Is PR really a profession? And does it really matter?

Ray Simon

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.

13 Responses to Is PR really a profession? And does it really matter?

  1. Bob C. says:

    Yep. That pretty much nails it. There are, however, a number of “professions” that don’t meet these criteria — journalist, government administrator, university administrator, historian, sales associate, politician, sandwich artist and so on.

  2. Ed says:

    You shared some great opinions here. In my own country, less than 10% are even registered to the PR body here. That’s even worse than what you see there. And for those who are registered, it’s like a marketing tag to sell themselves like any other consumer product accreditation.

    But, realistic experiences on the ground say clients don’t care if you’re accredited or not. It’s quotation/influence over values/competency. Especially in the virtual world, even a blogger can step up and claim his spot as a “PR professional”. The only qualification? The influence and followers.

    There are journalists, advertisers, bloggers, teachers all wanting a piece of the PR pie. And well, public interest in the world today is usually the last priority on the list.

  3. […] PR a profession?  If you think so then Bill Sledzik has a great post with some bad news for you.  He estimates that we’re 0/5 from the five attributes of a […]

  4. amymengel says:

    I think your points are valid, but I’m not sure it matters.

    Obviously, I could never walk into an operating room and perform surgery or work at an engineering firm and design a bridge that wouldn’t fall down without prior training in those fields. However, I’ve seen plenty of successful PR professionals who didn’t originally study the field in college. If you’re a sharp thinker and a good writer, you can be successful in PR. It’s fairly easy to learn basic tenets of PR on the job.

    It used to bother me when I’d see people who had been chemical engineers or biology majors (or something else seemingly unrelated to PR) in high level PR/Communications roles. But for the most part, they were very good at what they did.

    As organizations continue to face budget cuts and consolidate staff, sometimes PR practitioners are the ones to go, and other employees without a PR background assume their duties. Not ideal, but it happens and it can work. To your last point, they become PR professionals by acting as such.


  5. Bill Huey says:

    OMG! Ohfer five even without licensing (which should be treated as a separate issue from credentialing processes such as APR).

    I see no First Amendment problem with licensing people who charge for communicating in behalf of others. I could cut hair in my home for free, but if I charged for it I would need a barber’s license. Licensing would weed out the incompetent, plus the event planners or lobbyists who call themselves PR people so they don’t have to register.

    As for education, the plan you call “solid” would eliminate professionals like you from teaching PR in favor of more Ph.D.s., as I wrote when the plan was published a few years ago. I can’t imagine a law faculty without a few people who’ve actually practiced law, but the authors of that report imagine just such a PR faculty.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      You have a point, Bill. AEJMC and the PRSA Educator’s group tend to put the PhD ahead of professional experience. We don’t do that here at Kent State.

      My observation had more to do with the curriculum plan, which is as close to a usable template we have in PR education.

  6. Is PR really a profession? And does it really matter?

    I would answer “no” to both questions. By definition, I suppose public relations doesn’t meet the five criteria necessary to be considered a profession. However, I would argue that part of being a successful PR practitioner is the ability to act and react without a standard operating procedure. Accounting and medicine have finite rules, methods, causes and effects. The doctor performs this test, analyzes the result, prescribes this medicine. Sure, every body is different, but there are scientific processes that can be performed and evaluated. Not so with PR.

    Public relations is based on communication – the combination of hundreds of human interactions, the thousands of words and images that you encounter each day. Then analyze that through the lenses of psychology and sociology. PR practitioners must act and react while remaining mindful of current events, social norms, the trend of the week, the slang term of the month, etc. “Communication” has innumerable possibilities and endless channels. And it is outdating itself faster and faster than ever before. Case studies are invaluable and the social sciences can be studied, but can you image updating the field’s reputable body of knowledge? Standardizing the testing of competence?

    Are the sciences more legitimate? Are the social sciences more complex? I don’t think so; I just think they’re apples and oranges. Should we pursue continuing education and adhere to an accepted code of ethics? Absolutely. But perhaps we don’t fit the attributes of a “profession” because we have a definition of our own. I first loved Language Arts in seventh grade because there wasn’t necessarily a “right” answer. There are times and places where X + Y always = Z, but it doesn’t always work that way. We’re 0 for 5 only until we create our own definition and answer the question, “What makes a great PR professional?” Until then, I agree with your advice – You become a professional by acting like one!


    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks for a thoughtful reply, Taylor. And sorry I’m so late getting back to you. When summer break hits, I spend a lot of time unplugged.

      You point to the difficulty of working in what I call the “soft sciences. You learn quickly there is no mathematical formula for persuasion, no foolproof way to predict behavioral outcomes. PR is as much art as science.

      You said “…perhaps we don’t fit the attributes of a ‘profession’ because we have a definition of our own.” Fact is, PR as a discipline does NOT have a definition everyone can agree on — and that’s part of the challenge.

      In the 2.0 space, we can’t even get folks to agree PR is a discipline distinct from marketing.

      The marketers tend to disagree, but you and me, we know better.

  7. Joe Buhler says:

    The same situation exists in the travel industry. Anyone can claim to be a travel agent and start a business. Most people claim a love for travel as both their motivation and qualification. Not exactly high standards.

    Now, we will add to the PR people the social media people, again no real qualifications needed.

    In the end, I guess it’s results that count and not a framed license. After all, it’s not exactly brain surgery or rocket science, is it?

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Indeed, it is not brain surgery. In fact, anyone who can think, speak and write clearly has a good shot at making it in PR. All they need is a little fire in the belly. And I can’t teach that part.

  8. I agree with you and Amy that I don’t think the semantic label of “profession” matters. Yes I’d love to get my APR someday, but.. it’s a “someday” goal right now.

    What matters most to me is if you act and work ethically, responsibly and professionally. If you’re doing a great job with honor and integrity, you’re a “professional” in my book. FWIW.


  9. Rich Becker says:

    Compelling stuff Bill. Maybe because it really does matter, well, sort of.

    I’ve always viewed public relations as a field within the communication profession. And yet, there are professionals within the public relations field — those folks that tend to follow all your points on their own. It’s very much worth thinking about.


  10. […] the two looked at Bill Sledzik’s column asking if PR is a profession. Doug gets the discussion rolling by suggesting we substitute other […]

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