Fawkes, Johanna; Gregory, Anne; Montoya-Martinez, Elizabeth (2017). 'One size does not fit all: Designing a global capability framework for public relations and communications management using Sen’s Capability Approach' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Concepts of competence, competency and capability are applied throughout management literature. Some of this material has influenced public relations scholarship. However, critical evaluation reveals profound confusion and interchangeability between these concepts. This paper seeks to clarify this confusion and demonstrate how the Capability Approach influences the design of a global research project to create a Capability Framework for public relations and communication management.

This paper introduces to public relations literature the Capability Approach founded in the work of Sen and Nussbaum and applied in fields such as education, midwifery, professional development and more. The core concepts of the capability approach are summarised by Walker and Unterhalter (2007, pp 2-7) as  a) the centrality of a person’s (or group’s) well-being to human flourishing; b) distinctions between the capacity to flourish and the functioning or demonstration of valued achievements; and c) the freedom to choose what is valued. These concepts are unpacked in the full paper.

As the paper explores, competency has been used in public relations to understand and describe levels of proficiency, helping shape professional entry requirements and recognise levels of seniority. This is consistent with traditional management use of the term. While management literature has had the most influence on public relations scholarship in this area, a parallel body of work has emerged in the field of professionalism and professional competence, often based in thinking about qualifications and curriculum development. Both use terms of competence, competency and capability, though critical evaluation reveals these are often poorly defined or used interchangeably, which causes confusion and has consequences for their validity and application.

The literature from human development represents an intervention in that it emerges from philosophical and economic approaches to well-being rather than organisational profit or advantage. The paper takes a critical approach and is largely conceptual. It also reports on empirical research in progress in six partner countries around the world, including South Africa.


This paper summarises key management literature around competency and capability, explores the shifting emphasis in professionalism theory and practice and introduces CA as a dynamic disruption of previous approaches used in public relations. In particular, it provides a research approach for mitigating cultural dominance by Anglo-American ideas of professional competence in public relations and creates the foundation for a new way forward, integrating values, agency and choice into concepts of capability.

It also demonstrates how the CA approach has influenced the research design for a global research project currently underway at six universities in different continents. The project, supported by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management, aims to construct a capability framework for the field that will be of practical value to individual practitioners, educators and professional bodies. The project is now mid-way through its two-year term.

As a consequence of employing CA as a methodology, all partners are now using Delphi panels as the first stage of determining core capabilities for their countries. The second stage requires mass surveys to test the validity of the Delphi results; these surveys now include questions regarding help and hindrance in achieving personally selected capabilities in mass surveys, reflecting notions of agency and choice in Sen. Final stages will consult with key stakeholders to offer practical value from the research findings. The full paper will include preliminary findings from this project, with particular attention to the use of CA as a research tool for enabling insights into cultural and national variations in global benchmarking.

The introduction of human development concepts into thinking about public relations’ professional capabilities contains profound implications for practice and theory:

  • The implications for practice include more culturally sensitive capabilities frameworks, moving beyond the descriptive approaches often found in management literature and practice. Concepts of agency and choice are also integrated into this new model.
  • The implications for theory include a move away from the instrumentalism of previous applications in both management and public relations literature, toward a more humanistic and holistic understanding of professional capability in public relations, and by inference, professions generally.


Keywords : Public Relations; Capability Framework; Research Design; Global project

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