Letters can make a statement. Think Ph.D, MBA or Esq. While those are academic terms, for some PR pros the certification Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) is an important marker. For others, it’s a nice-to-have, not a requirement. PRNEWS spoke with communicators with and without the APR to gauge their views about it, the process and its value.
What is the APR?
The APR is an internationally recognized certification. It is intended to signify that the holder possesses the expertise, skills and abilities to succeed as a PR pro.
The APR program began in 1964. PRSA administered it until 1998, when a group of PR organizations created the Universal Accreditation Board. The Board united several certification and examination programs under an umbrella called the Examination for Accreditation in Public Relations. PRSA continues to administer its day-to-day operations.
APR: The Process
Pursuing the APR is no easy task. It requires hours of study, a panel presentation and an online exam. PRSA recommends candidates have at least five years of full-time PR experience before applying. Communicators we spoke with say it's an educational and rewarding experience, though it may overwhelm those with limited time to devote to the process.
While there is no set time frame for APR test prep, once an application is accepted, the individual has one year to complete the process. In addition, to maintain the APR, communicators must renew their accreditation every three years.
The APR exam tests six groupings of knowledge, skills and abilities:
- Research, Planning, Implementing and Evaluating Programs
- Leading the Public Relations Function
- Managing Relationships
- Applying Ethics and Law
- Managing Issues and Crisis Communications and
- Understanding Communication Models, Theories and History of the Profession
The exam consists of multiple-choice and situation-analysis questions and does not require memorization. It's designed, PRSA says, to assesses how well a candidate applies knowledge to situations that PR professionals encounter.
The APR "provides comprehensive knowledge of what goes into a public relations campaign, how to strategize around each element in different situations and circumstances and how to evaluate and learn from everything we do,” PRSA's 2021 chair Michelle Olson, APR, says.
Many PRSA chapters offer help, including study groups. No matter how many years of experience an applicant has, the best way to ace the exam is to study, according to Olson.
“Even if you’re an experienced practitioner...I encourage you to tackle it like the challenge that it will be, and prepare for it,” Olson says. “You can’t phone it in on test day.”
The APR Grad
PRNEWS spoke with practitioners who've received the APR, decided not to go through with it or are engaged in the process. Their backgrounds reflect several levels of experience as well as reasons for pursuing, or not, the accreditation.
Emily Burns Perryman, VP, institutional advancement at Daemen College, received her APR in 2013. Unsure of the value of graduate studies, she opted for the APR instead. In addition, she was expecting her first child, so the opportunity felt right for her career path.
“I happened to be working in [accounting and financial services, which] placed value on employees with accreditations and certifications," such as CPA, CMA, CFP, etc., Burns Perryman says. “As a member of an internal marketing team, I felt [APR] might add clout and additional credibility to my role...by having my skills and expertise recognized by my professional organization.”
The process took Burns Perryman about a year, after which she did not pass the exam. However, she kept at it and reached out to APRs in her region for advice. She earned accreditation on the second try.
Burns Perryman has seen a significant impact on her career since achieving APR status, which helped her build a reputation in the industry.
“I was selected as my local PRSA Chapter's "May C. Randazzo Outstanding Practitioner," in 2017,” she says. “I believe my obtaining this honor was due to many things I have achieved throughout my career, but having an APR designation helped support my nomination for the recognition. As a female professional, I feel it is important to 'toot your own horn' and self-promote, including working toward honors and awards, as those are ways to help advance your career, especially in a smaller market like the one I work in.”
She suggests asking several questions before pursuing the APR:
- Do I have the time, capacity and dedication to dive into this process?
- Do I have a support system?
- Will my employer fund the process and/or place value on it?
- Will it potentially position me for better opportunities?
- Do I have an interest in the achievement so I can learn more, fine tune my skills, gain emotional intelligence...and become a stronger and more trustworthy practitioner?
“If you can answer most or all of these questions with a 'yes,' I say give it a go and see if it is something you can achieve. It always feels really good to check things off your list of personal and professional goals, especially when you reflect on the work that it took to achieve them.”
A Different Path
Veteran communicator Hinda Mitchell, president, Inspire PR Group, has worked in agencies since the mid-1990s. She’s counseled national organizations and CEOs. Her career path is enviable.
Mitchell didn't shun the APR. Yet, by the time she considered obtaining it, Mitchell felt far along enough in her career that it wouldn’t “dramatically" change things. However, Mitchell is an APR advocate.
“As the field of PR evolves, I believe having the APR designation is valuable and provides credibility for the profession,” she says. “Going through the process of affirming your strategic skillset as it relates to PR is beneficial," Mitchell adds.
“While you can have a successful PR career without it—the time and investment of preparing for and taking the APR test speaks volumes about your commitment to the profession, to your development and the fundamental strategies and tactics that make you a great communicator.”
A Current APR Pursuit
Luis D. Sosa, senior PR manager at Merlot Marketing, started thinking about the APR early in 2020. But when he started working from home, dealing with the blur of work versus home, Sosa didn’t make much headway on the exam.
He’s since restarted his quest. Recently he joined the PRSA North Pacific District virtual APR prep course. It’s helped him prioritize the time needed to obtain the APR.
Sosa says he's already seeing the benefit of deciding to pursue the APR.
“When you’re dealing with daily agency fires, client requests, events and webinars, you get caught up in the details and traditional practices—so by studying for the APR, it forces you to take a step back and really examine the public relations industry,” Sosa says. “ It’s the ultimate learning opportunity coupled with a quantifiable achievement that will not only add credibility to my personal career, but will also put me in a better position to provide value to Merlot Marketing and our clients.”
He's applying APR knowledge to his job.
“Looking back on previous campaigns through the lens of RPIE or SMART Goals helps us self-critique and raise the bar next time,” he says. “When you review the history and impact of what we do in context, it helps us reflect on why PR is often incorrectly defined and misunderstood, which helps tackle perception and expectations for our clients. The APR, for me, is about reflection, learning, hearing peers discuss case studies, adding advice from your experiences, receiving constructive criticism, and discovering that you’re not the only one dealing with certain issues.”
Like Burns Perryman, Sosa also suggests chatting with APRs to learn more about the process for inspiration.
“Talk to your PRSA chapter’s APR chair. Call up and email APRs that you know, and talk through what they learned and the value they see in getting your accreditation,” he says. “I found it very invigorating to hear everyone’s APR journey and personal motivations.”
Is the APR Worth It?
Like any major educational pursuit, it takes work to achieve your desired outcome. And if you want to take the next step in your career or sharpen your skills, the APR may be the right choice. That said, the negatives associated with attaining an APR are minimal; however, the time and commitment make it an individual choice.
PRSA says 19 percent of its members are accredited. While PRSA lacks additional statistics about the APR's influence on salary or career prospects, it says the APR shows a communicator has comprehensive knowledge of what goes into a PR campaign.
“Ultimately, the APR can reinforce your position as a leader, counselor, mentor and authority on the issues and challenges that populate the communications landscape,” Olson says. “Your accreditation strengthens your commitment to a theory of ethical and strategic communications, that all of our work is based on research and must be evaluated on its merits. The APR doesn’t only represent what you do, it becomes part of who you are.”
Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal