In My Opinion: Jon White: What future PR practice in the UK?

APART from a few points of light, public relations practice in the UK is shot through with self-satisfaction, complacency, apathy and ignorance. It has a short period during which it can turn itself around; otherwise, it may be condemned to irrelevance and triviality.

Maybe not at the moment, but it is a possible future, as identified in a 2011 study by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations – ‘PR 2020: The Future of Public Relations’ – which hosted various discussions with members around the country, looking at various scenarios, including worst-case.

There are opportunities, too, emphasised in the study and by the two candidates in the recently-concluded election for the Institute’s presidency for 2014: myself and the successful candidate, Stephen Waddington.

In the best-case scenarios, the practice has a bright future, as a high-level management practice, richly-rewarded, respected and carried forward by practitioners who know what they’re doing.

Emphasis for the future – if there is to be a future for the practice – has to be on professional development. Practitioners have to be more knowledgeable, better at what they do, more certain of the value they bring to clients and the organisations they work for and skilful across a whole range of areas – communication, of course, but also management and research.

The criticism of ignorance is harder one to answer. Practice is open to anyone who might choose to call him or herself a public relations practitioner.

A journalist can, overnight, become a practitioner, but what beyond possibly good communication skills is brought to the practice in terms of specialist knowledge relevant to consultancy practice, to working in management in a complex organisation, or understanding business or government imperatives?

Do practitioners know enough? Practitioners expect recognition, reputation and a place at the ‘top table’, but are they prepared to work hard enough to know more? The evidence suggests not.

The bright spots? There are practitioners – a small number – working at the highest levels in government, corporate positions and for major consultancies. But too many are caught up with the tactics of practice, or with work that is fading in importance as the possibilities of social media diminish the role of traditional media.

Over the coming year, Scotland may prove a test bed for the real value of public relations.

Already the home of active practitioner groups dealing with unique issues in the Scottish environment, Scotland will see vigorous use of public relations practice as the pros and cons of independence are argued ahead of next September’s referendum.

For the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, the opportunities facing the practice were spelled out in the election campaign for the 2014 presidency. Moving into the near future, it will become clearer how the opportunities may be taken up.

Jon White is an honorary professor at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies and part of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ Research and Development Unit. He compiled ‘PR 2020: The Future of Public Relations’ and outlined progress on its findings at a CIPR Scotland event in March.