Professions and Professionalism

What does it mean to be a professional? Stephen Waddington, who used to do public relations for me when I was living and working in Europe, has just written a piece about professionalism and professional status for The Drum, in which he argues that there are five tests for a profession:barrier to entry, community of practice, body of knowledge, ethical framework, and continuous professional development. These are indeed characteristics of the regulated professions, but there is another quite reasonable usage of the word “professional”, which describes a person who is thoroughly versed in, and deeply committed to, the skills and practice of a particular discipline. This usage often implies that it’s your full-time job. For example, we talk of professional athletes, dancers, project managers, programmers, and so on.

The most significant reason for defining a class of work as a profession in Stephen’s sense, has to do with a perceived need for regulation to protect the public. In California, for example, there is a distinction in law between an “engineer” – as in graduate of an engineering program – writing code for Google or GE, and a Professional Engineer, who has passed state-administered exams, and is bound by statute to operate according to a set of regulations designed to create safe buildings, bridges, and machines. Irritatingly for some, it appears to be acceptable to call yourself an architect if you design software or electronics, but if you design buildings, you cannot use the title unless you have received a license from the state. Architects, like professional engineers, are held to professional standards in the interests of a safe environment.

It has been well said that there are two kinds of difference: differences of kind, and differences of degree; and the difference between them is one of degree. So it is with the issue of protecting the public. It is clear that a major mistake by a structural engineer can be fatal, but it is also the case that a major mistake by a software engineer can cause a car to crash, a plane to fly off course, or any number of other disasters. In some societies I dare say that a major PR blunder could cause lynchings, or buildings to be burned. So the safety argument doesn’t really hold up as a reason to regulate or not regulate, or as a distinction separating the professions from other types of work.

At the end of the day,  Stephen’s argument supports  a level of seriousness and discipline in the practice of public relations and marketing, and this makes a ton of sense. The value of hiring a “professional” marketer is their specific expertise, talent, dedication and experience with respect to tasks that are not well understood by others. It is also in their network of relationships. The value of the profession is therefore enhanced if there are thought-out standards and practices that increase the reliability, consistency, and quality of their work, and connect them into a community.  The rigid regulatory frameworks to which doctors, architects, accountants, and architects are harnessed, are not the way to elevate PR and marketing. Instead, a voluntary organization that recognizes academic qualifications, tests and educates its members, and provides practitioners with a path to continuous improvement, will elevate the profession and provide members with a way to differentiate themselves. The key is to persuade practitioners to become engaged and active members. Sounds like a job for the marketing and PR people.

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