Twenty Twelve’s Siobhan Sharpe. Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Samantha Jones from Sex and the City. Charles Prentiss in Absolute Power. These are just a few of the communications characters we’ve seen on television in recent year. Typical PR people, right? Forget it. Absolutely Fabulous, absolutely not.

PR professionals are guilty of reinforcing lousy stereotypes of the industry by placing corporate profile, power and profits at the heart of everything we do – rather than helping organisations find their social purpose.

It’s not enough for a practitioner to sign up to a Code of Conduct through a professional membership organisation such as the CIPR or trade association such as the PRCA.

It’s time for us to take collective responsibility and reframe how we practice PR.

Time for a change

There are plenty of forthright individuals in academia and industry that are doing just that. Professor Robert L. Heath, a leading expert on society theory, believes that PR can either harm or help collective interests.

He believes that PR is best when it “challenges and helps organisations be effective, not only by what they do for themselves but also within the communities where they operate and on whose resources they depend.”

Rather than concentrating purely on corporate goals, Heath suggests that organisations should work with their stakeholders to solve problems and make collective decisions for the common good.

Organisations playing their role within society and creating structures in which communities can work on an equal footing with business, are the ones that will achieve real engagement and ultimately commercial success.

It’s a powerful call to action.

Finding a higher purpose

Professor Anne Gregory, one of the UK’s leading academics and chair of the Global Alliance talks passionately about the four Ps of public relations leadership: purpose, principles, people and process.

Like Heath, Gregory also believes that real PR leadership has a much higher purpose and “our role is to help build societies that work…by ensuring our organisations are part of the solution to the challenges that face [people], not the cause of their problems.”

Anne believes that the real leaders in the PR profession are those not only transforming their organisations, but also the communities around them.

Fighting the good fight

But it’s not just academics saying this – there are heavy weights from the PR industry driving to make PR a force for good.

Ketchum’s European CEO and senior partner David Gallagher, puts it clearly and succinctly.

“Today PR exists to help change the way in which companies operate, not just communicate. We are the ones guiding the at times reluctant, awkward and ill-prepared into the sunlight of public opinion.

“We are the ones encouraging a positive dialogue between mighty, towering organisations and ordinary citizens, bloggers and journalists.

“Economic prosperity is driven by commerce, and commerce depends on the constant exchange of accurate information. Social progress depends on motivated and organised communities, connected and inspired to address problems, issues and injustices. We can help to deliver both.”

Evolution of PR

It’s time for PR to grow up. We have a responsibility to review how we work with those employing us and, to quote Professor Anne Gregory again, to “help our organisations clarify their purpose”.

David Gallagher believes that we should be proud of what we do, and doing things of which we can be proud. And for the majority of us, if we’re honest, we’re not quite there yet when it comes to helping our employers work within their communities to make the world a better place.

Sarah Hall is managing director of Sarah Hall Consulting.