Continuous professional development (CPD): Can it help you in a changing world?


CPD. Does it matter? What does it mean?

You’ll learn:
•    Who is CPD for? Is it all about you?
•    What should CPD cover? 
•    To focus on always challenging yourself

When does CPD start?

Some professionals, for example doctors, accountants or architects, have to qualify before they undertake CPD. For them qualification is the baseline. The continuing element takes them beyond the minimum level of their competence. Ideally it keeps them up to date with best practice, new technology or new pharmaceutical developments.

Yet this is not the case in PR, perhaps because there are diverse routes into this profession. New entrants begin their CPD before they have any form of qualification, relying only on any experience they may have acquired.

Does this make CPD just PR by numbers, rather like painting by numbers? It feels possible that collecting enough points is more than enough to make you an accredited practitioner for another year; not quite a ‘BOGOF’ but close! 

Perhaps that’s harsh. Either way, what matters is whether CPD actually says anything about your ability, skills or understanding.

How does PR fare in the context of other professionals?

It’s worth looking at what the evidence says. The Professional Associations Research Network (PARN) published its CPD, Education and Professional Standards benchmarking survey in April 2016.

Clearly professions are changing. In 2012, 81 per cent of the professional bodies required full members to have a degree. By 2015 this had fallen to 36 per cent. 

Is this as frightening as it sounds? Does it mean that standards are falling or is it just a reflection of the different entry routes into a profession? Will the 36 per cent with degrees be the only ones who will rise to the highest levels in their profession? 

There are, as ever, many factors underlying the statistics. The how, where and when of training and qualification are changing dramatically. 

Should CPD be compulsory?

The PARN survey reveals that 65 per cent of professional associations set CPD standards. Perhaps the CIPR model of awarding points is not so unusual then. 

However just 50 per cent of the organisations surveyed set mandatory policies. So even professions are divided about whether CPD should be compulsory. 

A key statistic that calls into question the value of CPD is that a third of the professions measure CPD by inputs, while just 36 per cent measure a combination of inputs and outputs. 

While PARN points out that this demonstrates a general move from input only schemes, the research goes on to say that over half of the people who audit CPD are not formally trained (just before you think this is good news).

All of this leads me to conjecture that if CPD is not required as part of a profession’s code of conduct, and those evaluating us are relatively unskilled, it should not be considered a reliable indicator of competence or even evidence of skills.

So why should PR professionals bother with CPD?

The harsh truth is that many of us don’t. The PRCA calculated 62,000 people work in PR in the UK. In 2015 1,611 CIPR members completed their CPD records. 

For consultants like me it can add to my credibility and reassure clients. Employers can ask for CPD in recruitment or use it in appraisals. So is it about competitive advantage?

CPD ought to stand for more than it does currently; not least because as professionals we have wider responsibilities. We are responsible to society. Without going into the complex arena of ‘public interest’ I would like to think that members of the public should be able to expect a (high) level of competence and service from PR professionals. 

Can people trust us to do the job and do it well? 

We also have a duty to our own profession. Does our CPD record make us proud of our achievements? As a profession can we point to CPD and say it is a central pillar of #FuturePRoofing PR? Are we doing CPD because it makes us feel good?

That would be a good place to be if so. 

Why, what if

Today CPD seems to focus on what could be termed practical skills; the how to... The more elusive element is around knowledge focused on the strategic, analytical skills: the why, the what if and sometimes the why not. 

These are all questions PR people should be debating round the board table. We should be able to raise a problem, debate the alternative strategies and then manage through a course of action. More of us need to learn how to do this. 

And then there is the thorny question of creativity and innovation. 

Great buzzwords are often sprinkled liberally across proposals and award entries, but can be difficult to define. How can we measure and develop these attributes? Are they skills or are they innate?

If CPD is not taking us in this direction, what will?

From knowledge to capability

There was encouraging news at the World Public Relations Forum in Toronto in May 2016. Professor Anne Gregory and Dr Johanna Fawkes announced their two year project to use the Global Body of Knowledge (GBOK) for PR to create a capability framework. The aspiration is that this framework will be used by PR professionals around the world.

I applaud the global scope of their ambition. I also applaud their efforts to win the approval of both academics and senior practitioners. 

As an associate lecturer at Newcastle University as well as a practitioner, I see tensions around the boundaries of academic and practical learning. The polarised opinions between ‘on the job’ training and degrees or formal qualifications will no doubt continue. 

Keep asking questions

When I began my career in PR there were no PR degrees or qualifications. I had to rely on Kipling’s words for my career development:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Surely good PR professionals are always keen to learn, to find the best, most efficient way of achieving results. I would like to think so, but shudder when I hear, ‘Well, that’s my CPD done for another year, and it’s only May!’ 

I believe asking questions should be engrained in a good PR person.

The C is the key: continuing. Let’s never stop. 

Sally Keith has run her successful eponymous consultancy for 20 years, serving clients across the UK. She has a rule of only reporting to CEOs and Chairmen, believing that PR must be regarded as a fundamental corporate management discipline. Alongside her professional practice she is an associate lecturer at Newcastle University and teaches on CIPR, CAM, CIM and DMI courses. She is particularly proud of the TwitFace Award for social media she received in the north east’s Alternative Business Awards.

Twitter: @fulbeck