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Are we communicators or public relations practitioners?

01 Jun, 2020 Commentary, Communication trends, Research findings

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

The most detailed study of its kind undertaken has confirmed that people shrink from using ‘public relations’ in their job title. Analysis of all the member records of the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) in 2009 found that only 6.4% of members used ‘public relations’ in their job title.

The most common term in member job titles, used by 28% of members, was ‘communication’ or ‘communications.’

And yet ‘communicator’ tends to imply low-level communication activities – at a tactical level rather than strategic. I don’t believe it is the answer. And I don’t really think ‘business communicator’ hits the spot, either. I suppose ‘communication professional’ or ‘communication practitioner’ would be better, but ‘practitioner’ gives an impression of artificiality, in my perception. It’s not a common word in use by the average person or business person.

‘Public relations professional’ sounds as though you are trying to puff up the nature of the role. ‘Public relations officer’ sounds low level. Public relations practitioner’ also sounds artificial, but it is the term used by the representative professional bodies such as the Public Relations of Australia (PRIA). The PRIA states in its website that:

“Public Relations is a management function involving effective communication between an organisation and the people and organisations that may be interested in, concerned about or need to know (i.e. should be told) how they may be affected by the activities or future plans of the organisation.”

Right from the start, the problem with this definition are the words ‘management function,’ apart from the rest of the words, whereas most PR people are just ‘officers,’ not managers. Does it imply that anything below a management level is not proper public relations?

There are no easy answers.

The most common PR job titles

Reflecting the huge range of activities that come under the umbrella term of ‘public relations,’ the study found that 419 different job titles were used by the 1,929 active members…Variety is what the profession is about!

A Masters PR student, Anika Dixon, conducted the analysis under my supervision at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. Anika analyzed the current national list of active members of the PRIA, which was kindly made available with individual names deleted for privacy reasons.

She cleaned up the anomalies in the raw data, eg where the member doesn’t give their job title or is a student member. This reduced the list from 2,099 active members to 1,929.

(The PRIA originally provided a list of 9,000 people who have been members over the past 15-20 years; although past information was tempting to include, there were too many complications to make it workable. For example where the same job had been held by successive members over time, the list would have duplicated the job title information. Similar problems where a person’s job title was changed after review by management consultants, etc. Therefore the study only considered current members.)

The PRIA estimates its members comprise about 25-30% of the total number of professional communicators nationally. Therefore, the sample size is large enough to be considered representative of the profession nationally.

Renewing the debate on whether ‘public relations’ is a suitable name for our profession

The findings of the study revive questions about why we persist with ‘public relations’ as the umbrella term for our profession. This topic is hardly new. It caused a huge split in the United States, where membership in the profession is split between the Public Relations Society of America (22,000 members, established in 1947) and the International Association of Business Communicators (15,500 members, established in 1970.) As I understand it, the IABC was formed largely because members didn’t want to be associated with the PRSA, in which the ‘Public Relations’ in their title had so many negative connotations.

The international peak body of our profession calls it both ways: its title is The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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