Craft, profession or something in between?

Do you consider your higher ed marketing vocation to be a profession or a craft? Or maybe the better question is, Do you consider yourself to be a professional?

A lot of us like to talk about professionalism. We talk about taking a professional approach to our work — whether it falls under web development, graphic design, media relations, market research, writing, videography or any other aspect of this broad umbrella of marketing and communication.

But are we really, technically professionals?

Twenty-six years ago, when I was a fresh-faced graduate of journalism school, it was understood that the field I was about to enter was a noble craft, not a profession. One reason for that distinction was that a profession, in the traditional sense, requires an intensive academic study and typically has at its core some sort of code of ethics. The practice of medicine, for example, is one obvious example of a profession. It requires an advanced degree and its practitioners must swear to uphold the Hippocratic Oath. Accountants, lawyers and engineers also have similar requirements, and they must be licensed or registered by some oversight organization.

Journalism, though, does not require intensive academic study. In fact, three-fourths of the curricula required for my bachelor’s degree was in fields other than journalism. Also, some of the best journalists around don’t even have journalism degrees. A few don’t even have college degrees, period. (This is rarer now than it was 30-40 years ago.) And a code of ethics? The Missouri School of Journalism, my alma mater, has something called The Journalist’s Creed, which devised by Walter Williams, who founded the school and attempted to turn journalism into a profession. (He even began the creed with the statement, “I believe in the profession of journalism.”) But it wasn’t a full-fledged code of ethics, and no one who completed the academic requirements for the journalism degree had to swear upon it before they were allowed to go forth and commit journalism.

In the murky field of higher ed marketing, however, people enter from all walks of life. Things are not quite as clear cut. It’s obvious to me, though, that marketing does not fit the definition of a profession because it does not require intensive study in that particular field and it does not require a code of ethics. (Maybe it should, but that’s another kettle of fish.)

The idea of our work as “craft,” however, may rub some of us the wrong way. We like to think of ourselves as professionals in the sense that we take pride in our work and we do it well. But many of us also take more of an artisan’s approach to our work. We learn by doing, from experience and from experiment. (So do doctors, frankly, although we hope that we won’t be the subjects of their experimentation, and we hope much of that was completed in med school.)

You could argue that I’m making a big deal about semantics, and that the definition of “profession” and “professional” has changed over time, becoming more generic. But my point is this: the next time you talk about what you do as a profession, or talk about yourself as a professional, maybe you should rethink your words and think about what it is that you really do. There’s nothing wrong with being a master at one’s craft.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

6 thoughts on “Craft, profession or something in between?”

  1. Good post, Andy.

    I’m thinking that folks are a collection of interdisciplinary artisans who come together to make things work. I think the fact that so many people (usually) come from different walks of life, with a tapestry of experiences is what should make higher ed a more dynamic environment. It usually does.

    On the flip side, there are some things that are very endemic to the quirks of the ivory tower that they don’t translate well to our former lives as journalists, marketers, agency web folks or teachers. I think that’s where it starts to look like something else and where people start to coalesce around the idea of a uniform higher ed “field”

    The nimbleness that people move in and out of the academic sector into the public or private sectors (exempting public colleges and universities as “public sector” for the purpose of this comment) makes it a fluid environment subject to whims and currents that we might not see in other industries, because there is often a great deal less uniform from college to college, than we’d see from say, doctors office to doctors office or how different lawyers approach their craft.

    So I think if I’m reading this right, then you hit the nail on the head. Far better to be the best darn marketer or writer or whatever else, working within the auspices of a higher ed environment than to think of ourselves as “higher ed professionals” whatever that is.

  2. Why can’t it be both? For the most part, those of us working in the world of Web do practice a craft. However, it’s also a vocation or occupation for which we are paid, which makes it a profession.

    I think the real answer is that the term profession is kind of like an umbrella that covers everything. A craft (assuming you are paid for it), is a specific type of profession.

  3. Ron, Curt – Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Our work environment certainly is more fluid now than ever before, and perhaps the old definitions no longer matter. I’m just getting old and curmudgeonly and bemoan the degradation of our language. A professional is more than someone who gets paid for doing a job, in my opinion. Craftsmen (sorry, can’t bring myself to say “craftspeople”) and artisans also get paid.

    Maybe this is all a moot point. But words and their definitions do matter. Sometimes.

  4. It depends on who you’re talking about. The heart of what we do is public relations, and if you’re applying the best practices and theory, it is most certainly a profession. In it’s most general sense, there are two types of PR practitioners: technicians and managers/counselors. The technicians are the artisans of a craft–the writers, editors, designers. The managers and counselors need to understand the craft, but they pay a much more important role in strategic planning and advising executives across the organization on issues of relationship management. There IS a public relations code of ethics, as well as levels of formal accreditation that include presentations and examinations, as well as educational requirements.

    As far as the differences go between marketing and public relations, there has been vast amounts of literature written on both sides about which holds the superior role. I like to use the term “marketing” in casual references because more people understand what it is. But when we talk about what the best top-level university communicators do, it’s the noble profession of public relations.

    Getting off my soapbox now…thanks for drawing attention to such an interesting debate!

  5. I think it is also both. Marketers in general have to be creative, they create, and learn from doing – a bit of trial and error – as mentioned in your blog.

    It is also a profession. While we don’t have to go through as much technical training as a doctor/lawyer/nurse, marketers do have a code of ethics of sorts. In most cases the code of ethics is unwritten or isn’t very formal. We learn that subliminal messaging, greenwashing, some guerrilla marketing, and forced opt-ins are unethical. In some cases the ethical issues have been turned into laws – again subliminal marketing and marketing cigarettes and alcohol to those that are underage for example.

  6. It always fascinates me to hear from other people who think about this stuff. It confirms I’m not alone in the universe. ;)

    Davina – Great points about the differentiation between the management/counselor role vs. the tacticians. But what I’m finding — and I suspect we’ll continue to see as budgets get tighter — is a blurring of the line between strategist/manager/counselor and tactician/artisan/creative. I think more and more of us will need skills sets that can do both the strategic thinking and planning as well as the execution of ideas. So the lines between professional and craftsperson (ugh) will continue to blur.

    Travis – Yes, the best marketing folks do adhere to a code of ethics, but it is unwritten, not codified, as it is with the traditional professions. Again, there’s that blurring of the lines.

    Thanks for so many great comments!

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