Only Those With Reputations for Producing Well-Crafted, Targeted, Reliable Messages Earn the Title of Professional.
By Thomas J. Roach
First amendment rights make it impossible for public relations practitioners to create a professional organization and deny membership to uninformed and unethical practitioners. Yet, many of us in the field consider ourselves professionals because we impose standards on ourselves. We are certified by our reputations.
To be considered a professional in business communication one must be qualified on four levels: knowledge, skills, quality and ethics.
Public relations became a profession after the advent of mass media. By the early 20th century, a company that wanted to get messages to a mass audience had to know how to navigate the gatekeeping and message formatting procedures of the penny press and radio. By midcentury one also needed knowledge and skills for advertising, marketing, and practicing public relations on television. At the start of the 21st century, all these media processes were transformed by yet another innovation – the internet. Soon a family of new mediation processes called social media was at play. Today, anyone wanting to practice public relations needs to understand how to insert and manage messages through all the old and new channels.
Practice in all professions is based in theory. The theoretical underpinnings of professional communication are best understood in terms of systems theory. In a broad sense, the theory holds that all systems survive and prosper by adjusting to their environments while maintaining their identity and goals.
Applied to life forms, this is Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. In economics, it is Adam Smith’s concept of the market economy and the unseen hand that rewards those who offer the best product or service at the best price. Applied to business communication, systems theory elevates listening above communicating. Informed practitioners survey and interview publics in order to better know what to say, how and when to say it, who to say it to, and which medium to choose.
Knowing and Doing
Knowing and doing are two different things. All of the above falls under the category of professional knowledge. The ability to conduct interviews, focus groups and surveys, and to author messages and access the appropriate media constitutes everything in the skills category.
Like all professionals, communicators must ensure the quality of their work. One can have the knowledge and the skills to do a job, but still fail to provide services and products of quality.
Research is the first phase of all public relations projects. Professional communicators need to be able to target and stratify research samples, and manage data collection objectively.
Once they know what to say, who to say it to, and how to channel a message, they need to author the message itself. This is dependent mainly on an accumulated, intuitive and artistic sense of how to speak and write.
We develop theses, arrange arguments, choose right words, and select delivery channels through an understanding of the ancient art of rhetoric.
At the highest level of communication practice we are governed by ethical standards. Some we share with professionals in all fields. We must deliver what we promise when we promised it.
Our work needs to be consistent, and our outcomes predictable. One ethical standard is preeminent for communicators: honesty. Just as it is an absolute requirement that medical doctors follow the command, “Do no harm,” so too professional communicators must obey the command, “Tell no lie.”
This is essential for two reasons. Anyone can lie, but a knowledgeable, skillful, research-based communicator who is dishonest can do much more damage. Thankfully even a professional can usually only get away with one lie, and that leads to the other justification for the honesty command – anyone caught in a lie can no longer be trusted.
A communicator who cannot be trusted is worthless. As one astute professional put it, “You couldn’t pay me enough to lie.”
So while anyone can practice public relations, only those with reputations for producing well-crafted, targeted, reliable messages earn the title of professional.
Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].