The coming year could be the most important yet for the Institute of Public Relations (IPR) as it bids for Royal Chartered status.
Even IPR director-general Colin Farrington concedes this is not the most 'sexy' of goals, but he stresses that its importance to PR professionals and the IPR cannot be overestimated.
An examination of the procedure necessary to gain this status, which dates back to Tudor times and is granted under recommendation of the Privy Council, reveals its lack of sexiness. The language used in the formal procedure is hardly redolent of a profession at the cutting edge of global media.
A bid for chartered status must say: 'Your petitioners most humbly pray that Your Majesty may be graciously pleased in the exercise of Your Royal Prerogative to grant a Charter.' Should such language be used by a body representing modern communicators?
But both Farrington and Anne Gregory, installed as IPR president this month on a pledge to bring the status to the body, argue that a Royal Charter is about more than pomp and ceremony.
Farrington says: 'It's important to see a charter as the means to an objective, which is to gain greater recognition for PR professionals and the IPR. It is a symbol that we have improved as a body, are committed to education and the economy, and that we carry out good work.'
No formal application yet
The IPR has not yet made a formal application and is still in preliminary talks with the Privy Council. But Farrington says: 'The feedback is positive.'
If the indications that an application would be successful strengthen, the formal process will begin. This would include seeking sponsorship and the views of interested parties, including the Department of Trade and Industry and even journalists.
Gregory admits, however, that the process could take as long as five years. And though the informal feedback is positive, the result is still not certain.
The IPR has experienced rejection before. In 1995, when the body's AGM first gave approval to an application for Royal Chartered status, informal talks with Privy Council officials ascertained that a formal application would almost certainly fail. Officials at the time felt the body should do more for the public good and professional development.
Farrington and Gregory believe sufficient change has taken place to make a new application successful. But talks with the Privy Council have revealed that the institute still needs to develop an electronic voting system for members and change the current recruitment system whereby graduates can be fast-tracked to membership while non-graduates cannot.
Consultation with members over these and other changes have delayed this year's AGM.
Gregory says that although chartered status would give credibility to the public role of PR, she believes all PR professionals should welcome it out of self-interest: a PRO with chartered status is likely to have more clout, especially when it comes to negotiating fees and salaries.
She says: 'I don't want to give the impression that self interest and the chance to increase fees is the reason for doing this but in practical terms that will be a by product for members.'
Clive Booth, a partner at Lewis PR and a member of both the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and the IPR, agrees: 'It is part of the natural development of the PR industry and is something the IPR has to aspire to. There are members of the CIM on the boards of many FTSE companies.
Can the same be said of IPR members?'
But what of respected professionals who still choose not to join the IPR? Booth feels there will be few in the long-term if chartered status is granted: 'I can't think of many senior marketers who are not either a fellow or a member of the CIM.' This may be an exaggeration, but with 60,000 members to the IPR's 7,000 - even accounting for the larger size of the marketing sector - it clearly operates on a different scale.
Not joining could be unthinkable
Perhaps here lies the true importance for the IPR in gaining chartered status. If it fails, it carries on as a relatively small trade body.
If it succeeds, Farrington and Gregory believe, the body could expand to the point that not joining would become unthinkable. Farrington says: 'It's a generation thing. We hope all professionals would in time want to join.'
Gregory puts it more bluntly: 'People might say to someone who isn't a member: "Why not?"'
Although it would still represent UK practitioners, Gregory believes chartered status could help the body gain greater recognition around the world.
Firefly MD Claire Walker, a member of the CIM and the IPR, while broadly backing the move for chartered status is more cynical. 'It's definitely important in the UK, but I don't think it will make that much difference globally,' she says.
Another agency head, who declined to be named, says: 'I think this status is irrelevant. If I was to go to a client in America and say I had chartered status, all they would say is: "Gee, Have you met the Queen?"'
Privy Council spokeswoman Sarah Hanratty confirms informal talks with the IPR are ongoing. She says there is no formal ceremony at which the seal is granted: 'They could send a bike round to pick it up, but they are free to organise their own ceremony,' she says.
Since the body represents an industry in which decorum is paramount, the former option seems unlikely.
FOR: 'A STRENGTHENED ROLE'
Colin Farrington, director-general, IPR 'Achieving a Royal Charter would acknowledge our intellectual leadership of a diverse profession and the rapid progress the IPR has made in raising educational and training standards.
'Our work on policy, some of it jointly with partners such as the DTI - such as company law reporting, corporate social responsibility, lobbying regulation - would be recognised and strengthened. The public would benefit from the greater regulatory clout of a chartered body.
'The charter is less important to us than the road we will have been on to achieve it, however. The IPR core strategy, to raise the status of the profession, will remain whatever the outcome.'
AGAINST: 'A STUNT BY THE IPR'
Robert Phillips, founding partner, Jackie Cooper PR
'Gaining recognition from the Privy Council is not on my list of priorities.
If PR is to be taken seriously, we've got to think about how we can get our messages to brand owners and leading marketers. I really don't think brand owners will be impressed with people walking around with a royal stamp on their forehead.
'Gaining recognition for the importance of strategic communication is about convincing people it isn't just spin. What the IPR is doing strikes me as a stunt to gain greater recognition for the IPR.
'Saying to someone they will be disadvantaged because they are not a member is ludicrous.'