On the licensing of public relations: the debate revamps. Where are we to go?

Richard Edelman’s recent decision to withdraw his company from the US Council of Pr Firms on the grounds that ‘we disagree with the Council on a few fundamental points as well as the unexpected reactivation of a public debate in the US public relations community on licensing, after many years since Eddie Bernays in the early nineties lost his attempt to convince his peers to adopt it, have provoked plenty of interest in various professional environments and are somewhat connected.
Let’s first see what happened…..

On the one side, Edelman never explained what those fundamentals points of disagreement were, and the only available interpretation is Jack O’Dwyer’s jack on council of pr firms1.doc.
Basically, he says, the Council is firmly controlled by the three big conglomerates, two of whom are European (Wpp and Publicis) while the only American one is Omnicom. European companies in general, Jack contends, are too secretive about their financial performances by US standards. In short, he says, Edelman’s decision to withdraw is a clear sign that the Europeanization of the US pr industry is receding.
Amanda Chapel, who writes the controversial and highly amusing pr blog http://www.strumpette.com/ picked this up and agreed with the O’Dwyer piece, while adding that, contrary to other parts of the world, the US neither has religious fanaticism (sic!), nor a class system (double sic!).
Amazing.. for any European these statements appear unconceivable, and it seems also very far fetched to attribute to the Europeanization of pr the very poor reputation of the public relations profession.

On the other side, pressed by increasing social and media criticism of our profession and a recent comment by Richard Edelman on the potential merit of licensing, PRSA the other day asked its ethics committee to discuss the issue and make recommendations to the Board.
Criticisms emerged when the Committee decided to keep contents of the meeting confidential and subsequently a brief summary of that discussion was published on the PRSA website.
Interestingly, the debate on licensing of the profession is open also in many other countries. Some have already proceeded (Nigeria, Brazil, Panama, Peru amongst others), others are in the process (Russia for one, but also Puerto Rico…and one may also argue that the 2005 decision of the UK’s CIPR to be the first European Union country to be formally recognized by the national Government could well lead to this result, and this would inevitably influence the ongoing discussion in other EU countries).
The University of Florida scholar Juan Carlos Molleda has been studying the issue and writing essays on the effects of licensing in those countries where it exists, while the Global Alliance had issued three years ago a comparative study on regulation of public relations and its practices in the UK, Italy and South Africa.
So there are enough materials around to allow a reasonable discussion at a global level.
The basic reasoning behind the licensing argument is that public relations, like other professions, impacts on the public interest and that therefore, as other professions are, it should be regulated to protect such public interest.
The basic reasoning behind the denial of licensing is that public relations is a ‘first amendment profession’ and therefore the Government should stay away from regulating its dynamics.
In fact, what has happened in many countries is that, although the profession per se has not been regulated, many of its specific practices –namely those which more than others impact on the public interest- have been regulated. The Global Alliance study demonstrates this trend very clearly and also states that professional communities have always refrained from intervening in the regulation processes, thus failing to represent its members legitimate interests and to harmonise such diverse regulations at a national or regional or global level, while passively accepting that financial, political, consumer, health, scientific pr practices be regulated differently in legal contexts which have to do with finance, politics, consumption, health or scientific rather than with public relations per se.
Personally, I do not believe this has been a particularly rewarding policy.
On the one hand, members of professional associations are not represented in public policy processes which have great impact on their day-to-day activities; on the other hand, the professional community does not act responsibly refusing to advocate for itself rules and norms which are there to protect the public interest.
One possible step forward, but certainly short of what I would prefer ( i.e. an explicit change of policy from the global pr community to come up with proactive proposals which advocate full licensing of the profession), could be along the lines which both Richard Edelman and Harold Burson have recently and implicitly suggested: licensing should be at least mandatory for those professionals and firms which offer public relations counselling and services to the market.
Of course there are many different ways in which this could happen.
For example, in the second case ICCO (the international association of national associations of pr agencies which meets in Delhi in the next few weeks for it’s annual assembly) could draft a policy, have it approved by its national members and lobby international, regional and national authorities, stimulating its members to agree with their governments on rules and regulations applicable also to non members.
In the first, and preferable, case the Global Alliance (the international association of national associations of pr professionals, whose executive committee meets in Puerto Rico in early October) also in agreement with ICCO, could draft a policy, have it approved by its national members etc…etc….
Frank Ovaitt, Ceo of the Institute for Public Relations, has been recently going through an interesting conversation with various interlocutors which covers more or less the same issue. Take a look.
Of course, if none of these ‘soft’ possibilities occur, we cannot honestly continue to argue that public relations is a profession; that public relations is a legitimate activity which influences the public interest; and that the public relations community should be recognized as making a significant contribution to the development and well being of society.
We will have to continue living with this free-for-all environment which enables anyone not only to practice, any government to step in and regulate specific practices not because fearsome of the profession but because it doesn’t recognize it as such. Your opinions and comments?


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3 Replies to “On the licensing of public relations: the debate revamps. Where are we to go?

  1. hello

    i am a friend of both gigi de mier and frank ovait;
    was in PuertoRico until 4 years ago when i retired
    after 32 years , mostly in firms handling blue chip
    live now in florida-
    could you pls provide frank ovait’s address, phone, email.

    appreciate it.

    i strongly foster the registration and licensing by our
    practice. it is a ntural step up from universal accreditation.

    fernando valverde
    518 viterra court
    kissimmee, florida

  2. Frank,
    I understand your position, although I do believe that if the first amendment is applicable to organizations as well as individuals (unfortunately, as you well know, last years decision by the US Supreme Court not to decide on the the Nike-Kaski case, which principally dwelled on this very issue, left us dumbfounded…and anxious…) licensing for public relations professional would really not produce the consequence of limiting an individuals or an organization to express itself.
    In fact the first amendment issue has always been raised by us as Linus uses his blanket…
    Also, we never seem to acknowledge that, while we despair every time someone raises the licensing of the profession issue, nobody seems to bother when one by one, all the practices in which the profession articulates itself are constantly being regulated by other authorities with little or nil participation from the official representatives of our profession.

    Again in my view, our best long-term interest is to be able to continue to operate and flourish in an environment which respects and legitimizes a profession whose impact on the public interest is undeniable.
    In some cultures, when a profession impacts on the public interest its Government or some official Authority steps in to dictate basic rules which only full time professionals must adhere to.
    In other countries (Switzerland, for example) this task is left to the official representative professional associations, but this case would imply that these associations be representative.
    Let’s take the US case: whether professionals are 300 or 500 thousand is open to debate and to how you define the profession, but a membership of 20.600 like PRSA boasts indicates a less than 10% representation, notwithstanding the fact that not more than 4.000 are actually accredited…
    If these representative associations do not advocate legitimation for the professionals who at least go to the trouble to become members protecting them publicly from the wrongdoings of others, and do not participate to the decision making processes which regulate professional practices, then where are we left?
    How can we hope to increase our overall standing in society?

  3. Thank you for linking to my column on the Institute for Public Relations website. For the record, I have to say that I am one of those people who get very nervous (though not close-minded) when it comes to any form of PR licensing, especially if government is involved. One set of reasons does indeed have to do with First Amendment rights. But there’s also the matter of licensing as a way to constrain competition and innovation. Is that really in our long-term best interests?

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