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Professionalism doesn’t equal a PR degree

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Last week I attended the industry vs academics debate organised by the PRCA and chaired by Stephen Waddington. It was a well-attended debate, not least by a significant number of PR students, many of whom have written blogs. However, little has been written by those of us working in the industry, so having spent my career working with five global agencies and more recently in two in-house roles, I’d like to offer a different perspective.

I stated on Twitter at the start of the debate that I don’t think you need a degree in PR to succeed in our industry. I do think there is a place for PR degrees and I certainly don’t want to discourage those studying for one or recent PR graduates. However, those who have studied other degrees and those who don’t have a degree at all and have come in to our industry via A Levels or an apprenticeship have as much, if not more, to offer our industry.

My own route into the industry was via a business degree which I have used almost every week of my career working in corporate communications and reputation management. It’s been invaluable when working with management consultants, law firms and bankers on strategic campaigns and complex issues.

Group think

The enemy of good decision making is group think. No agency head and certainly no client, wants all of their team to have the same qualifications or the same background or the same experience, otherwise at best you get dull, vanilla campaigns and at worst you get poor decision making which could lead to dire ethical, financial and reputational consequences – think 2008.

Diverse teams

One of the biggest challenges facing our industry is we are white, we are middle class and we are degree educated. We need more women to reach senior positions, we need more people from BAME backgrounds to enter and stay in our industry and we need more socio-economic diversity. None of this will happen if we just recruit students with PR degrees.

The real value of working in a diverse team and avoiding group think was brought home to me last June when I was fortunate enough to serve on the Glass Lion Jury at Cannes Lions. Our jury was the most culturally, ethnically and career-diverse group I have ever worked with or will probably ever experience. It was intellectually challenging, it was exhausting, but most important, it was liberating and exhilarating. Imagine if you could replicate that in your agency or in-house team, every day?

Give clients the teams they want

As a client and when I served in agency and selected client teams, you want the best team available with the skills and experience to match the business problem you are trying to solve. As a client, this means, if my business was facing an external affairs issue that could threaten our licence to operate, I’d like the best public and regulatory affairs brains in the room – people steeped in politics, who live and breathe it. If I was working for a food or drink brand, I’d want a nutritionist within the PR team. If I was working on the launch of a new blockbuster drug, I’d like communications professionals on the team with backgrounds in science or medicine. When I ran the account to build a new gas pipeline, the most valuable member of our team was somebody who had studied geopolitics at university as she understood the geopolitics of the oil industry and the region our client was working in, inside out. None of these skills and areas of expertise come from having a PR degree.

The real answer is, we need a blend of skills, experience, genders, ethnicities, socio-economic groups and routes into our industry to ensure it is vibrant, diverse and delivers the work and counsel clients want. The professionalisation of our industry does not equal a single set of identikit qualifications or graduates with PR degrees. There are other ways to achieve professionalisation, but that’s a topic for another day.