Do or die: Should CIPR membership be compulsory?

If membership of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations isn’t compulsory for PR professionals, does the Institute serve any purpose at all? Some think not. In this post I’m going to stand up for the CIPR.

Not for the first time I had a lively conversation with Brent Martin, an acquaintance and London-based criminal lawyer, on the subject of Public Relations. Brent is never short of an informed opinion, and he is well worth following on Twitter.

These tweets caught my eye:

Im sick to death of PR bullshit in corporate coms. Plus they call themselves "a profession" & have a "Chartered Institute of PR" #delusional
Brent A. Martin
Its an utter lie to suggest you belong to a "profession" if membership of your "professional body" is entirely optional. More PR bullshit.
Brent A. Martin

Headlines are the stock trade of PR professionals, and I was initially inclined to file those tweets under the headline ‘LAWYER: WORLD WOULD BE BETTER PLACE IF MORE PEOPLE WERE LIKE LAWYERS’, but alas that is a terrible headline and so I must write a blog post instead.

Brent’s beef in this case may not even be with a PR professional. His complaint was that a price hike of something he buys or uses had been misrepresented as a ‘simplification’ in price.  Pricing is more often the realm of sales and marketing, but let’s not kick the can down the corridor to marketing just yet.

There are good PRs and there are bad PRs just as there are good and bad lawyers. A good PR would argue that in a social world, where a savvy and price-sensitive audience are connected directly to each other as well as to your business,  trying to obscure or spin a price hike through the use of a lazy euphemism is at the very least bad PR, and as such bad for business.

Whether it is sensible business practice and good PR or not Brent would argue, I think, that any attempt to communicate a price rise as something positive is immoral.

Brent, and many others, believe that PR people should be held accountable to a professional code of practice and ethics which precludes them from wilfully misguiding an audience.Indeed, I know Brent isn’t alone:

@ @ re: Damn those compsulory "professional bodies", I could not agree more.
Luca Alessandra

I’ve got good news – the CIPR holds its members accountable to just such a code of conduct.The first two clauses of the first principle are that members must:

a) maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour, integrity, confidentiality, financial propriety and personal conduct;

b) deal honestly and fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions and the public;

The code of conduct for CIPR members is well aligned with the times – it binds members to the sort of behaviours Brent, and society at large, wants to see from the PR profession. So it’s perhaps a little short-termist to attack an organisation which shares your goals and exists to bring about the kind of professional standards you want to see.

Is a non-compulsory professional body worth anything?


The sticking point is compulsion. As a lawyer, Brent is required to be a member of the Law Society, which brings with it a hefty annual membership fee. Brent believes that as membership of CIPR isn’t compulsory for PR professionals, it’s a ‘bullshit’ institution. I couldn’t disagree more.

The CIPR Code of Conduct has power without statutory underpinning.

  • Personal loss. If I break the CIPR code of conduct, and a CIPR-facilitated attempt at conciliation fails, I can be stripped of my membership, directed to refund my client’s fees, and to refund the institute its costs.
  • Employer backing. Many employers specify that CIPR Membership is a requirement to be employed in a senior PR role. Loss of the membership could have serious consequences.

    Other professional bodies have attracted de facto compulsory status through widespread employer recognition – CIPR is heading in the right direction in this regard.

  • Market forces and reputation. As a CIPR member, I stand out as an experienced professional in my field – this is invaluable.   Being disciplined by the CIPR would make me less employable.
  • SEO. Hardly trivial in a digital economy. A disciplinary case against me would result in negative search engine results associated with my name, which for any PR is a killer.

There are also practical problems with compulsion – not least the population to which compulsion would apply. A doctor practices in a surgery. A barrister practices in a court of law. A PR person can practice anywhere. PR could even be said to be a fundamental part of human nature.  Brent was doing some indirect PR for the Law Association, by attacking CIPR. Does that make him a PR practitioner? Clearly not. But where do you draw the line? Agencies only? Agencies plus full-time in house? Agencies plus in-house including digital? Excluding digital? Including or excluding social media? And what do you mean by social media? If you post to a Linkedin group once a week does that make you a digital PR?

The CIPR is a force for good. It’s shining a spotlight on good PR practice, and holding its members to the highest professional standards. Would it like to be a compulsory body? Perhaps it would. Should it pack up and go home until it is compulsory? Absolutely not. The CIPR is changing the communications industry for the better. That’s something we should all celebrate – even lawyers.


Robin Fenwick

Communications Director and public affairs professional, digital specialist, ex political activist, early music enthusiast.
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