Monday, February 27, 2012

Accreditation in PR

Every now and then a discussion on LinkedIn prompts me to chime in to join the dialogue.  One discussion recently centered on accreditation in public relations.  The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) decades ago established an accreditation program of individual professionals to mixed reviews.

To receive your accreditation and earn the right to put the letters “APR” after your name in business correspondence, you have to have at least five years’ experience and then do the proper prep work before taking written and oral exams. 

Almost immediately, seasoned PR vets reacted negatively to the notion of having to take a test to prove they were qualified.  Because PR is centered on public communication, the large part of its work is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and is therefore unregulated. 

This is not to say PR pros can’t get into trouble.  There’s the ever-present threat of litigation, accusations of libel or slander, and the possibility that in the course of any sort of disclosure you could reveal information you shouldn’t have.  Then there are the regulators – SEC, FTC, FCC, FDA, to name a few.

In some way, communicators can run afoul of certain regulations that are in place to govern such things as insider trading or claims made to promote or sell products.

Still, the vast majority of professional communicators have and continue to navigate these waters without accreditation, which does not touch government regulation.  The ethical or compliance component of accreditation centers on the PRSA's Code of Ethics, which if well understood and followed can help individual PR pros avoid some of the possible trouble I mentioned just previous. 

I earned my APR in 1990, and since then have been asked by young people if they should do the same.  This was the question I responded to on LinkedIn.  The answers from other experienced PR pros were predictable. Many were in favor of it, some were neutral, and as is often the case, the more vocal respondents were adamantly against accreditation. 

The critics were all seasoned vets who never saw the need to get accredited and never saw clients or others expect that they should be accredited.  Based on this, they did not see the value.  I understand that.  Even though I was accredited 21 years ago, I doubt that I ever would have been penalized for not being accredited.

But here’s the thing.  Over the past ten years, I have seen a difference in how people outside the profession have reacted when seeing that I was accredited.  Curiosity on what “APR” stood for quickly turned to appreciation of the fact that PRSA has a vetting process of sorts to ensure that its accredited members have a baseline of professional knowledge.    While this is great, I mentioned in the discussion why I think this vetting process is even more important today.

Most people who started in the business when I did had some reporting experience on their resumes.  This presumed they could write, perform a broad range of analytical activities, and hold their own in rooms with Type A clients and the media.  When the field started to become dominated in number by entry-level PR majors who came from college programs where journlastic writing was de-emphasized, there was a significant drop in the quality of writing and some of the other skills we need.  This lingers to this day.

As more and more PR majors gain experience and earn accreditation, they have brought the bar back up.  I’ve noticed that when you work with those who’ve been accredited, you rarely have to worry about their foundations.

To be sure, accreditation can’t take the place of real-world experience and all that comes with it.  To try to compare accreditation to a graduate degree is apples to oranges.  One is affirmation of what you know, the other represents a major educational step.  A master’s degree without the five years’ experience associated with accreditation is not an edge in terms of immediate employability, but any graduate degree is certainly a good thing over the long term.

In the end, I told the young LinkedIn questioner the same thing I’ve told college classes when they have asked about tattoos.  Typically, a student will ask whether having visible tattoos will hurt them in their PR careers.

My answer on both accreditation and tattoos is the same: “Not if over the next 25 years you only plan on working for people who don’t care about it.”

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