as professionals.

  11. IS PR a Profession?  The “Analogy Model”

    Using the criteria derived from the traditional professions of law, medicine and teaching, Betteke van Ruler’s paper indicates that academics generally would say public relations is not a profession.

    Perhaps there is progress to be made on this topic through consideration of a broader range of analogies.

    Take architecture. The “knowledge model” would require formal education as a condition of entry.  Yet famous architects had no formal training in the field, and no formal credentialing.  You don’t have to go as far back as Thomas Jefferson.  Frank Lloyd Wright never attended a single class in architecture. Architecture is a field I would estimate is widely considered a profession.  Is academic training a requirement of entry?  Apparently not.

    Journalism?  Clearly, formal academic training is not a requirement of employment.  Nor is any form of professional credentialing.  I’m sure any reader could come up with dozens of practicing professional journalists whose training is in some other field.  The late Cap Weinburger is a name that pops into my head, and George Stephanopoulos and on and on.  Is journalism a profession?  Many journalists certainly think so.

    Acting is commonly referred to as a profession.  In fact, “professional actor” is an established phrase in the language.  Engineering.  Accounting.  The list goes on.  Feel free to add your own candidates.

    Has there been academic study centered on an “Analogy Model”?  If not, perhaps considerations along the analogue lines might be productive.  Perhaps the historically based and traditional “knowledge model,” considered alone, is inadequate to describe today’s realities.  Perhaps, to have validity in describing current phenomena, the models can no longer be employed singly and discretely, but are useful and valid only when used in combination.  Hmmm?

  12. Frank, I’ve always seen public relations in all three spheres, so I’m a poor respondee!  But I did want to congratulate you on this new interactive portal.  Very cool.

  13. Very interesting discussion. In my view, there are many public relations practitioners who can claim the description of professional because they personally operate at a very high standard. But I do not think the field in general can call itself a profession. Why? One major reason is that there are no governing bodies to codify and enforce standards of professional conduct. There are no sanctions for bad behavior, and unfortunately bad behavior is all too common these days. There also seems to be at least some disagreement among people in the field as to what is actually acceptable practice e.g. the VNR controversies, Lincoln Group, etc. Sad as these examples are, I would object to any effort to “professionalize” the field through licensing, just as I would object to efforts to license journalists. The fact that our calling is not a true profession does not bar any of us from striving to achieve the highest level of professionalism that we, as individuals are capable of.

  14. Public relations cannot be pigeon-holed into one model.  As varied as the positions themselves, so are the descriptions.  Working in public relations for the fashion industry requires a creative skill set, while public relations in the medical profession often requires a technical skill set.  In my current position, the job title is called “Communications Manager,” and I find myself being called upon for a variety of skills, from internal employee relations and recognition to external communications for a $93 million expansion project.  Public relations practioners are professionals, so why not just leave it at that?

  15. I agree with van Ruler, although I don’t think ‘emphasis’ is strong enough to create a profession. The fact that PR employers ‘encourage’ candidates to obtain an APR is a good start towards creating the profession, but not until the time when the accredidation is ‘required’ to practice public relations is it to be considered professional work. (And I am a huge supporter of requiring an APR to practice…It’d force me to go find an easier job)

  16. I witness this discussion in the profession (allied healthcare) that I work for. It is impassioned and personal, and seems to focus mainly on peer recognition and paycheck implications.

    I understand that the Department of Labor creates arbitrary distinctions (i.e., exempt vs. non-exempt on payrolls) for its purposes, but what drives the discussion in the PR field?

    Who really cares?

  17. Public Relations is a profession which needs perfection.  I would like to say that the ‘perfection model’ could be a better one to make the PR profession more perfect one. In ‘perfection model’ one should be more committed, implement the PR campaign and PR job in an effective and perfect manner.  The perfection in the PR practice would ultimately help the organisation to reach to the greater heights.

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