Should PRSA Board Service be tied to Public Relations Accreditation?

Posted by Dan Keeney

The big debate in public relations circles these days has nothing to do with the outrageous efforts to sully the reputation of  Wiki Leaks founder Julian Assange and its implications for the profession and journalism in general, BP’s ham handed response to the biggest manmade environmental disaster in U.S. history or even whether PR staffers caught posting phony reviews online should be tarred and feathered. Instead, the greatest minds of our profession are embroiled in a no-win argument about whether the Public Relations Society of America should require professional accreditation before being considered for service on the Society’s Board of Directors.

Established in 1964, the Accredited in Public Relations credential (APR) is awarded by the Universal Accreditation Board (disclosure: I earned my APR in 2000). It measures a public relations practitioner’s fundamental knowledge of communications theory and its application; establishes advanced capabilities in research, strategic planning, implementation and evaluation; and demonstrates a commitment to professional excellence and ethical conduct.

The APR credential has nothing to do with a person’s ability to govern effectively on the board of a national PR society. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Currently, PRSA requires that any prospective board member be accredited. When a ground-up rewrite of the PRSA bylaws was proposed last year, the organization’s General Assembly (the PRSA version of Congress) rejected the proposed language that would have stripped accreditation from board requirements. Despite voting a few years ago to drop the requirement that all Assembly Delegates be accredited, the Assembly balked at taking the next logical step.

The reason the PRSA general assembly voted to drop the requirement that Assembly Delegates be accredited (or “decouple” service from accreditation as we called it then) was that doing so eliminated so many highly qualified PRSA chapter leaders. How could a person serve as the president of a large chapter and not qualify to represent that chapter as a PRSA Assembly Delegate?

The rationale for keeping the accreditation requirement for Assembly Delegates then (as it is now for board service) is that it illustrates an organizational commitment to the credential. If PRSA’s leaders aren’t willing to pursue and achieve the credential, how can the organization suggest it has value for everyone else? What kind of PR practitioner would seek a leadership position but not consider it worthwhile to seek this profession’s credential?

That is a pretty good argument, but we aren’t in a world where everything makes sense. The fact is that only about 20 percent of PRSA members have achieved the APR credential. As a result, until the middle of the last decade, the organization basically had a class system of governance. Only 20 percent of the membership had the ability to serve on the PRSA General Assembly and/or Board of Directors. The other 80 percent, for which everything else was the same (including dues) could not participate in leadership.

Included in that 80 percent are highly capable PR practitioners, including accomplished leaders in corporate communications and agency management. Included in that 80 percent are people who have been leaders of the profession for 20 or more years and regularly shape thoughts about effective strategies, trends and ethics. And included in that 80 percent who, until the mid-00s, could not serve as an Assembly Delegate and STILL cannot serve as a PRSA Board Member are practitioners who have given countless hours of their time as leaders at the chapter and regional levels.

It didn’t make sense for the PRSA General Assembly and it does not make sense for the PRSA Board of Directors.

Last year when the general assembly passed an amendment to the proposed new bylaws that re-inserted the accreditation requirement for board service, I thought it was wrong. To make a point, I presented an amendment to re-insert the accreditation requirement for service as a General Assembly Delegate. I knew it would be defeated, but I wanted to make a point that their insistence on requiring an APR for board service made no sense given their vehement distaste for requiring APR for the assembly.

It was and is a blatant contradiction. If you believe accreditation should be a requirement for PRSA leadership, I respect that. But I can’t understand how you can require accreditation for one set of leaders but drop the same requirement for the other set of leaders.

I don’t think anyone really got the point I was trying to make. Turns out PR people are a very literal group and don’t really get irony.

Fast forward to today with forum posts and e-mails flying with semi-respectful insults pitting the leaders of our profession against each other. Each side is entrenched with very little likelihood that many will be influenced by the back and forth argument. But here’s the bottom line:

  • It makes no sense to require accreditation of the PRSA Board of Directors, especially since the PRSA General Assembly dropped the requirement for accreditation for itself and nearly all chapters have no APR requirements for leadership.
  • Given the fact that a majority of the leaders of PRSA chapters, regions and the PRSA General Assembly are not accredited, it is impossible to argue that accreditation has any impact on the ability to govern. The organization is already largely governed by unaccredited PR practitioners.
  • The inability of four out of five PRSA members to serve on the PRSA board regardless of their level of achievement, track record of service to the organization or interest in serving is patently unfair.
  • If the real goal is to illustrate the organization’s commitment to the credential, there must be better ways to accomplish that goal than coupling accreditation and board service.

That last point is where a meaningful and productive conversation really should start, but unfortunately year after year the PRSA General Assembly gets a glossed over report on the status of the organization’s accreditation promotion efforts. Let’s hope this year it is different.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 2nd, 2010 at 5:58 pm and is filed under Future of PR. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Should PRSA Board Service be tied to Public Relations Accreditation?”

  1. Former PRSA Member Says:

    I am a former PRSA board member of a local chapter. My experience is that I was selected not because of my brilliance, but because they desperately needed people to do stuff, and I was one of the few people who was willing to serve (don’t get me wrong, I bring brilliance to the table too;-)). I do not have my APR, and I served primarily with people who also were not accredited. The pool of candidates would have been pretty small if APR was required. The seats were hard enough to fill as it was.

    It’s been at least 5 years since I’ve been involved with PRSA (my career took a turn toward journalism and my PRSA membership became a liability). I had hoped that the whole debate over APR would have died down by now. Sadly, it has not.

    I’ve always been baffled by why it is such a controversy. APR is not required to practice public relations. It’s a certificate of sorts that shows continued education and a commitment to ethical standards. There are always things to learn and ways to show commitment to high standards. APR does that.

    So why not make it a “preferred qualification,” or something that makes one person stand out over another. But, since people can do the job without an APR, it seems silly to require it for leadership in an organization that is supposed to represent all practitioners.

    And, for the sake of full disclosure, I’ve never seen a convincing case for why I should get my APR. Apparently 80 percent of the PRSA membership agrees.

    Maybe the APR evangelists should demonstrate the merit of the accreditation before they start excluding people who don’t have it. Seems like a public relations campaign for the APR is in order.

  2. jordan p fowler Says:

    Perhaps this is a step to keep publication relations viewed as more of a true accredited profession than the current state of social media, where all you have to do is have a twitter account and claim the status of guru or expert and it is deemed that you are. As Social Media matures the wheat and tares shall surely be separated, but for now it is a morass of hunches and “smoke and unicorns” to quote Zarrella.

    Having a baseline of knowledge measured by accreditation insures, to a degree, against the sullying of PR where everyone is deemed to be an expert. In regards to board membership, perhaps APR exemptions should be granted for a solid and provable “street-cred” in public relations. Surely some metrics could be established for this.

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