Despite the unenlightened view that PR is a fluffy, air-kissing occupation that demands little or no real brains, the industry is actually awash with qualifications. On a par with other professions, PR is supported by undergraduate, MBA and post-graduate courses, as well as CIPR qualifications.
The growth in credentials is testament to the professional image that the industry yearns for, and which is now starting to follow through in terms of registrations for courses. Last September the number of enrollers to CIPR courses - which include the institute's foundation, advanced and diploma awards - broke the 500 mark, up from 280 in 2002.
But choice can bring confusion. The Chartered Institute of Marketing, and the Communication, Advertising and Marketing Education Foundation (CAM), also offer PR courses - and knowing which qualifications matter to employers and employees (if any) is becoming complex, with many favouring work experience over grades.
Call for caution
Manning, Selvage & Lee director of people and development Elizabeth Baines is one such sceptic. She recommends caution with 'off-the-shelf' courses, claiming they can be too general: 'Our own "university" offers around 50 courses, and although some are done by external trainers, the majority are run in-house.
'They cover three areas - professional skills, including strategic writing and pitching to the media, business and management skills, and an area lacking in the PR industry - finance,' she adds. How we make money, why we make money, why we fill in timesheets, profit and loss - these are many of the day-to-day problems that all agencies face today and which are not addressed elsewhere.'
The result of this training for MS&L is a high retention rate, with the average director serving seven years, and account managers sticking around for three and a half years.
Rebecca Jones, director of Colette Hill Associates, which won a PRCA award for HR and people development last year, also favours tailored courses.
'I think on-the-job training is far more important than certificates,' she says. 'Some external courses are good but they cover the same stuff as the internal courses.' Jones, who lectures in PR at Cardiff School of Journalism, adds that if pushed, she would value a candidate with work experience (and no PR qualification) more highly than one with a PR degree but no experience.
So is taking professional courses a waste of time? Citigate Dewe Rogerson director Mark Schmid says his PR degree was invaluable to getting into the industry, but admits it has probably made him less likely to take further, on-the-job learning. 'My qualification allowed me to get into the business,' he says.
'But since I've been in, I've found I can develop the career that I've wanted without further qualifications.'
McDonald's senior regional communications officer Bieneosa Ebite says her CIPR diploma has added weight to her CV: 'It shows I am dedicated to being a professional. With PR, lots of people have misconceptions of what it's about and don't understand there is a foundation of theory behind the practice. It's not all Ab Fab, it's actually quite hard work.'
However, many degreeholders are only too aware that not all employers value their qualifications. Argyll HR managing director Richard Baines, who provides small and medium-sized PR companies with training, says he has seen a shift towards bespoke coaching. 'The trainer can go in and understand the need of the business, what level the people are that and what their particular gaps are, and then create something that fulfils that. This is the way the industry is going.'
Another theme emerging in the training sector is the desire for standardisation.
CIPR PR and marketing manager Jessica Molloy says the institute has taken a step towards uniformity by approving undergraduate degrees. However, these courses do not contribute towards any of the CIPR's own qualifications, meaning graduates may end up repeating their study if they enrol to one of the institute's offerings.
PR consultant Ipek Hamit says her CIPR diploma was a big help but agrees that the industry needs a clear standard. 'The CIPR should push for consistent standards across the board,' she says. 'It should work with agencies and put a lot of pressure on them so that if they are training people, they are all working towards the same goal. You wouldn't expect lawyers and doctors to come out with all different qualifications, and nobody knows the right (qualifications for PROs).'
She adds: 'I started out doing the CAM certificate. At the time I thought having a broad-based approach was good - it gave me flexibility, and in this day and age, you can't really function in isolation from the other areas (of marketing). I then chose the CIPR diploma because it is the industry-run course; I found it fantastic, it was very academically driven, different, and demanding. When I started the course it made me realise how limited I'd been.'
Hamit believes that agencies at management level must buy in to the commitment shown by those who take more advanced courses in the hope of furthering their careers. But a fundamental problem keeps returning to any discussion on the value of qualifications over experience, in that practitioners have differing views depending on how they entered PR and progressed.
For instance, while Schmid believes in his degree, his co-director Steve Marinker says he would not necessarily differentiate job candidates by their PR qualifications.
Natural History Museum press officer Sarah Hoyle already has a general arts degree and has worked in PR for six years, but decided to improve the theoretical side of her qualifications with a CIPR diploma. It is a big commitment, but Hoyle claims there is a trend emerging that puts qualifications in a better light. 'Possibly, having a qualification is becoming more important, and I've noticed that some employers are specifying some sort of PR training on job descriptions.'
Molloy confirms this: 'Employers are recognising degrees more, and our own research shows that more job ads are specifying 'CIPR qualified'.
Ninety per cent of people doing the diploma are funded by employers.'
However, Molloy adds that there is a real difference between agencies and in-house PROs in terms of how seriously they take training. 'There is a definite bent towards professional standards training being preferred by in-house PR teams, with agencies needing to play catch-up. Westminster City Council press office, for example, is one (in-house function) that has three people taking our diploma.'
She stresses that training will only be elevated industry-wide when more agencies adopt the view that PR qualifications are beneficial. And that is something that everyone - PROs, agencies and the providers of training - must debate.
'EXCELLENT FOR PR PRACTICE'
Kathryn Anderson, account executive at Belfast-based JLPR, is studying for her CIPR diploma, and already has a degree in English and politics.
'It has been a busy year but the course is definitely worth it. It is part of JLPR's policy to have a qualified and educated staff, so they put me forward,' she says. 'I've learned a lot in terms of theory - and it has been relevant theory that I can put into practice.
'For example, there are certain areas such as crisis communications and crisis management. It has helped in my day-to-day job already. I have been recommending the course to colleagues because it is excellent for PR practice. In a business world where there is such a need now for transparency and recognised regulatory practice, I think training is becoming increasingly important.'