CIPR State of the Profession 2020

The CIPR’s State of the Profession survey provides valuable data on the trends, issues and challenges impacting the public relations profession. It’s important to note that the research was conducted before the advent of COVID-19 and its subsequent impact on society and the economy.

It always contains fascinating and actionable insights and this year’s report is no exception. It delves deeper into the issue of social mobility and builds on last year’s alarming finding that 28% of PR practitioners attended fee-paying schools compared to a UK average of 7%.

As with previous reports I was most interested in the challenges facing the profession, the most common activities done by PR practitioners and the skills and experience they possess. The gaps between these three are where I can often help my clients the most by helping them to ensure their teams have the right skills to do the right things in the most effective way to meet the challenges of today and the future.

Challenges facing the PR profession

Each year respondents are asked to rank what they see as the top five challenges facing the PR industry. This year ‘under-representation of public relations practitioners at board level’ is at number one, up from second place in last year’s challenges. I have mixed views about this as we really need to understand what practitioners mean by under-represented.

There are two main ways for PR to be ‘represented’ at board level. The first is that a PR practitioner sits on the board. When PR practitioners are represented on the board it is rarely with that title as it is usually a variation on communications. The second is that the PR practitioner has direct, unfettered access to the CEO and other key members of the C-suite. I started a lively discussion on Twitter recently about that issue and I have a partially written blog post that I’ll publish soon.

The second challenge is ‘not being seen as a professional discipline’. That’s a dispiriting one as it is a real problem, but it’s largely self-inflicted. I have little sympathy with a PR practitioner who complains that the CEO listens to the accountant or lawyer more than them if that PR person’s main credentials are years of experience and expertise. The accountant and lawyer have years of experience and expertise as well, but they’ve also got qualifications and up to date CPD (continuous professional development). If you’re in public relations and rock up with nothing more than experience and expertise then why should you expect to be taken as seriously? Next time rock up with all three.

Get experience. Develop expertise. Do good work. Do CPD. Get qualified. Get chartered.

It’s good that ‘changing social and digital landscape’ has dropped to number three as if you’re massively challenged by something that’s been happening for more than 15 years then you’ve got a problem. However, as I said in my analysis of last year’s survey, I think some people are potentially citing social and digital as it is a catch-all for many of the other challenges such as fake news, analytical skills, automation/AI and even ethics.

Most common public relations activities

Once again it is ‘copywriting and editing, a craft skill rather than a professional competence, that tops the list of most common public relations activities. Strategic planning has moved up from fifth to third. However, I’m not sure how much we can learn from this as there are a few issues which make the findings hard to interpret.

The first is that the list of ‘activities’ to choose from isn’t actually a list of activities but a mix of practice areas, PR activities and general management activities. Public affairs, investor relations, community relations and internal communication are all practice areas that could use several of the PR ‘activities’ such as copywriting and editing, events, media relations or technical/digital.

Just to use my own responses to the survey as an example. I spend a lot of time ‘copywriting and editing’ (including this blog post), but it’s not what I ‘do’. It is simply a means to an end and will be part of doing strategy, social media relations, media relations, events, public affairs, community relations, internal communications etc. However, for some PR practitioners (especially more junior ones) then copywriting might actually be the main part of their job as they aren’t involved in the other aspects of the project that they are writing for.

PR skills and experience possessed

The CIPR State of the Profession data about the PR skills and experience possessed throws up another interesting conundrum as there is a huge difference between ‘skills’ and ‘experience’. It’s quite possible people have been doing an activity for years and are therefore experienced. It doesn’t mean they’ve been doing it professionally or are even any good at it.

An underexplored area of the research is the gap between the activities that respondents say they do and the skills and experience they say they possess. In the survey 63% of PR practitioners say they do research, evaluation and measurement yet just 13% claim it as a skill, a shocking gap of 50 points. Social media relations has a similar gap of 48 points, with events/conferences, PR programmes/campaigns and strategic planning all registering a gap of more than 35.

One explanation might be people underestimating their skills (or experience) in these activities. However, looking at what four of the top five are and based on my anecdotal experience of working with in-house PR teams, PR agencies and delegates who attend my open PR training courses for the CIPR and others I’d say it could well be true. I see lots of PR practitioners who are excellent at doing things like writing or media relations, but whose knowledge and understanding of research, measurement, planning and strategy is woeful.

It perhaps explains why communication measurement and PR strategy are two of the three fastest growing parts of my PR consultancy and PR training work.

Gap between PR activities most undertaken and skills and experience possessed

The situation becomes even more confusing when we look at what PR practitioners think are their strongest attributes and strongest specialist knowledge as strategic thinking and research, planning, implementation and planning top the two lists.

Another area of concern for me is an apparent lack of specialist knowledge on three critical areas. Just 25% claim ‘communication models and theories’ are their strongest specialist knowledge. That’s distinctly at odds with ranking strategic thinking and planning at the top as both are rather difficult to do if you don’t have a good knowledge of models and theories. What is the strategy or plan based on if it isn’t a robust model or theory? If it is just based on experience or gut instinct then is it really surprising that public relations isn’t being seen as a professional discipline?

Similarly just 8% claim their strongest specialist knowledge is ethics and law. Perhaps it is not surprising that ‘unethical public relations practice’ is the fourth biggest concern if practitioners don’t have a much higher level of specialist knowledge about ethics. It’s also hard to do any public relations activity with a reasonable knowledge of many aspects of the law most notably intellectual property and copyright and libel and slander.

Networking and being part of a professional community

This year a new section of the CIPR State of the Profession report looks at professional networking and development.

I often participate in discussions on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn about if it is worth joining a professional institute or trade association. My answer is always an emphatic yes which is why I am a member of and enthusiastic supporter of the CIPR, PRCA and AMEC. They are the three that are most relevant to me, but if I had the budget I’d also join other bodies such as EACD and IABC.

There are lots of reasons why I think it is a good idea but the primary one is about both adherence to and helping to develop best practice. It’s arrogant to believe that you as an individual or as a company are ‘better’ than the profession or industry as a whole. And if you really are that much better then I believe you have a duty to give some of that back to the industry and help everyone to improve. My personal reason is similar. I have a good career and have learnt lots from my peers so it is my moral duty to give back to the industry and profession that sustains me and my family. The other, more obvious reasons, are an opportunity to network, access to learning and development and evidence that I adhere to a professional code of conduct.

I’m not sure the new questions about networking and being part of a professional community tease out enough information, but what it does reveal is interesting.

It also shows that the most popular places for professional networking and engagement are LinkedIn, Twitter and training workshops/qualifications.

The last one is interesting as it shows that training workshops are about far more than just the knowledge, expertise and experience that the trainer shares. Some of the most valuable learning comes from the discussion with other delegates. It’s why as a trainer I try to make workshops as flexible and engaging as possible. Doing this remotely requires every course to be be redesigned from scratch and is an incredible amount of work. It will take a long time to recoup the investment in time so I see the future of training as continuing to be a lot of remote courses and the emergence of hybrid courses with some delegates in the room and others joining remotely. This brings a whole new set of challenges when doing group work and exercises.

I’d caveat any interpretation of the professional networking data as it is inevitably skewed by the fact the research was conducted by a professional institution or trade association. The respondents are members, non-members on the mailing list or people that have seen it via social media – usually from members.

New PR networking opportunities

This means that as a trainer I need to be a lot more proactive at facilitating networking before, during and after the workshop. One of the things I’ve been doing during lockdown is working out how to provide added value to PR practitioners who attend one of my UK or international PR training courses both open ones via third parties like the CIPR and in-house ones I run directly. I will be adding an online networking element to them by offering delegates an opportunity to join a community. The next step is deciding what platform to use and then inviting the hundreds of people from around the world who have been on my courses.

PR and social mobility

As a working-class comprehensive school educated lad from the north of England it’s probably not surprising that social mobility is near the top of my agenda for issues I’m passionate about. When I worked for Andy Burnham on his Labour Party leadership campaign in 2010 the most inspirational thing about him was his passion for helping “kids without connections” – because he was another working-class lad made good. I’m a huge admirer of the work that Alan MIlburn does on the issue of social mobility/

If mummy, daddy, aunty or uncle can’t help you arrange a work placement with a work colleague or old school friend then PR is an incredibly hard profession to break into. That’s before you even get on to the thorny issue of unpaid internships vs. work experience.

Last year the CIPR asked if respondents had attended a fee-paying school (i.e. a private one rather than a state one). It showed that the PR industry had a gargantuan social mobility problem with 28% saying they had attended a fee-paying school compared to the UK average of just 7%. This year the questions are sourced from the government’s Social Mobility Barometer so look at if parents or guardians completed a university degree or if people received free school meals.

Unfortunately, the data is pointless without comparative figures for the general population or other professions such as journalism, marketing, law or accountancy.

Likewise the question about “Everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and hard work will take them” is an incredibly loaded question. On the surface it appears to be positive that 41% of PR practitioners agree with this statement compared to 35% of the general population. But public relations is about what you do, not just what you say.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and link it to last year’s question about fee-paying schools. Logically if someone believes that “everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and hard work will take them” them they wouldn’t need to give their children an unfair chance by paying for a fee-paying school that gives them an advantage totally unrelated to “talent and hard work”. How many are just saying this because it’s the ‘expected’ response, rather than what they are actually doing?

CIPR State of the Profession 2020

You can read the full CIPR State of the Profession 2020 report on the CIPR website.

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