The term “professionalization” refers to the way in which occupations become recognized as professions, usually explained by a range of factors related to the improvement of services offered and status enjoyed. The precise meaning of the term depends on the approach taken to defining the concept of “profession.” Three theoretical perspectives are in evidence in sociological literature: the functionalist approach, as articulated by Parsons (1954) and indebted to Durkheim, sees professions as key to maintaining social order; the critical approach, initiated in the 1970s (Freidson 1970, Johnson 1972), which views professions as centers of monopoly power and elitism; and the Foucauldian perspective, which defines the profession as characterized on the one hand by high status and power, and on the other hand by subjugation resulting from the exercise of self-discipline. Professionalization, therefore, can be understood respectively as: a process of improvement of services, knowledge, and standards; a process of social closure and exploitation of a monopoly position; and finally, a “soft” technology of control of expert labor.
In public relations, professionalization has been discussed predominantly within the functionalist framework, and with specific reference to the dimensions established by Wilensky’s seminal article “The professionalization of everyone?” (1964): emergence of a full-time occupation; establishment of formal training; formation of a professional association; agitation to achieve legal protection for the occupation; and establishment of a formal code of ethics. Public relations in the USA is an important case in point: it offers a good illustration of this professionalization discourse as well as of its influence worldwide (see Pieczka & L’Etang 2001). The critical approach to the question of professionalization of public relations has been championed mainly by media sociologists and cultural historians whose disapproval of the practice is rooted in Marxist critiques of capitalism and in the Habermasian preoccupation with the public sphere (L’Etang, 2004). Consequently, public relations is treated here as a profession whose increasing power is seen as a corrupting influence in terms of social justice and the existence of the public sphere. This critical stance is best summed up by Wernick’s verdict on promotional professions, public relations included, as “deficient in good faith” (Wernick 1991, 194). The third, Foucauldian approach to professionalization has so far not been developed in public relations.
The history of the professionalization of public relations post-World War II can be structured around two key moments: the emergence of professional associations at the national level in the late 1940s, significantly in the USA (Public Relations Society of America in 1947) and UK (Institute of Public Relations in 1948), and the publication of Grunig’s Excellence in public relations and communication management in 1992. National professional associations are important because they focus efforts given to defining and representing the best interests of the occupational group, which tend to be pursued through programs of professional education, public statements and campaigns, and the drafting of codes of ethics. Excellence in public relations is noteworthy because, as a publication resulting from a research project conducted by an academic team and funded by a professional association, the International Association of Business Communicators, it makes a point about the value attached by the profession to abstract knowledge, while simultaneously harnessing academic interests to the professional agenda.
The set of ideas contained in the Excellence project became the reference point in the 1990s for the profession’s search for its modern identity, which came to be anchored in liberal pluralism and the “empirical-administrative” approach (Dozier & Lauzen 2000). Thus the public relations profession described itself as instrumental to the existence of democracy, transparency, and order in public life through the practice of two-way-symmetrical communication, while at the same time being attentive to the worldview of corporate actors. The popularity of these ideas as represented in published research and public relations textbooks throughout the 1990s can be at least partly attributed to their usefulness to the professional project.
An important strand of research relevant to professionalization, and included in the Excellence project, is based on the concept of public relations roles, which stratifies the profession into two layers, technicians and managers, defined with reference to tasks, competences, autonomy, and access to power. This scheme, originally developed in researching American practitioners, was subsequently applied to other countries, proposing, as its critics pointed out, the idea of the uniformity of public relations practice and professional standards globally. Roles research also turned out to be important in identifying gender differences within the profession and contributing to the development of the feminist theory of public relations (Grunig et al. 2001).
- Dozier, D., & Lauzen, N. (2000). Liberating the intellectual domain from the practice. Journal of Public Relations Research, 12(1), 3–22.
- Ehling, W. P. (1992). Public relations education and professionalism. In J. Grunig (ed.), Excellence in public relations and communication management. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 439– 464.
- Ewen, S. (1996). PR! A social history of spin. New York: Basic Books.
- Freidson, E. (1970). Profession of medicine: A study of the sociology of applied knowledge. New York: Dodd, Mead.
- Grunig, J. (ed.) (1992). Excellence in public relations and communication management. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Grunig, L., Toth, E., & Hon, L. (2001). Women in public relations: How gender influences practice. New York: Guilford.
- Johnson, T. J. (1972). Professions and power. London: Macmillan.
- L’Etang, J. (2004). Public relations in Britain: A history of the professional practice in the twentieth century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Parsons, Talcott (1954). Essays in sociological theory. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Pieczka, M. (2006). “Chemistry” and the public relations industry: An exploration of the concept of jurisdiction and issues arising. In J. L’Etang & M. Pieczka (eds.), Public relations: Critical debates and contemporary practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 303–327.
- Pieczka, M., & L’Etang, J. (2001). Public relations and the question of professionalism. In R. Heath (ed.), Handbook of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 223–235.
- Sriramesh, K., & Vercic, D. (eds.) (2003). The global public relations handbook: Theory, research and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Van Ruler, B., Vercic, D., Bütschi, G., & Flodin, B. (2004). A first look for parameters of public relations in Europe. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(1), 35–63.
- Wernick, A. (1991). Promotional culture: Advertising, ideology and symbolic expression. London: Sage.
- Wilensky, H. L. (1964). The professionalization of everyone? American Journal of Sociology, 70(2), 137–158.