ITL #410   Public relations: the profession that refuses to learn

7 months ago


The public relations discipline has emerged stronger from covid-19 but it needs to build on its legacy from the crisis with innovation in education, learning and development. By Stephen Waddington.

As the UK emerged from its first lockdown, I had the opportunity to listen to the experiences of colleagues in the communication profession for a report for the UK Government Communication Service.


Public relations was at the forefront of supporting the huge changes in how organisations communicate during lockdown.


Practitioners showed compassion and care and adopted a positive attitude to help their organisations and people navigate the crisis. They supported organisations making tough decisions on reorganisations, helping advise and shape the response and plan accordingly.


The crisis has accelerated many of the changes already underway in media, public engagement and organisational communication such as more human conversations and the role of communications as a strategic management function.

It has changed the nature of the relationship between work and the office, underpinned by technology. It has placed a focus on local communities; and brought about a more human approach to communication.


It has accelerated changes in the media; created new partnerships based on mutual support; established best practice for communication equality; and placed a renewed focus on disinformation.


The public relations profession has a new-found status alongside other management functions. We must not squander this opportunity.


Professionalism in public relations

The root of the issue lies in education. Public relations is the profession that seemingly refuses to learn. It can’t decide whether it’s a craft, a profession, or an industry. There is no barrier to entry in the form of qualifications, accreditation, or adherence to a code of conduct.


Practitioners that aspire to senior leadership and management should measure themselves by the same benchmarks as colleagues in other professions such as finance, legal and human resources.


There are approximately 90,000 practitioners in the UK. 10,000 of these are members of the CIPR. 400 of these have achieved Chartered status and 2,200 engage in continuous professional development.


The simple fact is that we must do better. Motivation is no doubt an issue, but the way in which training and education is delivered has a significant role to play.


There have been few upsides to the covid-19 pandemic but a clear positive is that it has acted as an accelerant for change in many sectors, education and training being at the forefront.


Innovation in PR education beyond the classroom

Public relations education has been based on a classroom model more appropriate to a factory production line than the modern organisation and stakeholder environment. With classrooms closed organisations have had to rethink professional education and training.


Learning design is more than recording a lesson with a rockstar lecturer and serving it online. Students may as well watch Netflix or YouTube. The lack of engagement and community is the reason that MOOCs failed.


Through necessity covid-19 has profoundly changed training and education for the better, moving it online in a way that allows people to study in their own time and place, at their own pace.


It’s a change that was well overdue for our sector, which is having to embrace – in  the way schools and universities have – technology that enables high quality remote learning, from events through to qualifications.


While public relations already had one or two providers out offering in person, online and blended learning, what has been lacking is choice. 


Long gone are the days of trips to a capital city necessitating time out of the office and expensive travel and overnight accommodation.


Long gone then should also be the heavy price tag on training. Once the initial investment in tech has been made, scale quickly allows the initial costs to be covered. The expectation is that courses should now become much more accessible to everyone. 


This is an important point.


The United Nation’s Policy Brief: Education during covid-19 and beyond says: “These changes have highlighted that the promising future of learning, and the accelerated changes in modes of delivering quality education, cannot be separated from the imperative of leaving no one behind.”


Communities of learning and practice

How we use the move to digital as a force for good to ensure that pre-existing educational disparities narrow rather than widen should be at the front of every educator’s mind. 

There is a small industry of academic practitioners driving research and reporting on innovation in public relations but their work will not be read by most people working in practice let alone wider management.

Change is coming but it is slow and examples are isolated.


Many academic institutions have already modernised their executive education for the post covid-19 era with great success. The Cambridge Judge Business School and Saïd Business School both run online courses based on a community of practice for busy managers and CEOs.


The Open University has pioneered a flexible approach to online learning since 1969. Research by Forward Role published in November 2019 shows that it produces more CEOs and MDs than any other UK university.


There are some early signs of innovation in our own profession that are encouraging.


Priya Bates and Advita Patel have created an initiative called a Leader Like Me to support women of colour in leadership roles. Philippe Borremans, emergency risk and crisis communication consultant and IPRA President, created the Virtual PR Summit, a five-day event with 30 communication thought leaders.

Public relations has an incredible post covid-19 opportunity but it needs to learn and innovate in education, learning and development if it is to retain its new found status.


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The Author

Stephen Waddington

Stephen Waddington is a professional advisor to agencies and comms teams, author, and teacher. He works with organisations to help manage transformation and scaling. He founded Rainier PR and Speed, and most recently held leadership positions at Metia and Ketchum.

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