A profession in stasis or catching the moment?

By Professor Anne Gregory.

Reading the most recent CIPR State of the Profession report makes me feel like we are at an inflection point. It could go either way: sky’s the limit or going backwards.

All the old chestnuts around diversity, gender pay gap, not being accepted as a board level discipline, having writing as our most practiced skill are all there. However, there are some signs of change too and much of this around having a hard look at ourselves. The step change will be doing something about these issues. Our resolve and capacity to respond will determine whether it sky or backwards for the profession.

There is much rich meat in this year’s report, but I’ll focus on just three things: diversity and inequality, skills and a new agenda.

First, the technical bit: I’m a picky academic after all. I do not know how representative of the whole profession the survey is, but with over 1200 respondents it’s a fair sample so I’ll assume it is. Also, the survey was undertaken just before the present Covid 19 crisis and should be seen in that light.

First up, diversity and inequality. Quite frankly it is unacceptable that a quarter of people in our profession come from a public school background and that they are paid on average £12,000 more than their state school compatriots. It is also an embarrassment that 91% of our profession is white and this year we have not even reported on disability – last year only 6% declared disability. Why is this important? Because we are an elite profession and out of touch with the lived experience of most of the people we are communicating with. The challenge has to be are we communicating with or communicating at them? Are they objects of our communication or do we know them?

The saving grace is that we recognise our privilege and believe it is becoming harder from those less socially advantaged to progress. So what will we do about it?

The gender gap is next. There are more women in the junior roles, then almost parity in pay up to Associate Director/Head of Comms/Partner level. Then it is a whopping 29% male to 19% female representation at MD/Director level. We truly are a predominantly female profession, but dominated by men.  What are we going to do about it?

On pay there some progress: since 2018 the gap has narrowed by 12% before regression analysis and is now £8,222. But the scandal is where the big difference lies. Men are paid more than women at all levels, but for those women who do make it to MD/Director/Partner, the gap is a huge £19,500, with the biggest difference being in consultancies who pay women £22,000 less than men.  No doubt there are all kinds of explanations/justifications for this gap, but whatever they are, they seem pretty weak to me.

The takeaway from this research is that the public relations profession is elite, under-represents significant minority groups, is male dominated and undervalues women. I’m not proud of that, it should make us all uncomfortable and we must do something about it.

Second issue is skills and knowledge. Top of the list of skills (what we do most) is copywriting, and no change there from previous years. Number 14 is defining mission/values and being involved in corporate governance. Biggest mover on the list and now 8th, is research, evaluation and measurement.

The skills and experience possessed chart shows 58% of respondents have copywriting (top placed), 14% have defining mission/values and being involved in corporate governance, and 13% have skills and experience in research, evaluation and measurement.

Strongest attributes claimed are strategic thinking (55% of respondents), and strongest specialist knowledge is Research, planning, implementation and evaluation (55%) of respondents.

Something does not stack up here. We claim we are strategic thinkers, we claim we plan strategically yet very few have skills and experience in defining purpose (mission and values) and corporate governance and those with research and evaluation skills are low in number. It doesn’t surprise me that our skills base is largely tactical and writing oriented, after all 45% of the profession comes from a journalism background, neither does it surprise me that we are under-represented at Board level and not seriously taken as a profession.

We don’t spend our time doing what professionals do: we don’t enact the role of senior managers. Even senior people claim copywriting is one of the jobs most undertaken by them  (82%) as opposed to junior staff where it is 83%! In my experience of being on a number of Boards, it is about securing licence to operate and legitimacy for the organisation, that is, evaluating organisational performance in a number of dimensions and it is about governance. It is not about how nicely you write.

So, having had a good go at the profession I have been in for many years and passionately believe in, what should we do? Three things:

First, we need to take a long, hard look at who we are. We need to turn our fine words on diversity and inequality into action. We have to turn our recruitment and reward policies upside down. We have to stop recruiting ‘people like us’ and be of our time. Actions like reverse mentoring, affirmative action and a determination to recruit, retain and reward people who are not like us has to become a priority. Then we will serve our organisations and society better.

Second, we need to examine what we do and how we act as a profession. Automation and AI will take away the need for many of our traditional skills as writing, indeed, all kinds of content creation, identifying and researching stakeholders or audiences and standard evaluation. We should embrace that so we can be then truly ‘strategic’.

Being at the heart of governance is for us because we know what the reasonable expectations of society and stakeholders are, because we understand context and because we have practical wisdom and judgement. Then we might just deserve  recognition at Board level because we will something important to contribute.

Third, we need to understand and celebrate the complexity and importance of what we do. Society, professions, organisations exist because of communication. Take it away and there is no society, profession or organisation.  Let’s get away from a narrative that defines us as story tellers, content developers, creatives or social media whizzes. We help create, build and sustain all those things that are precious and meaningful as this awful Covid 19 crisis has demonstrated. We need and can create a narrative that tells that story.

I’ll finish with a challenge: it’s down to us folks, each one of us who claims to be a professional. Yes, we must be the difference and I can put it no better than – Mahatma Gandhi: let’s ‘be the change we want to see’.

Professor Anne Gregory is Chair in Corporate Communication at the University of Huddersfield, a former President of the CIPR and has conducted extensive research on the professionalization of public relations and the capabilities of practitioners.

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

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