Revisiting the PR Licensing Debate

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There’s a debate in PR circles-a decades-old debate-that centers around whether PR practitioners should be licensed.

We can never be viewed as a real profession, the argument goes, until we all measure up to the same tested standards. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and a host of other lines of work that are viewed as professions all require licenses or certification in order for a practitioner to play his trade.

The argument against certification is simple. For doctors, lawyers, and accountants, there is a clear-cut right way and wrong way to do things; coloring outside the lines is not only wrong, it can get you thrown in jail. In communications, however, there is so much leeway for alternative approaches that it would be impossible to develop an empirical test. (Accreditation-the route generally taken in the profession-is more subjective and designates only that the accredited communicator is well-grounded in the basics.)

Several countries in Europe and Asia do require certification for PR practitioners. One of them is Wales, where Marc Evans, chairman of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), claims certification is one of the major reasons PR has earned new respect in that country: “This achievement confers a seal of professionalism on the industry and is public recognition of the valuable role PR plays in the UK’s economic, cultural and political life,” Evans writes in icWales.

The PR boom in Wales is also the result of “a changing attitude toward the profession,” Evans says, as business leaders recognize the importance of PR in helping companies manage their reputations.

How CEOs view PR is part of this change in perception. They are becoming more aware of the impact reputation has on the bottom line and that professional PR counsel is central to the strategic management of their organisation, requiring a presence in the boardroom.

Further, PR professionals are getting better at demonstrating the impact they’ve had through solid measurement techniques, according to Evans.

Much of what Evans writes is common sense, and it’s in his own enlightened self-interest as chairman of the CIPR to tout the benefits of certification. But Evans also points to a comprehensive study on the state of the profession in Wales that, he says, proves the points he’s making.

I’ve never been a fan of the certification idea. Imagine trying to certify novelists or talk show hosts or interior decorators, all of which somehow manage to be viewed as professions without the need for licensing. But it still is worth revisiting as the process seems to have had an impact in Wales.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.

Revisiting the PR Licensing Debate
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