ITL #13 PR as a profession: How much does it matter?

10 years, 1 month ago


All too often, there is a gap between the ideal and the reality of public relations in practice – a matter of concern to many, including students of the discipline. Professional standards must be tightened up. By Dr. Serra Görpe.

n class settings, whenever I ask a question of students regarding the perception of public relations, the replies I get are generally not positive. Over the years, I have seen the same trend, even with students who are nearly finishing their course and are soon to leave the school with a degree in public relations. They are ready to work in the field, yet have little faith in what they have been studying and will be practicing. I think this is a major dilemma. 

When I think over and summarize their perceptions and statements about the public relations profession, here are some of the things they have said:
  • “You teach us ethics in public relations, but it is not practiced.” 
  • “Anybody can be a public relations person.”  
  • “In hospitals, guest relations are equated with public relations.”  
  • “What is the importance of a degree? Why cannot it only be us in the sector with our degrees instead of former models or people with no degrees in public relations?” 
  • “In the TV series we watch, the public relations person’s characteristics do not match with what we know is correct.”
They show their concerns by giving many different examples, but the path to all the examples and comments go one way. They show public relations is not yet seen as a profession. If it were so, there would be fewer of these concerns.
Tough questions
It is a tough job for me to answer their questions, to try to take away their worries realistically, and to suggest to them ways to cope. As a developing occupation, public relations is not free of the concerns of its students, academics and professionals. The degree of impact on the students, on academics or on public relations professionals may vary, but we have more similarities in this respect than differences.
One thing is for sure, namely that the issue of public relations as a profession or professional standards in public relations has not attracted as much attention as some other hot discussion areas. This statement is very true for my country, Turkey, because in the field of corporate responsibility, social media or health communications for example, you see work produced in terms of academia which is also a topic of professional interest. But some areas such as public relations ethics and public relations education are not very attractive topics. 
What is the reason for this? There are many attempts and classifications to describe what a profession is and what characteristics of a profession are. When we think of a profession, we think of a work/job in which a person is engaged and by which a person earns his own living regularly. In other words, in a profession, we think of several social processes to be fulfilled which should be within a legal framework. 
Intellectual tradition and body of knowledge, membership to professional organizations, a set of professional values and adherence to professional norms, continuing education, ethical values/conduct, social duty and responsibility, examination and certification by a governing body, possible licensing and acceptance of duty to a broader society are some of the characteristics of a profession mentioned by scholars. When we analyze our field in terms of each of the characteristics mentioned, it seems that we are not yet there in some of them. 
It is true that in terms of educational programs academically or the establishment of professional associations or ongoing educational programs, public relations has blossomed. But in not dealing with some of the other issues it implies that in public relations we think we are done with the process, are not revisiting it – not even bothering with it. In other words, we underrate the problematic areas. 
No immediate purpose
One of the reasons I can offer as to why we don’t address professionalism issues/standards sufficiently is that it does not immediately serve a purpose. Dealing with other more trendy topics that can shape our profession and thus show the impact me make for our clients or equip students with more appreciated tools such as social media and corporate responsibility skills seem more down to earth.  
On the other hand, by dealing with the former topics we may not profit so why try? However, in the long run, it may be very useful to the establishment of public relations by helping it achieve legitimacy on a national and international basis.
When I started in the profession in my country as a practitioner almost 20 years ago,  public relations was heavily associated with media relations and event management. Most of us were not educated in the field and we were mostly engaged in the public information model. Within a short period, public relations blossomed in academia and in the commercial sector.
Let’s be clear why we’re here
I personally think that despite the many positive developments in our field, one thing that has lagged behind is our showing students and clients what we stand for, what should be demanded from us and what we should be doing.  I had and still have a hard time explaining to students (both those in our field and those beyond it, such as journalism students) and people from the general public what exactly we do. 
For example, we are considered to be image makers, using unapproved methods and communicating half hidden information to serve only our agenda.  How true is this?  We may be reputable people individually, but we are operating in general in a field which is questioned. I believe making public relations itself more reputable will demonstrate the real value of public relations to all the related stakeholders and to society in general. The way to do this is easy.  Yet it needs a joint effort, starting with an agenda created for example by public relations professional associations. 
I have summarized my concerns about why we have to think of public relations as a profession and our professional standards and competencies in the changing landscape of public relations. There is no need to reinvent the wheel again, we simply have to look at how today’s professions became a profession and this will help us. 
Players in the field of public relations must consider the image of public relations and its perception. Thinking back, I have a rough recollection of an old study I conducted with a colleague of mine. We analyzed a public relations job posting with respect to the qualities they sought.  Separately, senior public relations students of the faculty were asked about the characteristics needed to fulfill the job. What was most surprising was that none of the things that we had in our course learning outcomes came as a criterion; on the other hand, being presentable, computer literacy, having a mastery of a foreign language were favored.  I wonder now what current research of this kind would reveal.
Public relations developments are at various levels in different societies. For example, how it began academically and the background of the faculty may vary significantly. 
There are some sectors where historically public relations appeared more useful than others. For example, until recently, it was the corporate sector that was most associated with public relations consultancy. But I am content to see that some other sectors such as the public sector and some non-profit organizations have also discovered its value. 
I want public relations consultancy not to be disillusioning or a disappointment for the service gatherers. How do we achieve the best standards, and how do we inculcate our true role? Each party in the chain, the practitioner, the academic, the student and the professional association should have a clear role. 
In my short to-do list, I suggest academics play an active part in national and international public relations professional associations. I demand professional associations to have an action plan and to educate and inform the non-communication people about the realities of the profession and its social value. I demand that the leading associations assume a stronger watchdog role on malpractice and wrongdoing. I want to see accountability in public relations strategic planning. I want to see more research and evaluation research. 
Elevated status
The development of professional standards, discussion about them and applying them will help to elevate the status and reputation of public relations. Public relations is a fast developing discipline not only in Turkey, but elsewhere too, where once upon a time we had never thought that it would flourish. I want my students and candidates for graduate studies to say, being presentable and enjoying communications are far from enough to perform in the field. Professional standards and competencies should be discussed. Moreover, the accountability of our words and deeds should be demanded from us. We need to:
  • explain what we stand for,
  • show what our contribution is and how we complement and supplement other communication disciplines,
  • demonstrate that we should work at management level,
  • demonstrate that we are not only equated with media relations and event management,
  • show that we should start with research,
  • show why research is necessary,
  • emphasize that the public interest is of utmost importance,
  • profit from the  body of knowledge in the field and related fields,
  • think of our professional standards.
I strongly suggest that professional organizations take public relations professional development seriously and include in their action plans what it takes to be a profession. The next generation of public relations professionals should be prepared for the field more systematically and should not have to deal with the issues we have been dealing with for many years.
Thought Leader Profile
Dr. Serra Görpe is a professor of communications at Istanbul University, Faculty of Communication Public Relations and Advertising Department.  Prior to entering academia she worked as a public relations professional. She holds a postgraduate degree in Social Psychology (MA) from Bogazici University/Turkey and also has a postgraduate degree in Public Relations (MSc) from Boston University/USA- School of Communication. She received her PhD degree in Public Relations and Advertising from Istanbul University. Her current research includes public relations education, international public relations, crisis management/issues management and corporate responsibility. She is a member, and former Board member, of the Turkish Public Relations Association (TUHID), a member of the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (EUPRERA) and the International Public Relations Association (IPRA). 

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The Author

Serra Görpe

Dr. Serra Görpe is a professor of communications at Istanbul University, Faculty of Communication Public Relations and Advertising Department.

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