Professional Accreditation: Does It Push The Needle?


For doctors, it's M.D. For post-doctorate grads, it's Ph.D. For lawyers, it's Esq. Each signoff at the end of one's name is a conspicuous stamp of approval in many communities, a sign that said person has overcome academic obstacles, endured caffeine-fueled all-nighters, passed grueling tests of mental stamina and intellectual dexterity. For many, it's a personal accomplishment that can be tucked away at the end of a diploma, but for some, it's essential punctuation that clings tenaciously to their surname. For PR executives, these acronyms are APR (Accredited in Public Relations) and ABC (Accredited Business Communicator) - signs of professional accreditation whose benefits are increasingly debated by PR practitioners across all communications functions. And the crux of the matter? If such credentials aren't required for people to practice public relations, do they still legitimize the profession and improve the public's perception of it? Public relations accreditation by organizations like the Universal Accreditation Board (which offers APR certification) and International Association of Business Communicators (which offers ABC certification) were put in the spotlight in the summer of 2005, when results from an industry salary survey revealed that accredited public relations professionals earn 20 percent more than those who are not - that is, on average, $102,031 versus $85,272. With that tidbit as a fire starter, communications and PR bloggers have since instigated debates within the blogosphere on the merits - or lack thereof - of having three simple, some would say arbitrary, letters after one's name. The Universal Accreditation Board picked up on the building discussion and gave a presentation titled "Give Yourself the Accreditation Advantage" in May of 2005. The presentation explicitly stated the benefits of having accreditation - specifically, that APR: Sets industry standards Legitimizes the profession through standards and uniformity Builds accountability through ethics and legal knowledge Meets human resource recruiting criteria Increases visibility among business and human resource communities The presentation also offered statistics characterizing accredited practitioners: Ninety-six percent of those surveyed believe the APR credential is valuable. (Note: it's a misleading statistic given the nature of the respondent pool, as one would be hard-pressed to find too many people who would knock the credential after they spent valuable time and money earning it.) Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed believe accreditation helped develop their professional skills Fifty-eight believe it helped resolve ethical dilemmas More recently, the Public Relations Society of America (a member organization of the Universal Accreditation Board) hosted a series of podcasts discussing the value of the APR credential to the professional public relations practitioner. Such industry executives as Edward Bury, director of public relations for CCIM Institute, and Nan Baldwin, director of communications for the Metropolitan Development Board, participated, touting the accreditation's positive impact on their ability to practice PR. However, vocal opposition challenges these claims. In his blog "PR Squared," Todd Defren, principal at SHIFT Communications, argued that, "Accreditation only legitimizes one organization's [the PRSA] view of what is entailed by 'Public Relations.'" Leo Bottary, senior vice president, corporate practices at Hill & Knowlton, concurs, saying on his client services blog that "I've worked with the accredited and unaccredited alike, and believe me, there are great ones and bad ones in both camps." Another strike against the idea of accreditation is its ability to remain current and relevant in an industry that is so transient. Phil Gomes, senior counsel for online communications at Edelman, sums up this observation up by saying, "I don't trust a professional organization in the communications industry to keep accreditation mechanisms current." The flip-side of the argument - and there always is one - is that a process for accreditation sets a code of conduct that is essential to maintaining standardized, ethical practices across the board. According to Kami Huyse, principal of My PR Pro and Accreditation Chair for PRSA San Antonio, in the ongoing blog accreditation debate: "There are more than enough examples out there of public relations campaigns with questionable ethics, outright criminal behavior, engaging in activities that harm the client, clueless practices that show a lack of ability to think through a process and deceptive practices like Astroturfing to push through an agenda at any cost." On her blog, Huyse lists reasons why accreditation should be seen as valuable: PR is a management function, and speaking the language of C-suite executives is essential to its most effective practice; this "language" is taught in all accreditation preparations (see sidebar). Accreditation sets a standard of ethics; thus, ignorance is not an excuse for noncompliance. (That said, ethics play a substantial role in the acquisition of a law degree, but some people might jest that the legal profession as a whole is not a particularly ethical institution PR programs should link to organizational goals, and the accreditation process imparts the knowledge of how to do so. Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, the swirling controversy is indicative of questions about the direction in which the PR industry is moving. Its many manifestations - corporate communications, agency-client relations, even marketing - make one standard process for qualifying as a practitioner very difficult to mandate, but such a process could also make strides in legitimizing the profession throughout the business world. Either way, a cynic of any persuasion can certainly appreciate a little humor. Says Jeremy Pepper, founder of POP! Public Relations, in his well-read blog http://pop-pr.blogspot.com/: "I think that being accredited - with $2 - gets you a cup of coffee." (Please e-mail PR News Editor Courtney Barnes with opinions at cbarnes@accessintel.com.)How To ... Become Accredited APR: Step 1: Qualify: You must be a member of a participating organization who is involved in the professional practice of public relations, or in the teaching or administration of public relations courses in an accredited college or university. Step 2: Pay Up: Submit the eligibility form along with the $385 fee. Step 3: Complete Readiness Review Questionnaire: This must include a PR plan you have written and executed, to good effect. Step 4: Participate in Readiness Review: Similar to an oral exam, you will present your work before a panel. Step 5: Take - and Pass - the Examination: The exam is comprised of 10 competencies, including communications models and theories, ethics, crisis communications management and media relations. ABC: Step 1: Qualify: You must be a professional communicator with a minimum of five years of experience in business communication (organizational communication, public relations or communications management) and a bachelor's degree, or a total of nine years of combined post-secondary education and/or experience. Step 2: Submit Application: The application should include biographical, education and professional experience. Include fee: $290 for IABC members; $500 for nonmembers. Step 3: Pass examination:There are two components - written and oral.

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