Defining competency and skills in public relations is a critical issue

In Chapter 4 of #FuturePRoof, Stephen Waddington argues that competency frameworks are critical for benchmarking practitioners and continuous professional development.

The next chapter of #FuturePRoof will be released tomorrow via @WeArePRoofed.


You’ll learn:

·         Why the public relations profession requires a competency framework

·         How having a recognised body of knowledge and defined skillset helps define the role and value of public relations

·         The activities that have been attributed to different public relations roles by the Global Alliance for benchmarking purposes

The public relations business urgently needs a competency framework for practitioners. Work is underway by the Global Alliance, the international umbrella organisation for public relations professional bodies.

There are very few standards in public relations. It’s surprising for a business that is tasked with the critical role of managing the reputation of an organisation.

Time served is the typical measure of competence. But not all experience is equal and when media and technology are evolving so quickly it’s a lousy metric.

Are you any good?

Without a competency framework it’s difficult to benchmark one practitioner against another or apply a strategic approach to building educational, training or Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programmes.

A competency framework is typically a requirement for career progression in a profession.

But the public relations business isn’t a profession. There’s no barrier to entry in the form of qualifications, no requirement for registration in a way that can be publicly tested, and no mandatory requirement for CPD.

Why the public relations business needs a competency framework

1.       Benchmark

It is not currently possible to benchmark the skills of one practitioner against another, or one agency or in-house position against another, with any level of assurance.

2.       Recruitment

Hiring the wrong person is costly for an organisation. A framework would streamline the recruitment process and have the potential to improve hiring decisions.

3.       Career route map

There’s no route map for career progression within public relations, and worse, it isn’t possible for a practitioner to define with any assurance what skills they need to develop to progress.

4.       Professional development

It would prevent professional obsolescence which happens when the body of knowledge acquired at an earlier stage of a career becomes outdated. In public relations this is a particular problem because of the pace of change and is a powerful argument for CPD.

5.       Definitions

It would help define what public relations is, and what it isn’t, and provide a means to defend our turf against the encroachment of advertising, marketing and management consultancy. The issue of Competency frameworks has risen up the agenda within public relations in recent years.

The pace of change, and the shift from publicity to true public engagement has left practitioners scrambling for a robust framework for skills.

But this isn’t a new issue. Dr Jon White defined a competency framework for the CIPR, the UK’s professional membership organisation for public relations practitioners, as long ago as 1987.

Global Alliance project to create a competency framework

A project by the Global Alliance [1], the international umbrella organisation for public relations professional bodies, aims to make amends.

It has analysed more than 30 competency, education and accreditation frameworks, or credentialing schemes, from public relations associations from around the world.

Global Alliance Past President Professor Anne Gregory and board member Jean Valin should be applauded for leading a project that is tackling the issue head-on.

The result is the Global Body of Knowledge Project.

Building a framework that has global application from the Netherlands to Kenya or from China to the US is an ambitious task.

It must be broad enough to cover developed and emerging markets and yet be sufficiently granular as to be meaningful.

“We now live in a global world where we need to share good practice, recognise basic standards of competence and demonstrate that like other professions we have a body of knowledge that stakes out our territory,” said Jean Valin.

“Recruiters have told us that the cost of a bad hiring decision is 2.5 times salary cost so getting the standard right has very practical and bottom line benefits.”

The Global Alliance identified a high degree of correlation between different credentialing schemes to create a first draft.

The project has reached a new milestone following review in 2015 by Global Alliance leaders.

A second version of the Global Body of Knowledge Project has been published as a Google Document for consultation [2] among Global Alliance members including the CIPR, IABC and PRSA.

#FuturePRoofing via consultation

The Global Alliance is seeking input to ensure that the credentialing scheme is #FuturePRoof and fit for purpose in different markets.

“We will likely add a new [section up front] to describe the practice and try to extract principles and values as a new section in order to focus even more on areas of competence,” said Jean Valin.

The next version of the Global Body of Knowledge Project will be shared with employers ahead of publication at the Global Alliance’s World Public Relations Forum in Toronto in June 2016 [3].

The project describes two levels of practitioner, namely entry-level and mid-career or senior level. A series of activities have been attributed to each role as set out below.


·         Account or client management

·         Strategic planning

·         Public relations programme?

·         Project management

·         Media relations

·         Social media relations

·         Issue management

·         Crisis management

·         Internal or employee communication

·         Special event, conferences and meetings

·         Community relations

·         Stakeholder relations

The knowledge areas for mid-level and senior practitioners are broadly similar. The key different is depth of understanding and management capability.

Mid-career or senior level

·         Reputation management

·         Government relations and public affairs

·         Evaluation and measurement

·         Definition of values and guiding principles

·         Building and managing trust

·         Advanced environmental scanning and trend identification

·         Evaluative research

·         Building and managing trust

·         Issue identification

Competencies for each role are described across four areas: knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviours.

The result is a robust competency framework for public relations that is an excellent platform for consultation.

A challenge the Global Alliance faces in delivering against such a bold ambition is that inevitably consultation will lead to tasks being added rather than subtracted.

“We know the document as it stands is incomplete. It is Western-centric and not future focused so we do need lots of help to ensure we have something that associations and practitioners from around the work can take as a basis and tailor to their own context and needs,” said Professor Gregory.

“This last point very important. It’s not to be used as a straight-jacket, but as a helpful and common starting point,” she added.

It is already an incredibly useful starting point. Thanks to the leadership of the Global Alliance we’re a step closer to an international Competency framework and an understanding of what skills are required of a modern public relations practitioner.


Stephen Waddington has earned a reputation as a consumer advocate and corporate insurgent through senior roles during the last 20 years as a public relations consultant, author and journalist.

Chief Engagement Officer at Ketchum, he is responsible for driving the integration of digital and social capabilities in client engagements across the agency’s global network.

Stephen is Visiting Professor in Practice at the University of Newcastle and was President of the CIPR in 2014 during which time he helped return the organisation to its roots of professionalism as set out in its Royal Charter.

Twitter: @Wadds