Summing up the licensing debate, a post on Strumpette

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The Public Relations Society has decided yesterday to set up a task force to explore the certification issue, while many of my students from NYU’s Global Relations course selected licensing for their final paper. Here, in Strumpette, is a post which summarizes the debate. Let me know your thoughts….

5 COMMENTS

  1. As it stands at the moment, pretty much anyone, anywhere (unless you are in a handful of countries) can print out a business card, slap ‘public relations consultant’ under their name and trot off into the great outdoors wreaking havoc with the reputation of anyone prepared to slip them a few dollars.

    Is that a good thing? I don’t think so now and I haven’t thought so – well – ever. But, and it is a big ‘But’, management of the licensing process by governments is not to be recommended either. Governments, as we are all aware, don’t always act in the best interests of the public and I would suggest that the bureaucratic or legislative concept of public relations is not one with which the majority of public relations practitioners would concur.

    The suggestion has been made here and elsewhere that professional associations have failed dismally to attract sufficient numbers of members to give their existence credence and are therefore ill-equipped to take on the licensing role – and there sits the chicken and its egg.

    What reason has there been for the practitioner to join an association? Those already motivated by the need to seek higher professional standards and clearer professional benchmarks are normally first in the queue, waving their membership cheque, followed closely by those who appreciate that membership of a professional association with a workable code of ethics will differentiate them from the throng, add value and credibility to their client/organisational offering and hopefully give them a commercial edge when it comes to that promotion or new client pitch. But those are self-motivated individuals. For the rest, if you don’t have to join – why bother? Sadly, many private and public sector organisations are woefully ignorant as to the existence, purpose and levels of acceptable practice of public relations so often the poor old practitioner is left pondering on the question of what benefits large annual membership fees deliver.

    That said, if the situation existed where the professional association was charged with setting the standards for implementation, with accreditation awarded by a professional, independent committee, might that not be the catalyst for increased membership and better participation, as practitioners would have to migrate to a central point in order to obtain their permit to practice? Such a system would also retain the flexibility required by a profession like ours where new developments – technological, political, environmental and so on – constantly impact on the work we do. Legislation-led licensing would produce an inflexible system where new skills and competencies would be slow to be absorbed into the professional education system leading, in the long term, to ‘almost able’ rather than capable practitioners.
    I don’t believe that all governments would, if given charge of licensing, use it as a means to limit free speech but I do thing that government licensing would limit the scope of public relations practice – unless of course a major global education project was initiated that lifted the veil from the eyes of the politically minded and revealed to them the discipline’s wider scope and purpose. (And isn’t it about time we had one of those as well?)

    Professional associations are well placed to administer licensing procedures and implement them in their appropriate cultural domain. The modern twist to this old argument (which I can recall having for at least 20 years) is that the now global nature of the communications environment at the very least demands that the defined educational path for professionals needs to be agreed worldwide.

    Local, cultural additions should be included where appropriate; the scope of practitioner competencies agreed; a shared qualification established – maybe APR has the edge here – so that practitioners can use their skills across geographical boundaries and (of paramount importance) an agreed code of ethics adhered to and implemented by all licensed professionals.

    It establishes the benchmark for the external community, enables practitioners to explain who they are and what they do, differentiates them from the unscrupulous and unqualified and enables the public – in its many forms – to buy public relations with confidence.

    The final piece of the jigsaw is that licensed practitioners should be required not just to achieve their licence but to adhere to a ‘life-long learning’ programme that ensures their skills are current, fresh and credible, as well as enhanced with the wisdom endowed by experience. Some at least might agree that this is more meaningful than being asked to cough up a bit more cash every year in order to keep your accreditation.

    There has been SO much talk about this. Wouldn’t a bit of ‘do’ be good to see? My personal view is that someone needs to be brave enough to just get on with it rather than it always seeming to be ‘within arm’s reach’ or still ‘under discussion’. Maybe it is the Global Alliance that takes the lead, maybe an individual association. Whoever it is, please do it now and make use of the many people around the world who would like to help make it a reality – some of whom may not belong to an association! As Captain Jack Sparrow says: “Bring me that horizon’. I, for one, want that licence.

  2. Catherine,
    good to learn you are back form your holiday and, as I see, ready to regain your pivotal role in our conversations…

    1.
    you write that quote
    governments, as we are all aware, don’t always act in the best interests of the public unquote
    of course they do not, but this is precisely their core mission, the reason why the exist….no, I will not cite Churchill on democracy…but I am somewhat surprised by this remark. Do you honestly believe that, once we agree that public relations activities impact on the interests of the public, professional associations would be capable of doing this any better? Even accepting and I am certainly not willing to concede on this) for one moment that associations would be able to do this concerning the activities of their members, what about the other 90%???

    2.
    you argue that quote
    legislation led licensing would produce an inflexible system where new skills and competencies would be slow to be absorbed into the professional education system leading, in the long term, to ‘almost able’ rather than capable practitioners unquote.
    But you are well aware that this dilemma has driven over the years governments to devise operational tools such as soft laws, indipendent authorities, expert panels… to offset the complexities of rigid procedures. And, please, let’s not talk about today’s professional education system…

    3.
    you imply that quote
    …unless of course a major global education project was initiated that lifted the veil from the eyes of the politically minded and revealed to them the discipline’s wider scope and purpose. (And isn’t it about time we had one of those as well?)unquote
    And right you are: the issue of licensing would be just that.. a perfect opportunity for the global professional community…
    Also, I agree with you when you write that quote
    ..professional associations are well placed to administer licensing procedures and implement them..unquote and that quote
    …the now global nature of the communication environment at the very least demands that the defined educational path for professionals needs to be agreed worldwide unquote

    and thase are the reasons why I argue:
    a) that the global alliance must take the lead today, not tomorrow!, and actively involve all concerned professionals, members or not of their member associations…;
    b) that national associations should today, not tomorrow, if possible under the global alliance umbrella or however they feel fit, take the lead in their respective countries to ensure that the licensing procedures be flexible as well as administered with their full and proactive cooperation.

    I still do not understand why, for example, the cipr which is of the non licensed countries the only one I know which benefits of legal recognition by the government, is not willing to move in this direction, maybe by just sending someone to little but often innovative Switzerland to see how that country Federal State cooperates with the national public relations association in the delivery of quasi licenses to those professionals who wish to have them. A first step? At least to dispel myths and wrong impressions?

  3. Dear Toni

    I think we’ve shared enough virtual conversations now for me to confess that if I read a comment where you say “and I am certainly not willing to concede on this”, it is sufficient – on the one hand – to cause me great trepidation and insecurity as to my reply, and on the other, the possibility that the conversation is about to take another turn or even more robust debate!

    I’ve been pondering your comment for most of the day (when I shouldn’t have been!) and because you mentioned Churchill and I am something of a quote junkie – I turned to a few other sources that might clarify what I, rather clumsily, was trying to say.

    Governments first. Frank Zappa, I thought might make a nice change. He said: “The function of government ought to be: make sure you have good water to drink, somebody picking up the garbage, good roads to drive on, enough electricity to turn your light bulbs and your record player on, and whatever smaller amounts of regulatory assistance is necessary to make this society work.”

    Given that two billion people around the world live without access to electricity, have never used a telephone and the word ‘Internet’ has no meaning for them (source: UN,Committee of Information, May 2007) my personal preference is that governments of any persuasion, democratic or otherwise, should give priority to those needs. That is without exploring the whole argument (and this also kept me busy today) concerning what, exactly, is ‘the public interest’? Which inevitably leads to the question of the whole purpose of government. Not the ‘what-governments-do-and-don’t-do’ argument but the real, underlying purpose – rather than just the engagement with tactical implementation. Now, where have I listened to a conversation like that before? Hmm. But I won’t go there – I shall try to stick to the original point.

    And that point is yes, government recognition of the existence and value of the profession is good and necessary, but to induce government into the role of legislative tactician is taking them away from purpose, which the Ancient Greeks would have described as ‘improving the lives of citizens’. If I am one of the two billion with no electricity, or several other millions without clean water, I think I would rather my government focused on the immediate survival of my family than the self-actualisation desires of public relations professionals. That’s at a very basic level.

    Moving up to Level Two. A place where we all have the necessary electricity to switch on to a virtual conversation and ponder the most apposite quote. Here, our government has done its job. Clean water and power for all. What purpose then and where next for said government? Preserving the status quo perhaps? Hanging on to their jobs? After all, it’s quite pleasant at the top of the food chain. Governments seeking to hold on to power create policies that allow them to do so. They tinker with boundaries and voting districts, work at the red tape and in gripping tightly the reins of power, impact on ideas, advocacy, information, dialogue and – heaven forbid – the ‘public interest’ which, in a moment of blinding clarity, may determine a new, less expensive form of government is required. After all, how would it serve the public interest if the public gets silly ideas about change? ‘Where next’ becomes not about providing power, but retaining it. Witness the UK where the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ currently parades an unelected prime minister at its head but still claims to be a ‘democracy’.

    What impact does the progression from provision of power to the retention of power have on professions where providing a voice for the public is a pre-requisite? Where advocacy and the facilitation of change is a central function?

    If you are a government concerned with retaining power the answer is simple. Disable the profession. Withdraw the licence to operate. Close it down. Avoid the nuisance. Despite suggestions such as one – I think – from Thomas Jefferson: “The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government and to protect its free expression should be our first object”.

    Which zips me back to Zappa, who intimated – on a different day I believe – “If you own something, you will fight to protect it”.

    If, as a profession, we create, administer and police our own licensing system at a global level (with local associations implementing the system for all practitioners stepping up to the mark, not just members), my hope would be that practitioners discover a renewed confidence in what they do. A confidence that enables them to articulate their professional value to the wider community, support their colleagues elsewhere who might be bowed by an intrusive government and provide an excellent and ethical service to their clients, organisations and communities. Our own licensing system would confer ownership and responsibility on all of us. Public relations professionals have been ducking and diving boulders of self-doubt, lack of confidence and an imprecisely defined role for years. It is about time something was built, and built to last, before the moment passes and lots are cast for our role by other disciplines and industries.

    Little workhorses like me don’t understand and are increasingly frustrated as to why it hasn’t happened yet – or indeed why there should be any hold-up at all. After all, it is a profession full to the brim of competent grown-ups who deal with tougher and more complex issues much of the time. So I would absolutely echo your sentiments regarding the actions that need to be taken (with the exception of detailed government involvement of course, as I have yet to see soft tools make a good system). And if nobody sends anybody to Switzerland, maybe someone from that beautiful and highly efficient country could share their experience here?

    Carpe Diem said Horace.

  4. Catherine,
    you will by now also have learned that I change my mind rather quickly and that although I will not yet concede that associations are any where near being able, by themselves and without an obligation by some public authority, to effectively monitor how their own members (let alone the other 90% of professionals, as already mentioned)practice their trade… I will instead, and with little difficulty, accept your point that effective governments should be concerned about many other more relevant issues.
    So the issue becomes: has public relations, as it is practiced today in many instances just about everywhere, reached a sufficiently critical level to justify the intervention of public authorities?
    If the response is no, then there is no reason whatsoever to even discuss the licensing issue….as you would be entirely right: why involve governments into finding solutions which professional associations have not been able to solve if the public receives little or no consequences?
    Yet, their is one element which goes well beyond my personal opinion, and that is the increasing number of countries who are stepping up the regulation of single pr practices… convinced, as they are, that specific standards and constraints are necessary in the interest of the public.
    So we find ourselves in this situation:
    a- specific practices are increasingly being regulated in many countries with no direct nor proactive participation of professional associations, and with little or no international harmonization;
    b- social critics, mainstream and social media are increasingly critical of public relations, often portrayed as a menace to democracy and civil society. Often they are right and there is nothing we can do about it;
    c- the global public relations community is scattered, disorganized, with little if any agreed identity, fragmented on just about everything except….fear of regulation.
    After now five years of intense activities (so this would appear..at least for those who participated…) the global alliance is still an unknown entity for most professionals and, I dare imagine, even for the most senior professionals…as national member associations appear to have every other interest except promoting their participation to it.
    I don’t know if all this would justify the intervention of public authorities…you know my opinion on this…if I put together all the cases (that I know of..) in which this year alone public relations practice has visibly hurt democracy, civil society and the public interest my answer is YES!
    as responsible professionals we should alert public authorities that warning! unregulated pr can be dangerous and that, rather than regulate practices as if they were sectorial activities, it would be appear more effective to look at the profession per se, thus involving associations directly in the game which, as an added benefit, might also allow them to attract a much larger number of members….

  5. I suspect many of the readers of PR Conversations are unaware that a couple of weeks ago David Reich continued the debate Toni Muzi Falconi started on Strumpette about licensing over on his own blog, My 2 Cents:

    Licensing Public Relations (August 16, 2007)
    http://reichcomm.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/08/licensing-publi.html

    Today David has written a second post (which incorporates some of the debate from My 2 Cents) over to the Marketing Profs Daily Fix blog:

    License and Registration, Please (August 27, 2007)
    http://www.mpdailyfix.com/2007/08/may_i_see_your_license_please.html

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