Dissertation Abstracts

Playing the Professional: An Ethnographic Study of the Enactment of Professional Behaviour among Public Relations Practitioners in the UK

Author: Williams, Sarah J, sarah.williams@wlv.ac.uk
Department: Media
University: Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Supervisor: Dr Magda Piezcka
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Professionalism , Public Relations , Professionalisation , Ethnography
Areas of Research: Professional Groups , Organization , Work


This study aims to record and analyse the professional behaviours of public relations (PR) practitioners in the UK. The study is concerned with the ‘lived experience’ of practitioners, and in particular, how they enact professionalism on a daily basis.

There is not a large body of work looking at professionalism in public relations in the UK, and those studies that exist have largely adopted a qualitative stance: Asunta (2009) adopts a mixed methodology incorporating in-depth practitioner interviews, coupled with a pan-European quantitative survey; while Ashra (2008) employs an interesting diary strategy. Asunta (2009: 330) identifies two approaches to the nature of public relations research: organisational and societal. I am interested in exploring a third, under-represented, approach; that of the interplay between the individual and institutional levels. Much public relations research focuses on extrapolating technical, strategic and managerial aspects of PR, as Ashra affirms, ‘existing research in public relations and corporate communication decontextualises aspects of roles, excellence and integration’ (2008: 210). In seeking to discover the ‘lived experience’ of practitioners, this research will put professionalism in the context of practitioner behaviours and enable individuals to articulate their understandings of what it means to be a professional.

The inter-related concepts of professionalism, professionalization and being professional form the basis of the public discourse of the professional bodies in PR. However, while these terms are frequently, and often inter-changeably, used, trade bodies and other occupational groups make no clear justification for employing them. Sociological definitions of professionalism and professionalization provide some means of analysing professional body policy in support of the professional project, in which the occupation has been engaged for a long time now, however the value of this work is limited as successive professional body policies have failed to result in professionalization of PR, as L’Etang argued “the central story that emerges is that of the failure of the public relations occupation to professionalise” (2004: 220). Indeed, L’Etang & Pieczka (in Heath, 2001: 234) considered that to date professionalism in public relations discourse has featured “as merely an historical process but that it should in fact be regarded as a more or less consciously used mechanism that is to deliver specific occupational goals”.

This study aims to redefine our knowledge of the profession by examining the way in which practitioners themselves define, interpret and enact the qualities or traits of a ‘professional’ worker. This, coupled with the sociological work on professionalism, suggests that an ethnographic study in the field of public relations which observes the ‘lived experience’ and actual practices of British PR practitioners would be a valuable approach to this research.