FUELLED by the growth in global communications and connectivity, the public relations industry has grown massively. Now, the challenge is to ensure that professionalism is raised and sustained around the world. Research led by experts at the University of Huddersfield's Business School shows how this can be done, and its findings - including a specially-developed software package - have been featured at a major international conference.
In 2014, The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management - a confederation of the world's major PR and communication management associations and institutions - set out its aim to create a global "capability framework" for the profession. Two years were spent researching all available frameworks and background literature and then the Global Alliance was ready to take the step to develop its own.
In 2016, the Global Capability Framework project began, and the University of Huddersfield's Professor of Corporate Communication, Anne Gregory, an ex-chair of the Global Alliance, became director of the project, with substantial backing from the University's own research fund.
Dr Johanna Fawkes - a leading academic in the PR field - was appointed Principal Investigator and academic partners at universities in eight overseas countries were recruited to ensure the internationalism of the research.
The Global Capability Framework has now been unveiled at the Global Alliance's 2018 Conference in Oslo. In addition to a report and presentations about the Project, there were also demonstrations of a software package that was developed in tandem with a start-up company formed by a team of talented University of Huddersfield students.
The package is an online assessment tool developed for use by individual PR practitioners, team leaders and employers so that they can identify the capabilities they would like to develop. Once they have discovered skills gaps that they need to fill, they are directed to the relevant online resources, such as the hundreds of tutorials available from the UK's Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
Dr Fawkes - whose previous academic appointment was in Australia - believes the worldwide growth of PR means the project is especially important.
"There isn't an organisation or any country in the world that doesn't have some communication function," she said. "Growing global connectivity means that every organisation and some individuals need to have a voice in this very loud market place and there is no doubt that it has grown as a sector in terms of recruitment and its economic contribution."
But this growth is not an "unmixed blessing", added Dr Fawkes, who has a research background in PR ethics. She acknowledges that the challenge of securing attention in an increasingly competitive environment can mean that standards slip.
"If PR is to achieve its potential, it has to have an ethical foundation," she said. "The Global Capability Framework will help to ensure this if its standards are taken on board. The role of the professional associations who have supported our work globally is crucial."
The detailed report issued by Professor Gregory, Dr Fawkes and their colleagues includes the conclusion that a widely shared set of public relations and communication capabilities helps define the profession globally and that professional bodies. They have found that large employers are enthusiastic about using the new framework for training and education, plus individual and team management.
The current chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Jose Manuel Velasco Guardado, describes the Framework is "one of the most significant projects that we have ever initiated".
"It is literally a game changer for the profession. We are grateful to Professor Gregory, Dr Fawkes and the global team for making such a seminal contribution."
* When the research project based at the University of Huddersfield's Business School sought developers for the software that would be part of the Global Capability Framework, they looked no further than the University's Duke of York Young Entrepreneur Centre, where students Jonathan Langley, Peter Waugh and Edward Andrew had formed the software development business Torchbearer Interactive during an Enterprise Placement Year. Although the main focus is on games development, the Torchbearer team worked closely with Professor Gregory and Dr Fawkes on creating the online assessment tool.