I met legendary PR professor Ray Simon in 1987. He came to Buffalo, at my invitation, to address the PRSA chapter there, and he discussed the questions you see in today’s headline.
Ray began teaching PR at Utica College in 1949. I used his book, “PR Concepts and Practices,” when I taught my first PR class at the University of Buffalo in 1985, and have always held Ray in the highest regard.
Ray’s key messages about “PR as profession” became part of my own lessons for the next 23 years. But since I can’t locate the script he gave me that day, you’ll have to trust my notes and my memory.
Ray outlined 5 attributes of a “profession,” and he addressed how public relations measures up in each category.
1. Professions have standard education requirements. A profession, Ray said, is marked by an education regimen that is thorough, rigorous and consistent. Those who plan to enter that profession master the same basic skills and knowledge. Example: Every aspiring surgeon learns, in medical school, how to remove an appendix. The procedure is fairly standard, regardless of where it’s taught.
Can we say the same about PR education? Many who work in the business have no formal education in the field, nor do many employers require it. In addition, you’ll find that PR curricula vary widely from school to school. PR lacks a standard approach to education, though a commission of AEJMC and PRSA did offer a solid plan.
2. Professions draw upon a substantial body of knowledge. Travel to Harvard and you’ll find a building known as the law library. Venture to Johns Hopkins and you’ll find a medical library. “Where’s the PR library?” Ray asked.
Even schools known for producing top public relations grads don’t have PR libraries. In fact, the library sections housing PR books and periodicals are downright microscopic when compared to the traditional professions.
Sure, we can argue that PR taps the knowledge of the social sciences, but we can hardly liken PR’s body of knowledge to that of law, accounting or medicine.
3. Professions require standardized testing of competence. You don’t have to pass a test to enter PR, and you don’t need a license to practice it. Anyone can claim the title “PR specialist” without proving competence.
The CPA, on the other hand, must complete a 5-year college program in accounting and pass a rigorous 4-part exam. Passing these exams and meeting requirements for job experience eventually lead to a licensure and the right to put the letters CPA after one’s name.
The closest PR gets to such a “credential” is the APR (from PRSA) or the ABC (from IABC). Professor Simon saluted those efforts, but pointed out that only 10% of those who practice PR are members of PRSA or IABC. And fewer than 25% of those members ever earn accreditation. Those percentages haven’t changed much in 23 years.
While accreditation efforts in PR are laudable, they have little impact on the business. As for licensing, it’s unlikely to happen in PR because of 1st Amendment issues that arise when you try to control who can “communicate for a living.” The Bill of Rights says we all can.
4. Professions require continuing education. CPAs must complete 40 hours a year of continuing education per year or risk losing the license. PR has no such requirement, nor does it have a structure to verify CPE.
5. Professions adhere to an enforceable codes of ethics. Both PRSA and IABC have codes of ethics to guide professional conduct. But those codes apply only to the 10% of practitioners — those who opt for memberships. Neither organization has the ability to sanction those who violate the code.
We’re 0 for 5
I always considered myself as a “PR professional,” and I still use that term on this blog and in my classrooms. But as it turns out, I’m just a PR guy. The term “professional” doesn’t apply to any of us — at least not by definition.
But does it really matter? The debate over “PR as profession” is more a semantic one. Rather than debate the issue, Ray encouraged us to simply ACT as professionals in all that we do.
Follow the PRSA Code of Ethics whether you’re a member or not. Mentor up-and-coming practitioners and interns, encouraging them to act professionally. Support a “professional organization” that attempts to elevate the status of the field. And do the right thing, because “true” professionals act autonomously, always placing the public interest ahead of client interest.
But my evening with Ray Simon came down too one simple message: You become a professional in this business by acting like one.