Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Case for Accreditation in Communications

Not that infrequently, a discussion board on a PR blog or LinkedIn centers on the never-ending debate over whether PR professionals should be accredited.  Before digging into the meat of the issue and in the interest of full disclosure, I am accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, so that should tell you where this article is going.

But first I need to cover some very good reasons for NOT being accredited.  PRSA’s accreditation acronym is “APR” for Accredited in Public Relations.”  The Association of Business Communicators'  accreditation program recognizes members with the title Accredited Business Communicator or “ABC.”

If you’re considering accreditation, don’t do it for the letters after your name.  They mean nothing to most people.  Having APR or ABC on your business card is not likely to win you any more business, earn much more respect, or get for you a promotion that your own personal charisma wouldn’t get for you.

PRSA’s accreditation program is for those with at least five years’ experience.  By then, you should know most of the things in the material used to test you as part of accreditation.  Still, the process is a great refresher course where much of what you should know is consolidated and used as part of a solid professional development process.

The fact is, APR or ABC after your name not the same as having the letters, CPA, MD, JD, or even MBA after your name. Those designations reflect a significant amount more preparation than the communications accreditation processes require.

The reason accreditation will never match these other accreditation types of processes is rooted in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  In America, anyone has a right to say just about anything so long as it doesn’t interfere with another person’s health, safety and constitutionally protected rights.  In other words, you don’t need a license to express yourself.

But you do need various forms of licensure to practice medicine, law and accounting.  These are highly regulated professions. Communications is not.  That’s not to say we don’t have parameters.  A few of the federal agencies that lay down regulations that at times govern communication include: the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the Securities Exchange Commission.

So why get accredited?

My feelings have evolved on this.  I was accredited in 1990, and did it because I felt it couldn’t hurt.  Over time, I always told those who were considering accreditation was something to the effect, “It can only help, and it’s a great development experience.” 

After all, some of the best PR people I’ve ever known never bothered to get accredited and it didn’t hurt them.

But the emergence of social media has started to harden my feelings in favor of accreditation.

I follow a number of communications blogs and Web sites where PR professionals from around the world contribute content and comment on articles.  In recent years, I’ve been more exposed to more broad and diverse views on communication than I ever had been prior to the age of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

I’ve found that these are great tools to keep a finger on the pulse of the latest developments and trends affecting the communications business.  But I’ve also learned something else. 

The PR business is loaded with people completely unprepared to call themselves professional communicators in the truest sense of the word. 

To be sure, there are thousands and thousands of solid PR people across the country doing unbelievable work.  But based on what I see in the profession, there are also thousands of people who work in agencies, companies and other organizations who have PR-centric titles who can’t write, don’t understand the basics of communications strategy, don’t understand the role communicators play as problem-solvers, and quite often operate one-dimensionally. 

They may have been hired to handle social media for an organization, and they’ve never spent the time and energy to develop their newswriting skills to create good press releases.  Or they’ve been hired to handle media relations for an organization, but they haven’t learned how to apply that knowledge to crisis communications planning and response.

In order to become accredited, you have to start to take a much more comprehensive view towards communications and your work.

So, now when a younger pro asks me whether he or she should become accredited, I say ‘yes.’  I say this because I don’t have the time to mentor all of them, and there probably aren’t enough potential mentors out there to assure that people with less than five years’ experience are getting the kind of training they need.

Accreditation provides a benchmark for what every professional communicator should know by the time he or she has accumulated five years’ experience.  If you’ve been in the business that long, and can’t pass the accreditation test, there are some gaps that need to be addressed.

So, in the end, what do you get for becoming accredited?

I would compare it to being an avid runner who sets a goal to run a marathon.  You set a goal, you prepare, and in the end you do it for yourself.  And if you decide to get even more serious about your running, having the title “marathon runner” on your resume certainly can help separate you from others who have not run marathons.

This is true for communications.  If you are serious about your profession and want to make a statement about your commitment, accreditation is in line with this.

One final thought, and this one is for those who are not in the business of communications, but who may be in position to hire a communicator or a communications firm.  I’d strongly recommend that you put accreditation on your evaluation criteria. There are simply too many people who have found it easy to call themselves communicators, who may even have their own communications consultancies, who haven’t done the proper work to prepare themselves to work for you. 

Technology has made it easy for novices to package and present themselves to give the impression they know much more than they actually do.  Asking any candidate you are considering to hire whether he or she is accredited, is just one way to begin to determine who is most serious about their profession and deserving of your business.

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