Commanding the respect of the business community and the pitch to employers

Francis Ingham

You’ll learn:
•    How the PRCA is helping prove the value of public relations to employers and the wider business community
•    About the ongoing drive towards greater ethical standards
•    How public relations practitioners can benefit from a new initiative designed to raise standards of practice

Public relations may be a growing, dynamic, successful industry but there is still work to do in terms of demonstrating our value, ethics and standards of practice if we are to realise our full potential.

Let me get an awkward truth out of the way: PR and communications professionals will never be loved. As a professional calling, we should not expect to be. But we can and should be respected. And that respect depends, it seems to me, on three factors:

1.    Proving the value of our work.
2.    Proving that we have an ethical compass.
3.    Proving that we are committed to the highest of professional standards.

But let me also put the challenge we face in proving these three factors into context: ours is a growing, dynamic, successful industry. 

How many times over the past nine years as Director General of the PRCA have I written those words or similar? Probably hundreds. Yet they continue to be needed, because we still beat ourselves up all too often - frequently because of this desperate desire to be ‘liked’ or indeed ‘loved’.

The figures speak for themselves. This summer’s PRCA PR Census told us that we are worth £12.9 billion; that as an industry we comprise 83,000 professionals; that we grow by about ten percent every year – in the good times and in the bad times alike. 

If we have been this successful so far, how much more successful could we be if we got our act together?

To address those three challenges in order:

Proving the value of our work

We know that our work has value. The great majority of professionals I meet take justifiable pride in their work. They are proud of the change they deliver - whether to share price; or to societal behaviour; or to awareness-raising; or just in helping sell stuff. 

And all of that fundamentally is about reputation management, even if many within our industry would describe it in more prosaic terms. 

A report earlier on this year by the Quoted Companies Alliance and the accountants BDO estimated that a listed small to midcap company loses up to £90m if its reputation is destroyed – that’s £1.7 trillion. It also reported that a third of such companies have no plan to manage it. 

The PRCA Reputation Matters report led by Lanson’s Tony Langham told us that corporate reputation is the third most important factor would-be employees look at when making career decisions – behind salary (naturally), and close on the heels of stimulating work. 

So we know that reputation has an effect on the bottom line, and on the quality of employees attracted. And by bottom line, I mean that in the broad sense of ultimate result – later this year, we publish research into the effect of reputation on the outcomes of public sector campaigns. And believe me, the impact of our industry is even starker there. 

So what will the PRCA do? 

We need to hammer home these statistics at every opportunity we have. We need a cross-industry campaign between all of the membership bodies that represent our industry. And I will commit the PRCA to being an integral part of that. 

But we need to go further. So along with the publication of this latest edition, we will circulate to the industry a monthly case study, piece of data, or other compelling research, to make the case for our value.

Proving that we have an ethical compass

An ethical compass is, in and of itself, a good thing. 

In one sense, of course, we each possess one, whether that compass leads us towards respectable or unrespectable outcomes – in a Kantian world, the bad man is as ethical as the good one after all. But that’s not what I mean – I mean rules of behaviour and practice which we can be judged against, and which make us accountable. 

And in the modern world, a world marked by transparency, by the inability to hide, such a compass has another attribute – it is a licence to practice in some areas, and a competitive advantage in others.

I believe that the majority of industry practitioners adhere to high standards. That they deliver excellent value work to clients and colleagues (frankly, the value is frequently too excellent – as an industry, we undercharge significantly). That they make value judgements about which clients and which organisations they will and will not work with. 

But nonetheless, as part of our plan to be respected more, we need to be respected more for our ethical standards. 

Last year, we expelled Fuel PR in what PRWeek termed ‘Sweatygate’. We did so with regret but also with a profound sense of satisfaction. It was a member in good standing with us; its MD was a PRCA Fellow. But they had misled the public, and abused their staff. So they had to go. And the reaction from the industry and others alike was highly appreciative and positive.

So what will the PRCA do?

A few things. We’re publishing a new PRCA Professional Charter this summer. Making it easier and quicker than ever before to complain against members and to resolve those complaints. For the first time, I, as the PRCA Director General, will have the ability to instigate complaints proceedings for example. 

But we need to do more. We need to be willing to call out bad practice far more than we do; and we need as an industry to stop turning a blind eye to the partners, affiliates, bosses and colleagues who don’t meet our standards. And to make that easier, we’ll be introducing an anonymity route – if you don’t want your identity to be revealed, it won’t be. 

Proving that we are committed to the highest of professional standards

There are no barriers to entry to PR and communications. In many ways, that’s something I welcome. We are no closed shop. We are open to the brightest and the best regardless of background or resources. And yet…

To gain the respect of the business community, and to make our pitch as compelling as possible, we need to embed common standards; a shared resolution to attain the highest standards.

So what will the PRCA do?

In October, we will launch the first PR and communications industry-wide Continuous Professional Development Programme. 

It will recognise each and every single valid source of development, from every relevant membership body that wishes to take part; every industry service provider; every other training provider; every employer.

We will be deliberately generous. This programme will not scream ‘only PRCA training is good enough’. We will explicitly say that there are plenty of excellent sources of learning out there, and as long as you commit to them, well, that’s just fine by us. 

Because our mission is not self-serving. It’s to do the best by our industry. And in doing this, we will create and raise common standards of practice.

So to summarise. PR and communications is in a good place. No. In a great place. But until we prove the value of what we do; make clear our commitment to ethical standards; embrace and embed and standardise professional ones, we will not achieve our potential. We will be less than we could be. Second best. And who wants to be second best? Not me.

Francis Ingham is Director General of the UK & MENA Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), a role he has held since 2007. He is also Chief Executive of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO). 

In addition, he is Master of the City of London Company of Public Relations Practitioners; a Trustee of The Speaker’s Corner Trust; and External Examiner of The American University At Richmond. 

Twitter: @PRCAIngham