Notes from the dark side; we have to understand each other better to enhance PR’s operating and ethical standards

I was part of a twitter conversation recently with a bunch of PR advisors of different ages and experience. The conversation was started by Claire Simpson (@ClaireSimpsonPR follow her, she’s smart), who put out a twitter poll looking for views on whether the PR industry should be regulated.

It was a great conversation starter and it turned into an interesting if somewhat frustrating discussion. A number of my peers, both senior and junior suggested a range of ideas such as:

  • Anyone that is in a PR role should have a relevant industrial qualification
  • Membership of one of the two primary trade associations should be mandatory
  • A mandatory / statutory regulator to enforce ethical standards on the GMC model

My response was perhaps a little too polite and a little too keen to please / engage the audience, none of whom I know well, if at all.

“Maybe it’s because I came into a niche form of #PR / #comms (IR) with a previous career and an atypical qualification. Maybe it’s because I don’t like being told what to do. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner. But I’m struggling to engage with a lot of this.

CPD is important in all trades / industries. It makes sense if you’re a lawyer / banker / accountant or #PR. But. The longer I provide #comms services the more I’ve felt the breadth of services encompassed as “PR” means this sort of issue is impossible to solve for us all.”

I then added, “I see a lot of PR debate like this online and occasionally in person. I don’t often feel that we are joined by the big hitters in the industry that would be necessary to drive real change. Or I’m too junior / disengaged to see it”

This point was taken up by a few people who have exceptionally successful careers: “speak for yourself – be confident in your position / grab the opportunity to change the industry for good / don’t wait for others to make the changes”

All of their points were well made, positive and genuine, and made absolute sense in the context of their careers and experience. But didn’t chime with me. I’ve spent weeks pondering on this and I think I’m close to getting it.

It’s not them, it’s me. My original statements were a little disingenuous. I pulled my punches and I should have been more straightforward.

What I should have said is that for the PR niches I’ve inhabited, a PR qualification would be useless compared to either qualifications or industrial experience in:

  • Capital markets– particularly global equities / debt investment and macroeconomic drivers that influence pricing and demand. Give me someone that’s been in banking for a few years – but not so much that PR would be a big remuneration drop
  • Geopolitics– why do sovereign states act as they do on the international stage? Give me a post grad in international relations and / or an ex NGO / foreign office staffer (not necessarily from comms)
  • Energy / natural resources / extractives industrial specifics – what are the major drivers in the industry in terms of supply / demand / regulation? Give me engineers, geologists and traders.

My experience is that it’s easier to teach PR and communications skills to someone that understands the above than it is to teach a PR focused colleague the effects of monetary policy on both inflation and the value of a currency and therefore the valuation on any given investment.

What I should have said was that when it comes to either CIPR or PRCA I think they do a great job for the majority of the industry. The championing of standards, knowledge and CPD does both credit and has significantly enhanced both the practice and the perception of the industry in the UK. But much of the content and engagement does not really engage with the reality of my operational practice for the last 18 years.

I’m involved with the CIPR as co-chair of the Energy Leadership Platform in an attempt to enhance the wider understanding of what strategic communications can do for the wider energy value chain and the fact that to create strategic value, communicators must to have a deep and broad understanding of the industry to which they consult. I’m deeply impressed by the experience and skills of my colleagues on the ELP. They are exceptional communications advisors with remarkable experience and perspective.

However, I don’t see much engagement from either CIPR or PRCA in many of the specific issues that I’ve spent most of my career working around, so if I was hiring a No2 today, I wouldn’t necessarily care if they were CIPR or PRCA affiliated.

What I also should have said is that across the many senior and junior professionals that I regularly see discussing this issue either online or in person, I rarely see those engaged in the sort of work that has formed the bulk of my career. I feel a bit uncomfortable being judged by a jury whom I do not see as my direct peers. I wouldn’t presume to judge the practice of a consumer PR, influencer engagement specialist or digital strategist. I barely know what those jobs mean.

Finally, the majority of the community of quite famous senior advisors that earn kajillions of £/£/€, for providing either what used to be called “financial PR”, strategic communications or international relations (either in house of certain consultancies) are rarely seen in this debate. There are a few notable exceptions, but my experience of this community through either working with them or chats in bars in certain parts of the world where I was working on non traditional PR mandates (Moscow / Almaty / Abu Dhabi / Doha) is that they’d ignore the majority of what is being said because “they don’t think it applies to them”.

So, here’s the thing. I do think it applies to us. I’m a communications advisor. I aspire to the highest possible standards both in house and in consultancy for all communications / public relations disciplines. I think we should all be in some way publicly accountable.

However, simply grouping all type of PR / communications people together under one umbrella risks a splintering of the industry with those that could do the most global societal damage dislocated from the wider industry. It’s a growing split that I can see growing somewhat inexorably.

Look at all the commentary around Tim Bell’s death and one can see that dislocation in action, along with the now standard culture wars stuff with one side protecting their guy and the other screaming abuse, many of them without a real understanding of the portfolio of his work and its effect on the wider industry. For the record I think that he helped positively transform the industry into a strategic management discipline that is taken seriously in the C suite and pays serious money. He also worked for a small number of vile individuals and was potentially a security and intelligence threat to the UK. Complex does not begin to cover it.

Speaking of Tim Bell, there’s much that I disagree with as regards the way the PRCA managed the Bell Pottinger situation, but I think that this could be the start of some sort of direction of travel. The industry should call out bad practice. Finding the right way to do so could be another blog.

I suppose this should end with a call to action. I’m just not entirely sure what that should be specifically. I think that those of us that do a certain sort of work should be more engaged with the wider PR & comms community of practice. It’s why I’ve written this. I also think that the wider PR & comms community could engage a little more with us and understand better what it is we do and how it really works before assuming that we are on on the wrong side of an #PRethics divide.

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