Two previous posts in this blog were dedicated, directly on indirectly, to the issue of regulation and /or licensing of public relations professionals. Following three recent important events (Richard Edelman’s call for licensing and his subsequent withdrawal from the Council of Pr Firms; PRSA’s decision, after twenty years of silence and resistance to public discussion, to make public on its website and in a recent issue of its monthly Tactics, some of the contents of a discussion amongst members of its ethics committee; and finally Harold Burson’s ‘outing’ in favour of licensing at Icco’s recent Delhi annual assembly), this week it was Puerto Rico’s turn to prominently raise the issue in the annual national conference of its professional body …There were four panelists in the debate (the outgoing president of the association, Anita Gregorio; the Brasilian Professor Maria Aparecida Ferrari; Jean Valin, past chairman of the Global Alliance; and John Paluszek, ambassador at large for the GA).
°Anita introduced the debate by recounting the various phases of the association’s five year plan, which has now expired, in which the issue was thoroughly investigated, carefully examined and arrvied to the drafting of a proposed bill, which is now to be inherited by a newly elected advisory board so that the new leadership may push into into congressional hearings and subsequent legislation;
°Maria Aparecido illustrated the origin of the Brazilian licensing law back in the early 60’s as a way for the military dictatorship of the time to control all freedom of expression and cautioned the Puerto Rican association to learn from all the mistakes and misgivings of the Brazilian law;
°Jean Valin designed a comprehensive snapshot of the profession today in the world and enumerated the many challenges facing the profession, including those of regulation, accreditation and licensing;
°John Paluszek, from a different perspective, also cautioned his Puerto Rican colleagues to be very careful to involve the government in the affairs of the profession.
The debate was then to the floor and many where the pros and cons which finally ended in a heated discussion the following morning at the associations’ internal general assembly, with the decision to proceed along the lines indicated by its past leadership.
This is, in short what happened, but let’s look at the issue form a broader perspective:
Any democratic state has the right to interfere into and regulate a profession if and when it believes the practice of that profession has a significant and potential negative impact on the interest of the public. Having said this, it is also true to say that most of the time the debate on licensing and regulation of public relations is raised by professionals, usually members of professional associations, who believe that licensing could be an effective deterrent against non professionals entering the field and ruining public relation’s reputation. In the best of circumstances, this is truly in the interest of clients, employers and the general public; in the worst of circumstances this same consideration is put forward as a teaser in the first lines of any statement, but the real objective is to call in the State to protect professionals from competition, with the excuse of serving the public interest.
What does not often occur is a call for licensing initiated directly by governments, parliaments, media, activists or social critics. And this needs to be carefully taken into consideration, although anyone practicing public affairs knows very well that no initiative by a government or a parliament comes from inside. It is always called for by vested interests, and this is why it is relevant to notice that sofar most calls for licensing come from public relators rather than their critics….
There are many ways that regulation of public relations may come about or has come about.
The two extremes are:
°to practice public relations you must have a college degree in the field, take a state examination, and belong to the professional association;
°there is a complete and open access to the profession while members of the associations are self regulated by their own internal codes of ethics.
If one considers the outcomes of both poles, they can be considered a general failure (some less, some more, according to the situation of course).
Let’s see why this is so:
°the Brasilian experience has been a failure in the sense that public relations professionals who do not wish to be regulated, simply call themselves with a different name…grotesque in its simplicity if you want, but so realistic that in Brazil there is now a growing push towards a stringent review and change of the law which would imply a more inclusive rather than exclusive approach.
°the other more common option has demonstrated at least two strong weaknesses:
-professional associations do not in average represent more than 10% of professionals operating in a given territory,
-their codes of ethics have hardly, if ever, been applied (a recent investigation amongst the then 25 global alliance members of how many cases in the last ten years the codes had been used to intervene, obviously post, came up with the fingers in one hand; a mor recent research amongst italian professionals (see first ever post of this blog) has even more frightening figures…). If one considers as paramount the objective of regulation in the interest of the public, then both systems have failed. But even if one considers only the egotistic and individual motives behind the push to licensing, these have also failed.
Of course, accreditation of professionals belonging to an association is one way of ensuring that at least those professionals are constantly reminded, by the way of ongoing education supplied by associations, of the rules of the game. But even here there are serious problems, as not more than 20% of members of associations participate to accreditation programs. The option of making these mandatory would strongly decrease the already tiny proportion of members.
Of course, many if not most of the new entries in the profession come from education institutions which consider the rules of the game as mandatory learning.. but what about the great majority of association members who did not take those courses? A gigantic ‘grandfather clause’ would need to come into action and , as the Puerto Rican’s are considering, a short term validity of accreditation schemes would oblige those privileged by the grandfather clause to do professional training if they want to have their license reviewed….
To see, is to believe, as some say….
And, after all, why should professional associations be entrusted by their national or local governments to decide who can and who can’t practice a profession? I believe (but would very much welcome a clarification on this) that the Swiss have developed a fairly well balanced process by which any individual may put up shop and say ‘I practice public relations’, but if you want to have a government recognition of your practice and put that on your business card or letterhead, then you need to pass an exam which is jointly run by the government and the professional association, while those who take the exam and pass it are not necessarily obliged to become members of the association. Not bad, if it is so. But what is that business card or letterhead really worth in terms of a potential employer or client? All other things being equal, would they select a licensed professional over a non licensed one? I wonder… and would like to know more about the Swiss experience.
As far as I know, the only benefit in belonging (one hell of a benefit, may I say in some countries like Italy the UK or South Africa or Canada or Spain or New Zealand, to name a few) to a professional association is certainly not to gain status, but professional knowledge and exchange of experience.
And this also because, as Harold Burson acutely remarked the other day in Delhi citing the tale of the son of the cobbler, if there is something that professional public relations associations have never been able to effectively perform, is public relations for public relations. And there are many compelling and rational reasons for this…which I will leave to another post….