A Profession but Less Professionalized

10 years, 1 month ago


In response to a recent IPRA Frontline article by Professor Trevor Morris, Dr. Mohammed Abed Said El-Astal sets out to clarify just how much of a profession PR has become.

Professional but Never a Profession’ was the headline of Prof. Trevor Morris’ article published in the February issue of IPRA Frontline. Although there is no hard and fast definition for profession, J. C. Callahan (1988) believes that professions are seen as occupations that have certain shared characteristics. The more occupations manifest these characteristics, the more professionalized they are.

Professions Characteristics/Standards

Callahan mentions in his book titled ‘Ethical Issues in Professional Life’ and published in 1988 that professions are often associated with the following set of characteristics or some of them:

1. Esoteric body of knowledge—this esoteric body of knowledge is usually acquired through higher education.

2. Intellectual training program—professionals undergo an intellectual training program after attending school for years.

3. Licensing/certification—in some professions, usually a process of certification or licensing exists.

4. Formal organization membership—professions generally have organizations to represent them.

5. Code of ethics—professions generally have codes of ethics. Such codes (written or unwritten sometimes) meant to direct members of a profession and draw their attention to what is allowed and what is not allowed.

6. High social function—it is believed that professions fulfill very important social functions.

7. Autonomy—to some extent, professionals are more autonomous than others. They are freer than others in decision making processes.

The Issue under Diagnosis

Esoteric body of knowledge
—Prof. Morris believes that any one can communicate and speak to the media without having that esoteric/distinct body of knowledge. This seems to me as if PR is limited to providing the public with information regarding the organization’s activities. In an article I wrote few years back for the Frontline, I tried to differentiate between quality PR (ideal PR) and what I called then ‘cosmetology’ PR through which organizations limit their PR roles to beautifying their images. Unfortunately, this is what PR does in many societies today but this does not mean not to try to improve the profession practice.

PR responsibilities go beyond providing the public with information. According to my Ph. D. study, which was applied to colleges and universities in eight countries seven years back, 87% of respondents were found responsible for planning and 69.7% of respondents participate in policy-adopting discussions. Planning requires a lot of research and that’s what PR people do also. PR people in some institutions are high on the administrative hierarchy. For example, in some universities in the States, PR directors occupy positions like vice-president for public relations.

Moreover, ideal PR-teaching programs, according to the fourth IPRA Gold Paper, should contain theoretical and practical PR courses, communication courses including media law and ethics, management courses, statistics and research, languages, and some other liberal arts courses if possible. Today, many universities take into consideration this model of PR education. For example, in Abu Dhabi University, the UAE, this model and the recommendations made by the committee came from the States to evaluate the program were the base for the PR educational program we were working on in 2006—the program which was seen by experts later as a very distinguished synergic program.

I agree with Prof. Morris that PR is practiced everywhere (even in countries where its practice is very advanced) by people who lack this esoteric body of knowledge. But the question that arises here is, to what extent are these people doing the job? Are these people practicing the ideal/quality PR that we look for?

PR definitions—we all (in the field of public relations) know that people practiced PR first, and then taught it in colleges and universities. Upon this, defining PR was always based on its practice. I mentioned in my article above that still today many societies have poor PR practice and this, of course, brought us poor definitions. In this regard, Dr. Rex Harlow offered us a few decades back a definition known later as the most comprehensive definition of public relations—Dr. Harlow dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s I think. I agree with Prof. Morris that PR is not a precise science. In my opinion, PR also is not a pure art. It’s a combination of both science and art.

Ethics & social responsibility—if it is believed that lawyers are responsible for justice and physicians for health promotion, PR people, as Dr. Harlow mentioned in his PR definition, are responsible for establishing mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organization and its publics—they are responsible for building trust and confidence. If some ethical breeches occur, this does not mean that PR is not a profession. It means that codes of ethics are not utilized and applied effectively. Moreover, if religions that are seen as stronger deterrents than codes of ethics cannot deter bad behaviors sometimes, should we blame public relations for such behaviors? I think, to have proper quality public relations, proper and qualified people should be selected for practicing public relations, and they should be trained regularly.


If PR is not a profession, what is it then? Anyways, from the seven standards mentioned above, ‘licensing’ is the only one that does not apply to PR and most professions like, law and accounting. It only applies to medical-sciences-relevant professions like, medicine, pharmacy, nursing, etc. Upon this, regardless of its poor practice in some societies today, weaknesses and defects, I can say, PR is a profession but less professionalized than the medical-sciences-relevant professions.

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The Author

Mohammed Abed Said El-Astal

Dr. Mohammed Abed Said El-Astal, PR Assistant Prof., University of Sharjah, UAE.

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