Is Internal Communications a profession?
— February 4th, 2021
The question, “is Internal Communications a profession” was recently raised by an established and thoughtful business communications professional.
It's one that I ask each year as a guest speaker in our Intro to Strategic Communications course.
Most of us in this field answer with an unequivocal “yes”, and we’re quick to invoke the claim that a strategically-aligned communications system is essential for any organization to succeed.
The next comments often bemoan the lack of respect or resources that we too often granted by clients or business leaders, and the need to assert that we are more than a craft.
I’m afraid I don’t have such a clear answer.
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While I absolutely support the notion that most communications professionals have extensive education, practice their profession with integrity, and add value, that doesn’t necessarily make us a “profession”.
There’s no one definition of this word, but generally, a profession is characterized by:
- Having a specific body of knowledge based on ongoing research that is endorsed as the basis of practice;
- Requiring certification or licensure to practice that is based on a degree and/or exam and/or a certain amount or type of experience;
- Requiring continuing education for re-certification;
- Methods to remove the license to practice of individuals who violate ethical standards or demonstrate that they do not follow current models of practice.
Based on those characteristics, we are not a profession. Other definitions of profession include earning one’s money from working in a specific job (this separates out a profession from a hobby) and acting in a “professional” manner which is usually a vague standard of civility and general ethical behavior.
Clearly, these criteria could be met by most people in the workforce, including custodians, chief marketing officers, and administrative assistants.
Those who assert that communications is a profession will argue that we are not merely “creative” and that we don’t base our decisions just on hunches.
However, there are no standard models of practice (for example, there is no standard process for analyzing communication problems or gaps) and few communications professionals reference their decisions on scientifically designed and published research studies.
I would bet that if you gave a business problem to 5 expert communicators, they’d use different logical processes to develop a solution, and that those solutions would be different.
Sure, there are some general steps in project management, principles such as advocating transparency in communication, and sound approaches to dealing with situations like a crisis, but the specifics of what to say and how to say it would probably display as much originality as logic.
That sounds like “craft” to me – and I say this without disrespect because acumen and creativity are not common traits and they usually lead to useful outcomes. Moreover, they can’t be automated.
Many professional communicators would argue that there are just too many variables in business situations to be able to apply research, and that the research is not easily accessible given the time constraints of most projects.
The same, of course, can be said about medicine: every patient is different, and a drug that effectively treats depression in one patient may make another suicidal or can interact with other drugs or conditions in relatively unique ways.
Most MD’s are expected to keep their appointments under 20 minutes and to accomplish an examination and diagnosis (or at least an appropriate referral) in that time. But medical fields do rely on rigorous research and the skilled judgment of practitioners and their evolving standards of practice.
Could we become a profession? Sure. It would mean agreeing on specific methods of practice and a body of research that would be required to be taught, tested, and applied consistently.
Employers and clients would need to be convinced that only licensed professionals should be hired into certain specific roles, and states or countries would need to develop and enforce such regulations.
Colleges and universities would need to develop standardized and accredited curricula designed to enable students to pass the necessary exams. The profession would be divided into tiers of practice requiring different levels of knowledge.
For example, physical therapists are now required to earn a doctoral degree that provides them with the skills to conduct and understand scientific research studies that underlie evidence-based practice while physical therapy assistants are required to earn an associate’s degree.
Only physical therapists can evaluate and assess patients, develop a plan of care, and oversee provision of services; assistants carry out the plans of care under their supervision.
And finally, there would need to be regulations for ongoing recertification and approvals for continuing education.
While professional societies like PRSA and IABC have developed certifications and accreditations that are a useful way for communications practitioners to demonstrate that they adhere to some basic tenets of ethics and methods, we have a long way to go to get to the kind of standards of professional licensure that is found in law, medicine, or even the personal services industries such as hairdressers.
Would it be worth it? If our aim is to garner respect from our business sponsors in terms of being relied on for advice, and being given appropriate resources, a better approach would be to develop a set of standards for analyzing business problems and choosing communications solutions, and for demonstrating financial results.
- Over the next two weeks, on Thursday, February 11th and 18th, two related blogs on this topic will be published here. They will focus on standards for analysis of communication needs, and standards for assessing the results of communications interventions.