APR Paper 2020: Comment on the status of the PR profession in New Zealand
In 2020, I studied and achieved APR status as a public relations professional. In my first assignment (June 2020), I chose to answer this question and look at how far our profession had progressed since PRINZ was established in 1954.
Below is my answer.
Personal introductory statement
I believe this is one of the most important discussions we need to have as PR professionals and practitioners. It is existential to our futures and after three decades of practice, many successes and some failures, I believe I have a lot to add.
The premise is PR is a youthful profession and subsequently one that lacks the attributes and character of others that have developed over centuries and millennia. However, it has made great strides towards being defined as a true profession as it continues to grapple with a continuously changing communication environment.
This will be demonstrated by:
Citing personal experience
Discussing definitions of a profession and PR’s fit with these
Looking at PR’s history, the current status of the profession and its practice
It concludes with recommendations for the future
As a commentary, this paper draws on personal experience over three decades, the results from interviews with five PR experts and academics, as well as desk and literature research.
While the question posed is specifically about the PR profession, there is an inextricable link to its practice. As a result, the discussion covers aspects of this and how it defines the profession as a whole, positively and otherwise.
I started my career in London, working for a large agency named Biss Lancaster. My first year was mostly spent on what can only be described as glorified administration: sticking press clippings onto A4 sheets, making sure they were straight and were labelled correctly, posting press releases (in envelopes), photocopying and faxing - I learned a lot (need I say, wax on, wax off).
I arrived in New Zealand in 1995 and worked at Hill and Knowlton. I left again in 2004 for the UK, moved to the Middle East in 2006 and back to Aotearoa in 2010. Working across different continents, in a range of cultures and for a variety of organisations, large and small, has provided a broad view of the PR profession.
What is a profession?
There are many definitions and two are included below:
“A Profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as, and are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others. It is inherent in the definition of a Profession that a code of ethics governs the activities of each Profession. Such codes require behaviour and practice beyond the personal moral obligations of an individual. They define and demand high standards of behaviour in respect to the services provided to the public and in dealing with professional colleagues. Further, these codes are enforced by the Profession and are acknowledged and accepted by the community.” (Australian Council of Professions, 2003)
"Occupation, practice, or vocation requiring mastery of a complex set of knowledge and skills through formal education and/or practical experience. Every organized profession (accounting, law, medicine, etc.) is governed by its respective professional body.” (www.businessdictionary.com/definition/profession.html)
Public relations most certainly subscribes to most of the attributes of a profession, as long as the practitioners also subscribe, and this is one area of issue. Also, and fundamentally, as per the Australian Council of Professions, the one aspect PR lacks is the ability to enforce codes or practices (see underlined).
Unlike other professions, PR is not bound by professional qualifications. People from a wide variety of backgrounds operate as PR professionals, without any formal qualifications. I am a case in point; studying the APR was the first formal PR study I had undertaken in my year career. I have a Geography BA(Hons), an MBA and a lot of experience but on paper I was not PR professionally trained.
Let’s compare PR as a profession to others in a core group: law, accountancy, teaching, health and engineering. All these require formal qualifications to practice - PR does not.
Many refer to this core group as The Professions, with a Capital “P”. So while PR is a profession it is not at the same academic level - it could possibly be described as a profession with a lowercase “p”.
Using current phraseology PR could also be described as a non-essential service. It is unlikely to be able to pass through life without interaction with law, accountancy, teaching or health. But perfectly possible to go from cradle to grave without the involvement of PR.
PR is also very young with it first being recognised in the 1920s - 100 years is youthful compared to the Greek origins of law and health.
PR as a profession is also challenged by its reputation, an aspect I will discuss later.
Having said all this, PR in New Zealand has made great strides towards being recognised as a profession.
It is safe to say that 1954 was early to set up a Professional body for a relatively new profession. As a result of this foresight New Zealand has stayed ahead of the PR curve as the profession and its practice has developed.
The profession of Public Relations was first recognised formally and globally in the 1920s. One of the founding consultancies is Hill and Knowlton having been established in 1927.
The Public Relations Institute of America (PRSA) was founded in 1947, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in 1948, and Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) in 1949.
Pre-eminent agencies came into being such as Burson Marsteller in 1953 when the “upstart..began life doing what was called ‘industrial’ publicity.” (Burson, H. 2004).
While the practice was growing it took until the 1990s for formal degree level study to be widely available. When I was at University there wasn’t a PR degree in the UK. I believe Strathclyde was the first with AUT establishing its degree around the same time.
Academically Grunig and Hunt put forward their models for Public Relations in their 1984 book, Managing Public Relations. Since then there’s been a considerable amount of academic study including in New Zealand, with texts including Peart and Macnamara’s “The New Zealand Public Relations Handbook” (First Edition: 1987) and Tymson and Lazar’s “Public Relations Manual” (1987). So with only 30+ years under our academic belt, public relations is advancing quickly.
The practice of PR in New Zealand has also increased in popularity.
There has been strong growth of agency numbers. When I arrived in 1995 as a backpacker, I found a Yellow Pages and there were fourteen listings for PR agencies in Auckland. While Yellow Pages is no longer a realistic indicator of numbers, the PRINZ membership now stands at 1,350 and agency numbers have risen dramatically although this is very difficult to define accurately.
There are around 85 communications graduates leaving AUT each year and while not monitored it is understood a majority of them attain employment very soon after graduating. PR is also the highest enrolled major in the School of Communication Studies.
Numbers alone are not necessarily a good indication for a profession, but they do support the attraction of Public Relations as a practice and discipline.
PR has had to move with the times as different waves of communication methods have become the norm, from being paper based, to being mostly online, networked and increasingly digital. This trend is only going to continue as technology increasingly permeates life. The post-Covid era will support this as ways of working and living evolve.
In this section I am going to address themes related to the current status of public relations in New Zealand mostly gleaned from discussion with my interviewed PR experts.
Misunderstanding and the view that PR means media relations
The ways to communicate between an organisation and its publics, or stakeholders, are more wide ranging now than at any time in history. However, if you ask anyone outside public relations what the profession is about, media relations will be mentioned more often than not.
This was evident in the recent Strategy and Evaluation course led by recognised PRINZ tutor Catherine Arrow - the participants pointed to this issue on more than one occasion and Catherine spent some time emphasising that if PR is just media relations we will all miss a majority of the value PR brings.
I couldn’t agree more.
The issue is that people outside public relations or marketing, also identify PR alongside media relations.
As a PR consultant, running my own practice, my experience is clients prioritising media profile and as a provider of this service this is how I earn fees. I always challenge this but the desire remains for a media profile. The frustration is achieving the same level of result as in the past, as the media changes and condenses as an entity.
So when selling PR services there is a need to educate the client about what public relations really is before any services can be sold. Those outside PR simply don’t have a clear understanding of PR and its value.
Robert Wynne, a US based PR professional, wrote in Forbes (2016): “Public Relations does a terrible job of Public Relations.” We do suffer from a lack of general understanding about the value we bring and find our trade being stolen by many other disciplines from digital marketing to lawyers.
Entry level criteria
When asking about the current challenges facing the PR profession one of my interviewed experts said this was the biggest of them all.
While defining work is being undertaken by the Global Alliance and the University of Huddersfield’s Global Capabilities Framework for Public Relations and Communication Management, PR still has an identity crisis brought on by:
There being no standardisation of education in order to practice
The involvement of many different types of people from different backgrounds
The result is a lack of unity amongst the vast array of professionals.
Another one of my PR experts, questioned whether PR had any status outside the profession itself and whether the definition is in theory and not in practice. Another said he had never been a member of PRINZ because he didn’t see the value.
Certainly if you look at APR statistics - only 18% of United States PRSA members are APR qualified. In New Zealand, 420 people are APR graduates, however; it is difficult to assess this as a proportion of the total number of PR practitioners in the country.
In my case, completing the APR at this stage in my career is a comment on the lack of structure around qualifications. I believe you can never stop learning but there’s been no push by any of the very respected global agencies I’ve worked for (Hill and Knowlton, Edelman and Burson Marsteller) to study and achieve APR.
In short, without a strong push for qualification, standards won’t be consistent and we will always struggle to achieve a higher professional status.
The reputation of Public Relations is challenged
PR is often the focus of unwarranted criticism, not helped by the media itself sticking knives into the profession on a regular basis. PR becomes the scapegoat, often at the hands of the media.
The term spin doctor also remains a label for PR people, which is in total contrast to the values and ethics as outlined in the PRINZ Code of Ethics: advocacy and honesty, conflicts of interest, professionalism, openness and privacy and law abiding.
But still the term remains. I would be a rich man if I had $100 for every time people have asked me to put my “spin” on a story. I correct them but to no avail.
PR’s reputation is often questioned. One of the most damning articles I’ve read as part of my research is PR Week’s (2015) PR in the dock: nearly 70% of the general public does not trust the industry,” and it comments that “PR itself has a reputational deficit to navigate.”
One of my interviewed experts said the biggest challenge we face is that we don’t disappear in the face of digital marketing, that people don’t continue to confuse the two.
Digital marketing does an excellent job of delivering messages on a mass scale, but where it fails is pinpointing exact needs and delivering communication to meet those needs.
A recent example was the blizzard of messages in lockdown from many organisations I have dealt with online reassuring me that they care during these unprecedented times. These organisations felt the need to jump on the bandwagon of empathy and as a result it became meaningless very quickly.
However, digital has become the shiny new solution providing very quick instant communication to vast audiences. If we don’t move more quickly into its space, the value we can provide in directing communication through the digital channel will be lost and we will miss an opportunity to evolve as a profession.
The profession is also challenged by increasing fragmentation and the involvement of growing numbers of specialist areas.
There are many that are all a fundamental part of what we do, including: crisis and issues management, investor relations, corporate social responsibility and community engagement. There is a danger that PR becomes confined to the practice of media relations, when the media as a traditional entity is declining, while these strategic areas become even more specialised, more highly remunerated, distanced from the heart of PR and their own sub-professions.
Clients also turn to other disciplines for PR advice including lawyers and management consultants, as well as the increasingly ubiquitous digital marketer. Our profession seems to be a target of many other sectors.
Do we have a seat at the highest level?
Communication is absolutely essential to every aspect of how an organisation operates, and therefore it should be at the top table.
One comment I heard in my interviews is that PR only attains a seat at the top table if it is earned. It is not a given however, as a valuable advisor it can be secured by offering important skills including: strategic counsel, issues management and stakeholder relations.
The importance of communication was one of three themes in a recent Institute of Directors article about managing in the current Covid-19 crisis, alongside having courage and being kind. Increased understanding at board level of the importance of clear, concise and regular communication could be a positive result for PR from the pandemic.
It’s difficult to see a world without the need for high standards of communication to achieve set objectives, especially at a time when communication is becoming more complex and change is constant. In this regard, PR’s position seems strong.
In their 1996 edition of The New Zealand Public Relations Handbook, Peart and Macnamara say:
“Communication is often regarded as something anyone can do. Yet the effectiveness of the communication function will directly influence the viability of organisations and even the success or failure of democracy. …. In a democracy, consensus is the basis of political and social decision-making and communication is how we build consensus.”
On this basis PR as a profession is vital to the very fabric of society and therefore warrants the label, a profession.
From my own experience, my boss in Dubai drummed that communication is a management tool that can be used to drive a business in a desired direction. In this regard it is a strategic guiding implement and it takes expertise to use it in this way.
Another very famous quote that positions PR and communications as fundamental is Abraham Lincoln’s:
“With the public sentiment, nothing can fail, without it, nothing can succeed.”
In New Zealand, the prominence of the role of clear communication has come to the fore during the Covid-19 outbreak and the roller coaster ride of public support for the Government’s handling of the crisis and the subsequent dismay as the border protocols were broken.
However, I don’t believe public relations can be truly recognised as a profession at the same level as others, as there remains a lack of an understood definition, external to those practicing PR, and agreed standards of entry and practice.
Maybe this is the attraction - PR is eclectic and creative, and as a result it either can’t or shouldn’t be governed in the same way as law or health. If this were to be so, it would not be able to serve its purpose as effectively and would not be able to evolve quickly as times change.
So if you look at it from this perspective, PR is in the right place - it’s not a profession with a capital “P”, but it is a profession in terms of providing the basis of the highest standards of communication as the foundation for society.
As professionals and practitioners, this is our role.
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In closing I would like to point to three priority areas that I feel are important to further establish PR’s professional status:
Academic standards and entry level criteria - in the absence of enforceability, the importance of having qualifications as the genesis for improved advice and service has to be promoted. The value of our profession depends on this. The APR qualification is central to this, because of its international status. The responsibility to achieve this lies with individuals, teams and companies, and PRINZ.
Data, data, data - we have all the tools needed to identify audiences, measure engagement and research results. We have to become more focused on metrics, including those related to sales. The results we produce need to be relevant to supporting businesses and organisations. If we become too theoretical we are diminishing our pragmatic value.
Digitally savvy - we are under threat from technical digital operators who understand the intricacies of online and often use “blinding with science” as a strategic selling tool. As professionals we have to move into their world and understand algorithmic based communication. We have an advantage here in that we can learn digital in a relatively short period of time however, it will be very difficult for digital to learn PR as easily
One rhetorical question I heard in my research was: “Is PR dead?”
It isn’t; it is evolving but we do need to adapt and sell our worth more urgently than we have in the past.
Australian Council of Professions. (2003). What is a profession? https://www.professions.org.au/what-is-a-professional/#:~:text=A%20Profession%20is%20a%20disciplined,and%20who%20are%20prepared%20to
Burson, H. (2004). e pluribus unum - The Making of Burson-Marsteller. Copyright © Harold Burson, all rights reserved.
Business Dictionary. (n.d.). Profession. www.businessdictionary.com/definition/profession.html
Emmerson, R. (11.6.20). Rod Emmerson’s View. The New Zealand Herald.
Global Alliance (n.d.). https://www.globalalliancepr.org/
Griggs, I. and Aron, I. (2015). PR in the dock: nearly 70 per cent of the general public does not trust the industry. PR Week. https://www.prweek.com/article/1339167/pr-dock-nearly-70-per-cent-general-public-does-not-trust-industry
Grunig, J.E. and Hunt, T. (1984). Managing Public Relations. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Institute of Directors. (24 April 2020). Three themes for boards during Covid-19. https://www.iod.org.nz/resources-and-insights/news-and-articles/three-themes-for-boards-during-covid-19/#
Peart, J. and Macnamara, J. (1996). The New Zealand Public Relations Handbook. 2nd Edition, The Dunmore Press.
Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). (n.d.). https://www.prsa.org/
Tymson, C. Lazar, P. and Lazar, R. (2008). The New Australian and New Zealand Public Relations Manual. 21st Century Edition, Millennium.
Wynne, R. (21.1.16). Five things everyone should know about public relations. Forbes.https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertwynne/2016/01/21/five-things-everyone-should-know-about-public-relations/#796cca482a2c
In addition, I carried out research with five PR experts involved in PR consultancy and academics, who I have not named as my intention was to conduct candid and transparent conversations.