Is licensing an option or a must? Depends on whether we believe we are a profession or an organizational activity.

This is not the first time that licensing of public relations professionals is discussed in this site (if you digit the term in the ‘search this site’ area of this blog you will come up with at eight entries, now nine) .

I brought the issue up indirectly recently by mentioning that many of my executive master students (young professionals) from NYU had expressed an option in favour of licensing and wondered if we should not reflect on this, considering that North American professionals have always resisted this option (save a few isolated but not insignificant voices such as Ed Bernays, Harold Burson, Richard Edelman, Jean Valin..and recently a group of senior members of an ethics commission of the the US’s Public Relations Society which more or less equally divided itself over the issue).
This by-the-way mention raised much interest amongst some senior and authoritative visitors and good friends, so here I am again.

Let’s first of all agree on what we are in fact discussing.
I propose we agree that licensing implies that, to protect the interest of the public, some organization (a government, an agency, an association) is granted authority by the State of a specific area (country, region, city) to administer the release (or the temporary/permanent withholding) of a licence to operate a specific professional function in the interest of the public. In certain instances, even in absence of such license, an individual may perform that function, but only under the strict guidance, control and full responsibility of a licensed professional.
In most territories doctors, nurses, lawyers, psychologists and public accountants are required to obtain a license, usually by undertaking a public examination, by committing to continuing professional education, by abiding to strict professional standards and ethical behaviour.
In some areas this list also includes journalists, architects, notaries, teachers, engineers, physioterapists, paramedics, acupuncturists, public relators…. and a number of other professionals who are required to obtain a license before they practice on that specific market.
As already mentioned, the underlying reason which justifies the permanent control of the State or another delegated public or private authority is to adequately protect the consumer, client and/or the public interest.

The fact that in those countries where our profession is regulated per se has not resulted in significant or visible improvements of our profession, as Richard Linning (hi, Richard, good to hear from you, please come back and comment any time you wish, you are welcome) and Jean Valin note in their comments, does not seem to me to be a good enough reason to say that it is not desirable. Neither am I convinced by Jean’s point, although I admit it is chilling, that in those countries where licensing of public relations professionals is today required (Brazil, Nigeria, Peru, Panama, Venezuela…), it was introduced by military or authoritarian regimes whose priority interest was in effect to control public discourse by granting professional practice only to those members of eager association happy (but thoroughly unsuccessful…) to keep competitors out of the market and determine their own rules of access…..
Yes, I grant you that these are not glorious examples, but this does not seem a good enough reason to throw the baby with the dirty water down the sink, nor does this explain why, as Jean also implies, in Brazil for example, a good fifteen plus years of a democratic system, that law has not been removed, which to the contrary was revised and improved three times.
All these arguments were, in any case, thoroughly discussed, for example, by our Puerto Rican colleagues a couple of years ago, as Jean Valin recalls in his comment.
I do wish we knew where they have arrived, if anywhere, in their attempt to obtain regulation. Gigi, are you there? Let us know….

Nor can we invoke, I believe, the principle, suggested by Frank Ovaitt, that the least the government intervenes in the practice of a profession the better it is. In Italy, we would say this is ‘qualunquismo’ (in english ‘anythingism’, i.e. disengagement from the public sphere), because we are all aware that government intervention in regulating practices which bear an impact on the public interest, has in many if not most cases, produced positive rather than negative consequences.
One would not wish to be cured by a non licensed doctor or defended by a non licensed lawyer, or have one’s accounts registered by a non certified accountant. We do pay taxes to live in a democratic country, but we would rather do this than live in another regime.
I also find Frank’s free speech point too rich with peeaahrr overtones to appear credible.
You might, by the way, be interested in knowing that only a few days ago Italy’s Higher Court of Cassation stated that organizations (companies, parties, associations…) as well as individuals are equally protected by the freedom of expression article of the Constitution thus introducing that very principle that the US Supreme Court decided not to decide on in the Nike-Kaski case of a few years ago….(this has little to do with the argument, but I still thought you would like to know..).

However, in my view the most compelling arguments in favor of licensing of the public relations profession are two, and they are interrelated:
°on one hand, it is a fact that in all countries where public relations is not a licensed profession, its specific practices which (according to lawmakers and other interest groups who influence them) impact on the public interest, are increasingly being regulated (as testified by the 2003/4 comparative study of the UK, Italy and South Africa situation I conducted with Nigel O’Connor for the Global Alliance, see
Lobbying, political, financial, consumer, marketing, health, safety, environmental, you-name-it, public relations are subject to specific and increasing norms, and the contents of these are decided by public bodies which do not normally listen to the opinions of our professional associations who often are not even aware of such regulations… and therefore fail to effectively represent their own members in the public policy process;
°on the other hand, most (admittedly not all..) of our professional associations have not succeeded in their efforts to appear sufficiently representative of the overall professional community to attract an even mild public recognition to acquire the legitimation to act openly on behalf of the profession, rather than only on behalf of their members. Even more to the point, many also failed (and in some cases even declined to attempt) to implement specific professional standards, ethic guidelines and on going professional education amongst their own members.
To this specific issue and to your question, Judy, the professional accreditation scenario of our associations, as Jean indicates in one of his comments, is even worse than implied: in South Africa only 50 out of 4800 members are accredited; in the USA not more than 15% out of the 22 thousand adult members (out of more than 500 thousand professionals in that market), and in the UK more or less the same percentage of some 9 thousand members (out of some 100 thousand professionals in that market) . Canada I don’t know.
This, by the way, has a dramatic impact on the democratic status of our associations, in that only accredited members are allowed to be elected to the board of the association (at least in the Usa and in South Africa). Grotesque, to say the least, while we affirm that public relations thrives in democratic societies…..!!!
From this specific perspective, my belief is that professional associations should quickly decide to stop making most of their income from their on going professional training efforts, and tightly link with public and private professional education institutions who are academically entitled to do this, and this not only to help bridge the gap (another of our ongoing placebo/alibi mantras…) between the profession and academia, but also to achieve a higher reputation for their members, and to stop an alarming trend of associations becoming self elected and self referred educational institutions, thus betraying their basic function of representation.

The combination of these two arguments, in a scenario which sees -as we all proudly like to pronounce- a growing relevance of the public relations profession in impacting the public interest -as well as in institutionalizing its functional presence in every private, public and social organization by governing relationships with the latter’s stakeholders- begs for the increasing social criticism which we see and denounce day in and day out, and fully justifies the expectations (at least in part echoed by some of my students) of those younger professionals who have gone through intensive, articulate and ad hoc education processes to find themselves practicing a profession which –also if not mostly because of our own stubborness and failures- remains in the lower scales of public perception and reputation.
Brian Kilgore also invokes a comparison with advertising, and it is ironic that while we continue to attempt to distance ourselves from advertising to the point of paranoia, when the regulation issue comes up someone says ‘but advertisers are not licensed’. Brian, I can think of very few practices which are as heavily regulated as advertising, yet in a way you are correct…but this bears a specific consequence: public relations as a profession per se is not regulated in most countries precisely because it is not considered as such, but only an organizational activity, exactly like advertising, to be regulated in its specific practices. Is this what we wish? If so, then let’s stop now, this very moment, to call ourselves a profession (I know some would agrees with this, but I definitely do not).

Despite the roughness of the language, I still have mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I believe that regulation of the profession per se would formalize that we are a profession thus obliging us to act as one, and would also entitle our associations to focus their activities on behalf of the stakeholders of their members, and to go public every time anyone out there (member or not) behaves in a way which is against our standards and ethical norms.
On the other hand, I am perfectly aware that regulations are there only because someone violates them; that no organization will ever be fully able to police them; and that associations today, even if they were abruptly given the opportunity to do so, would be inadequately equipped to do this.

But finally and like Ponzio Pilato who, you will remember, washed his hands, we could at least always say that it is not all our fault, that the rules are there, and that it is the State (i.e. including ourselves of course, in a democratic society) who is not capable of policing them.
This is not an alibi, but a fact of life as it is with drivers without licenses, or thieves who don’t get caught and other pleasantries of our daily life.

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4 Replies to “Is licensing an option or a must? Depends on whether we believe we are a profession or an organizational activity.

  1. Markus,
    Good to hear from you on this issue. Words are important and what we mean by the use of certain terms is indeed different. What you call ‘accreditation’ in Austria is in many other parts of the world called ‘entry criteria’ to membership. Canada and the US. have been using simialr criteria as part of the membership application process. From time to time some parts of the criteria are dropped as they are seen as an impediment to marketing membership but by and large they are the same. Once you are accepted, you are encouraged to become accredited by submitting examples of your work, passing an examination and a meeting with members of the accrediattion board. This results in many countries in the grant of an APR.
    Other countries have different schemes that are essentially a ‘front-loaded’ process which expands on the entry criteria for membership and require a series of PD sessions and I think in many cases an exam. The CIPR is using that type of process to grant the status of ‘member’ .
    Licensing as we have been discussing here would be a state sanction of the process used to provide soem type of assurance that the public interest is protected- a ‘bound license’ as you explained. These pieces are inter-realted and all aspire to achieve the same objective- a measure of profesional ‘stamp of approval’ that this person knows what they are doing and adheres to common standards and ethics. That is why the Global Alliance has been working to establish those common standards. We have done it for ethics, we are working on accreditation and are just starting with curriculum standards.
    Licensing is i think a long way off, but it would be important to hear other voices on this to see if it had more emrit than the current way we have approached this issue.

  2. Let me add some local “flavour” to the ongoing profession/accreditation/licensing discussion (mainly to straighten out my own confusion): PRs in Austria, especially the seasoned ones, usually like to call themselves PR professionals. No surprise here. The trouble is that people mean different things when talking about profession/al/ism.

    PRVA has had and still has as one of its raisons d’etre the “Professionalisierung” – however that may translate into English (“professionalization”?). There’s some ambiguity in the way (pr) people interpret the meaning of this term. For some it simply means to be on the level of theoretical and practical requirements of the pr trade, for others it represents the goal for pr to become a profession (like lawyers, auditors, civil engineers, pharmacists, notaries etc.).
    I assume that this is the direction the (re)quest for licensing is pointing to.

    The problem with licensing in Austria is that you have to get a license to (legally) work in pr (run an agency, that is, or work as a consultant), but all it takes is 30 minutes of time and a couple of bucks for fees. That’s it. You don’t have to prove to be a pr expert or that you have an appropriate education. In Austria, which is notorious for its elaborate bureaucracy, this is called “freies Gewerbe” (“free license”).

    This fact has always been annoying the “founding fathers and mothers” of PRVA since its foundation 31 years ago. But there was no chance to achieve the status of an officially (i.e. bureaucratically) acknowledged profession (gebundes Gewerbe, which would translate literally to “bound license”). In fact in those early days there didn’t even exist proper educational (academic) programs for PR, let alone concise ideas of the prerequisites for establishing pr as a profession.

    So what PRVA (or its predecessor, the PR Club Austria, respectively) did, was to develop its own educational program and an “accreditation” system (a ruleset for membership in PRVA which included 3 years of practical experience in pr, the acceptance of certain principles of ethics – Code of Athens -, being mainly active in pr [above all to exclude those advertising and marketing people, who do a little pr on the side], and you needed two guarantors/mentors as proof that you meet the requirements and who had to introduce you to PRVA and its other members). This still is the valid “accreditation” process. There are no other requirements, you don’t have to attend special courses etc., though PRVA offers a lot of different courses, workshops and seminars (usually 1-2 per week but those are normally single events).

    Did this strategy change anything about the perception of the pr industry in Austria, especially of PRVA members? PRVA has approx. 500 members (plus 70 pr agencies as special “agency members” plus 3 institutionalized members, i.e. smaller associations that are members of PRVA), all in all representing about 750-850 PRs. On the other hand there are an estimated 10.000 people in Austria who in one way or other fully or partly practise PR (like director’s secretaries, HR people, marketers etc.).
    Nevertheless, it seems that the efforts of PRVA begin to pay (especially the insistance on continually educating its members). Now even the media start to take notice of the association 🙂

    So would stricter accreditation and/or licensing help? Frankly, I don’t know.

  3. Toni,
    Great post indeed and the debate continues…
    I fear that it is precisely because the many aspects of the profession ARE regulated as you point out- consumer, financial and health communication activities come to mind- that our case with the authorities is weakened. It is this very erosion of the need to show a public harm that will doom any attempt to regulate the profession.
    Because communication is pervasive in all facets of human activities, there have been over time a desire to regulate certain behaviors in communication and there we have it: regulation by stealth. We don;t even realise it but the profession is regulated in most areas of activity even if you include advertising in the definition. There are countless rules to follow in advertising although at least in Canada not regulated by the state but by broadcasters who have organised their business to self police this ‘code’in advertising.
    To have any chance at all of getting past the first step in licensing the profession as a whole, one would have to argue that the current state of affairs- the myriad of regulations surrounding communication- is a patchwork of incoherent rules that are not supporting the higher principles of protecting the public- at least not as effectively as it should. It is not an easy argument to make but if we are serious about a study on licensing, we should begin as you and Nigel did for the GA by looking at how effective and coherent the current ‘soft regulation’ schemes are working. We would need to agree on a set of criteria by which we would measure the effctiveness and coherence of these regulations but it is not impossible. Step two would be to look at the gaps in coverage (in terms of activites not covered by soft regulations) and finally a thorough and unbiased analysis of the remaining harm either in the gaps in coverage or the effectiveness/coherence of the status quo.
    Only then could we develop a coherent platform for advocacy in this area.
    We may find that the business case for regulation of the profession as a whole is quite thin which woudl explain why no major democracy has seen fit to champion this cause.

    I agree with you that associations have not paid enough attention to the environment that ‘ soft-regulates’ the profession and this is a good place to start to raise awareness and defend our members’ interests.

    I totaly disagree with your suggestion that associations abandon their own training and professional development activities and favor a relationship with academia to deliver this service. The type of traning offered by our GA members is much more practical than theorethical. That is not to say that academia can’t offer practical training courses, but it is not their primary mandate to advance the competencies and skills of practitioners. It is not a case of ‘either or’ neither. It is an option (partnership with universities etc)that can work for some but not in all cases.

  4. Based on published memberbership/accreditation numbers, I calculate that approximately 30 per cent of the CPRS members in good standing have achieved accreditation. The list is a public document on the website:

    You can also see which members have opted for the voluntary maintenance program of the APR accreditation. It’s also fairly healthy. When I gave it a quick perusal, I was glad to see that most of the CPRS APR practitioners for whom I have the most respect have opted for the maintenance program; they are serving as champions as to the value of the APR, by investing resources (time and money) into ensuring the currency of their knowledge.

    Great post, Toni. I appreciate your balance of research and rigour (i.e., objectivity) sprinkled with some personal observations and opinions.

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