‘Professionalism’ – What Does It Really Mean?

A Guest Post By Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 8.59.56 AM

I hear and use the term over and over…we all do…“professionalism.”

In our hearts and heads, we also all think we know what it means. But do we really?

I face the challenge of defining professionalism almost every day PR…PR Case Studies…and others) at Curry College.

One or another of my students will have (probably accidentally!) read or listened to the news and will have read/heard about a situation where a public figure has done something mind-bogglingly idiotic and made the headlines.

Then comes the question: “But isn’t [he/she] supposed to be a ‘professional’?”

To which I usually respond, “What is your definition of ‘professional’?”

Back comes the tentative reply, “Someone who acts in a way that will make others trust him and want to do business with him.”

To which I then respond, “You’re right…partially. But it’s so much more than that.”

Then I see two or three others flip to the back of their textbook looking for the word “professional” or “professionalism” in the hopes of finding the definition, only to discover that it’s not there.

Textbooks don’t give an easy-to-digest description of what characteristics define a “professional” or the concept of “professionalism.”

Yes, there are general guidelines. In my PR courses, I constantly refer to the Public Relations Society of America and the wealth of resources and information available on the Society’s website.

In particular, I reference PRSA’s “Code of Ethics” and the comprehensive guidelines found in that section of the website. I urge my students to read and become familiar with the various “standards” and the examples given of unethical PR practice.

I tell them that, while PRSA’s website isn’t the “be-all/end-all” when it comes to defining professionalism, it certainly provides a solid framework on which to base your description.

Where do you go from here, though? What truly defines and is the hallmark of a “professional”?

I’ve written about this before…numerous times…and I won’t stop until, as the song from “Bonnie and Clyde” goes, I’m “pushing up daisies in the noonday sun.”

  • A professional exudes pride…of accomplishment…of character…of commitment to his or her chosen career field.
  • A professional devotes him- or herself to educating others as to the standards of conduct that define and guide those in that field.
  • A professional is one to whom others look instinctively as an example of “how I should act.”

You don’t learn professionalism. Professionalism is both a state of mind and a fact of life.

You observe others whose actions and attitudes represent to you the qualities that you, yourself, would like to be known for, and you adopt and adapt those actions and attitudes to your own frame of reference…to your lifestyle…to your business style.

What this means, though, is that you can’t just sit complacently by and let the world swirl around you.

You have to become an active observer of others, and you have to become an equally active participant in your own development as an adult…as a professional.

  • What do they do that makes you think, “Gee, I’d like to be like that.”
  • Then, what do you do that makes you think, “Gee, I’m proud of what I just did!”

With those two steps, you will have started your own journey toward professionalism. And you will be able to define for others what it is that motivates you to act as you do.

Most important…you will have set yourself as a role model for others who, themselves, are just setting out on the quest for the answer to the question, “Professionalism…What does it really mean?

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA. He also is Visiting Lecturer, Organizational and Professional Communication (Graduate), at Regis College in Weston, MA. Prior to his move into academia, Kirk practiced nonprofit and government public relations and marketing for more than 35 years in the US as well as Asia. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Kirk is a Member of PRSA’s national Board of Directors and has held leadership positions with PRSA Educators Academy and PRSA Northeast District as well as with the Boston and Hawaii PRSA chapters.