Should PR be regulated?

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

Should PR be regulated? That was the topic of this week’s #powerandinfluence chat on Twitter hosted by Advita Patel. It’s a familiar debate that’s raged on for the past two decades or so and, like the death of the press release, could rage on for another 20 years.

Sadly, I missed last Wednesday’s Twitter chat and so felt compelled to offer my two cents on the issue in a blog.

Professional qualifications

On the one hand, I find the whole debate deeply frustrating given the absence of any collective call to action each time it's discussed. Please tell me if I’m missing something?

On the other, the decision on whether to enforce barriers to entry to our profession is too important to dismiss. The biggest concern I have is that any type of barrier to entry would quickly become socioeconomic, disadvantaging aspiring PRs from poorer backgrounds.

This has long been the case in other professional service industries. I once dreamed of a law career but the £10,000 paywall to take the Graduate Law Diploma (GDL) focused my mind elsewhere.

I’m not holding up PR as a shining beacon of diversity. It’s not. The latest State of the Profession report from the CIPR shows that the diversity gap in PR is widening.

A staggering nine in ten practitioners classified themselves as white in 2019, while more than a quarter of respondents said they attended a fee-paying school - a figure four times the national average.

What I can say is, I was fortunate to enter the profession from a working class background and the last three years in PR have given me opportunities I would never otherwise have had. Introducing a similar qualification barrier in PR at a time when our industry is already failing to make progress on the diversity gap, then, rings alarm bells.

The role of membership bodies

Of course, we’re not at this stage yet. But the cost of demonstrating professionalism currently applies to membership of professional organisations. I’m a huge advocate for our industry’s two leading membership bodies, but the joining fees aren’t cheap. This means many in PR don’t become members until much later in their careers, with some choosing not to join at all.

Admittedly, this view is simplistic. Tax relief is available if you pay for membership yourself and, in its current form, PR offers a wealth of affordable CPD activities. The PRCA runs an extensive programme of free events for members and non-members alike, while the CIPR offers cut price rates for students to engage those starting out in the industry.

But the decision to engage is still a choice. And large swathes of the industry choose not to. This means codes of conduct, including guidance on professional ethics and practice, don’t apply to practitioners who aren’t subscribed to these organisations.

Yes, practitioners can adopt a personal code of conduct in tune with official guidelines. But there’s no concrete way to enforce them for those who don’t. This is where the argument for greater regulation rightly comes in.

A regulatory body for PR

And there’s a case to be made. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has long cast a beady eye over the marketing industry. Its role in upholding standards in an industry that directly impacts consumer behaviour is seen to be in the public interest.

The influence of PR on public opinion is surely equal? But this influence is far less obvious to the average consumer (we won’t get into that debate here).

Even with the era of spin in the late 90s and the rise of fake news in recent years, it’s unlikely there’ll ever be appetite among taxpayers to fund a regulatory body for PR. If we adopt an ASA-style model, which is funded through a levy on advertising space, that also raises questions.

Advertisers have no legal obligation to comply with ASA advice, only a reputational one. This could work for PR given we’re literally a ‘reputation industry’, but the real power sits with taxpayer-funded Ofcom and Trading Standards.

Equally, we have to ask ourselves if government regulation is something we would ever want to invite? A state-mandated regulator would undoubtedly raise professional standards, but it could also stifle creativity in a fundamentally creative industry... Ultimately, it just won’t happen.

Self regulation

So what are the alternatives?

An emerging solution is self regulation. The development of a best practice community through a culture of continuous learning in the drive towards chartership is a movement I wholly support. And both the CIPR and PRCA offer a fantastic range of events and online resources to support practitioners.

But this alone isn’t enough. Yes, we need to commit to CPD. And it’s great that membership organisations are working with the business community to help foster a better understanding of the value PR brings to its bottom line.

But we also need to prove this in the everyday. Standing up for our expertise and being honest with clients and stakeholders when offering strategic advice - even when that means telling them something they don’t want to hear.

It’s something that’s slowly starting to take hold. More and more practitioners are engaging in CPD and applying this learning in the workplace. But it’s going to take a generation or two before we see any significant difference in professional standards and the way PR is perceived across the board.

What conclusions can we draw then?

The path to an ethically-minded industry, committed to upholding professional standards, is far from straightforward. But there are reasons to be cheerful about PR’s future. AI and technology advancements are driving change. Clients are increasingly starting to demand best practice measurement to demonstrate ROI. And practitioners who don’t subscribe to continuous learning will soon get left behind (sorry to doom-monger).

The consensus? I’m still not sure. But I’d love to hear what others think is the best way forward for brands, businesses and practitioners. I’m going to run a couple of Twitter polls off the back of this post so please do shout up.

Want to share your thoughts on any of the above? I’m always interested to hear feedback on the blog so please get in touch via the comments section below, email me at clairesimpsonpr [at] outlook [dot] com or drop me a line on social media.

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© 2018 Claire Simpson​. 

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