Categories: History of PR / PR issues / Trust and reputations

15 August 2015


Contribution to “global conversation on global public relations standards”

Professor Anne Gregory and Jean Valin have asked readers of PR Conversations (PRC) to get involved in their project to produce a Global Body of Knowledge that defines the capabilities that proficient public relations practitioners should possess.  I am taking up that challenge here by critiquing their attempt to elevate public relations into a respected profession by defining the professional qualifications that PR pros must acquire.

They describe in the PRC article how their thinking is based on detailed research:

Over 20 associations, representing every continent, attended the Credentials Summit and as a result the Global Alliance was commissioned to undertake research, drawing together all the existing capability frameworks, academic writing and professional body information into a Global Body of Knowledge. This according to the International Standards Organisation (ISO), is the first step needed to put together a recognised Global Standard which can be used by professional bodies to design credentials and by academics to guide curriculum design.

Then they go on to outline seven key knowledge areas that “entry level” (Heather Yaxley usefully critiques this in the comments of PRC) public relations practitioners must demonstrate their grasp of if they are to be deemed as being fully qualified to do their job:

  • research, planning, implementation, evaluation
  • ethics and law
  • crisis communication
  • communication models and theories
  • history and current events
  • business literacy
  • media, social channels and use of technology.

The problem is that none of the attributes listed above are exclusive to our trade. Research and planning, for instance, applies to product management, marketing, supply change management and virtually any other business or institutional function one cares to mention. The same can be said for knowledge of ethics, law, current events, business literacy (however this awfully flaky term is defined) and the use of new technology, including social media. Even knowledge of crisis communication and communication models and theories are not the exclusive domains of PR pros.

Gregory and Valin also spell out the core competencies required by “mid-level” PR professionals as being (my comments in brackets):

  • critical listening [er, which business function does this not apply to?]
  • global awareness and tracks global news and issues [from sales to product management and production to running any business this applies]
  • manages information [name me a management position that does not do this?]
  • contextual awareness [everybody in every function]
  • leadership qualities [any manager whatsoever worthy of the name]
  • innovation and flexibility [everybody who wants to advance their career or business or institution]
  • problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability [again, any manager worth his or her salary]
  • strategic management of communication [everybody who has to make a managerial decision at work; though the language used, I note, sounds very manipulative and conspiratorial]
  • technological and visual literacy [everybody – ok, increasingly or nearly or soon will be, everybody]
  • applying cross-cultural and diversity considerations [essential for everybody with ambition in today’s hyper sensitive easily offended world]
  • meeting facilitation ability [anybody who organizes a meeting].

I note that being able to think clearly, write and speak well, be diplomatic and indulge in schmooze, seemingly play no part in their wish list of essential globally required PR skills. Though I accept that such talents – however invaluable they might be to PR – are also the life-blood of many other fields of professional life.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the banalities of the attributes that they claim distinguish qualified PR pros from unqualified ones, but for the fact that they also take a militant stand against Western culture:

…most of the existing frameworks [which they seek to replace] were written by western-based, or western-oriented organisations. For example, much of the history of public relations that is in text books is very western. We need to take out any cultural bias so GBOK is truly neutral and applicable around the world.

If this ill-thought-out recommendation were taken seriously it would have entirely negative consequences. What our public relations industry needs least of all is a supposed all inclusive, culturally and ethically neutral bedrock to its professional body of knowledge and standards. To explain this some more, let’s review a few real-world challenges.

Saudi Arabia does not like Gay or women’s rights or democracy or trade unions, all of which are rooted in Western values. Bribery was once seen as perfectly acceptable in China and many parts of Africa. Yet they now seek to alter their embedded cultures so that they align with the West’s.  Even the successful use of social media and the full use of IT in society calls for the adoption of Western values of openness and cooperation.

We need to inject much more Western cultural bias in to our PR thinking and assumptions. In other words, we need to spread Western values across the globe, not restrict, downplay or traduce them. (Anybody who wants my nuanced take see CSR: it’s not the same in Lagos as in London and Cant or Kant? PR-think gets heavy (part 1) and (part 2) Cant or Kant? PR-think gets heavy and Getting to grips with corporate and PR ethics)

Gregory’s and Valin’s failure to come up with anything more credible than motherhood and apple pie (an incomplete list of what most people need to be successful in any aspect of modern business) reflects the futility of trying to achieve what they have set out to do. In opposition to them, I maintain that if PR was a more self-assured industry, it wouldn’t need to indulge in such futile, self-defeating and self-denigrating exercises.

3 responses to “Contribution to “global conversation on global public relations standards””

  1. Paul – to be fair, the lists (above and at PR Conversation) are derived from research by Jean Valin and colleagues from existing frameworks.

    However, there is a sense that many practitioners representing ‘professional bodies’ within the Global Alliance feel these should just be updated, where as Toni Muzi Falconi indicated in the comments on the original post, we should be taking an opportunity to more radically consider what is required of PR practitioners now and going forwards.

    I’m not surprised that what has already been identified – and what probably forms the foundation of public relations practice – will be generic and transferrable skills. I don’t actually have a problem with this. Indeed, I would probably look to extend this solid underpinning.

    The challenge as you allude to – but don’t address yourself (yet) – is identifying those competencies that set PR apart from other disciplines. Some might have argued that traditionally these revolved around ‘media relations’. But if we unpick this – and wider ‘stakeholder relations’, we get more transferrable skills around relationships.

    Maybe the truth is that we don’t have a specific skills set, but what our competencies should be is a broad and deep range of transferrable capabilities.

    I’ve always felt what sets apart ‘real’ PR people is a mindset – but that’s probably something almost as impossible to agree upon as the skills set.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, you are correct that I didn’t address above what skills and practices separate PR pros from other trades people. I avoided doing so because I have dealt with it elsewhere at length. It, as you know, boils down to how we define PR.

    I fully accept that Gregory’s and Valin’s lists are “relevant” (though hardly comprehensive and guilty of talking about wooly “business literacy “) but my point is that they are mostly so relevant as to be self-evident. Therefore they cannot be puffed the way they puff them to proclaim a major advance in how PR is taught and PR pros are positioned as being useful to the world. On transferable skills, I agree. I add that we benefit too when outsiders join the PR profession from other fields of professional life.

    On Western values…..

  3. Thanks Paul.

    Agree on ‘outsiders’ – although of course, I maintain we all bring life-experiences, and develop these within PR. That to me is what is great about PR as a body of individuals, and I’d hate to see a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to clones as PR practitioners.

    I would also extend this holistic perspective to an extent regarding the Western values debate. There are a lot of Western values that I wouldn’t necessarily say are superior – and feel other cultures can have much to offer PR.

    The consumerist, capitalist, celebrity-driven publicity over-saturated world that seems to drive much of PR practice is as irritating to me as the fluffy employee engagement, hug the planet cynical CSR approach.

    Personally there is much that I’d argue can be identified as universal human values (which includes respect for others regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, etc). There are undoubtedly other cultural values that need to be respected even when they aren’t universal. Oliver Sachs’ article on the Sabbath has resonance for me regarding the importance of valuing ‘rest’ (stunning final sentence):

    How and where such human values translate into those that should be adopted within PR practice, or organisations is another more tricky situation. I tend to think that people have values rather than organisations or occupations – although of course if people within organisations/occupations reflect certain values…