Becoming a profession, a process outlined in Effective Public Relations, is a progression that contains a well-developed formula found in well-respected professions such as law and medicine. Among these are specialised education, recognition by the community, autonomy and personal responsibility, and finally “codes of ethics and standards of performance enforced by a self-governing association of colleagues.”
The last qualification, probably the most vital for a thriving industry, is one that has kept the public relations industry from becoming the established profession that they strive to be. Across the profession, there are several different codes of ethics provided for practitioners, however, the issue of ease of entry coupled with lack of enforcement prove vexing for the professionalization of the PR industry.
The PR industry is one that is constantly in debate about how ethical the industry is from within the industry and from those outside of it. Public relations has its roots in propaganda dating back to World War I and World War II. Propaganda has negative connotations that leave the public feeling as if they are being tricked or lied to. PR is also synonymous with other epithets such as ‘spin’ or hiding the truth.
In order to battle these notions of deceit, the industry started to move towards professionalization. One of the earliest records of this came in 1948 when the Institute of Public Relations, now known as the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, was founded. PR firms started to form and higher education included pubic relations as an option on both the bachelor’s and master’s levels by the late 1980’s. Thus, the first requirement for professionalization was fulfilled.
Recognition by the community, the second requirement in the process, came in the form of popular culture in early films such as Waikiki Wedding, Man in a Grey Flannel Suit and Sweet Smell of Success and later on in films and television shows such as Sliding Doors, Sex and the City and AbFab. Although, it should be noted that even though this recognition exists of PR and practitioners, not all of the work that they do is shed in the most professional manner.
Most depictions of these fictional characters are categorized by PR scholars as being ‘PR girls’, female characters who show PR as being a constant party, or as ‘gurus’, male characters who are cunning at all the right moments to get the task done. These images provide a distorted image about the actual work of public relations and leave more to be desired in terms of views of professionalism.
Autonomy is a concept found in several different professions. In essence, autonomy is doing what is right, rather than what others want. It is the inner counsel of ethical practice that practitioners across the board must utilize as a form of self-governance provided outside of formal regulation. This ensures that practitioners take responsibility for their actions even when a professional board isn’t around for counsel or possible punishment should the rules be broken. Autonomy plays a pivotal part in the reputation of public relations. Those within the organization see their colleagues as role models and professional examples while those outside base their opinions off of their actions, both positive and negative.
Part II will discuss the importance of a code of ethics and the issue of ease of entry coupled with lack of enforcement that prove vexing for the professionalization of the PR industry.