Accreditation in Public Relations

The APR at 50: Is the Best Yet to Come?

In her first year of publishing O, The Oprah Magazine, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Maya Angelou. The interview touched on a variety of topics, including growing older. In recounting the interview later, Winfrey shared how Angelou had explained to her that, “the 50s are everything you were meant to be.”

The Accredited in Public Relations (APR) Credential will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014, a milestone that invites a bit of introspection and a closer look at whether the APR is achieving its full potential. Could the 50s be the age when the APR becomes everything it was meant to be? PRSA thinks so.

PRSA has announced it’s embarking on a plan to enhance the profile and prestige of the Accredited in Public Relations (APR) Credential. Given the APR’s continued importance to PRSA and the public relations profession, we believe the time is right to work with the Universal Accreditation Board to explore the APR’s potential, identify possible avenues for improvement and begin to look broadly at credentialing trends, best practices and the approaches of other credentialing organizations in their respective disciplines.

Abandoning Accreditation is not an option PRSA is considering.

Why is PRSA taking this step now? Most compelling is that we’ve been hearing for some time that the UAB wanted more capital and human resources to support the APR Credential. At the same time, we’ve heard from PRSA Members that they’d like us to do more to establish the credential as a credible mark of distinction among employers and hiring professionals.

Additionally, there are signs the APR is not well. The number of professionals Accredited by the UAB has declined from an average of 256 a year from 1993 to 2002, to an average of 157 a year between 2003 and 2012. The number of APRs as a percentage of PRSA membership also has been falling in recent years; from 25.47 percent of members in 1994 to 21.32 percent in 2004 to 18.43 percent in 2012.

Finally, we’re faced with new questions about the value of accreditation to professional communicators generally, given the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)’s decision to suspend all new applications for its accreditation program, the Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) credential.

The first stage of PRSA’s plan to enhance the profile and prestige of the APR Credential will be to work with the Organizational Performance Group (OPG), an organizational development consulting firm in Hamden, Conn. OPG Group will be using a variety of tools — including discussions with key volunteer and staff leaders, data analysis, surveys, interviews, focus groups, benchmarking and meta-analysis — to explore different stakeholder perceptions on strengths and weaknesses of the current APR, pros and cons of maintaining the APR, desired services for APR holders, suggestions for improvements and strategies for supporting Accreditation and marketing it to PRSA Members and employers.

PRSA will provide a formal report on actionable recommendations to the UAB in August, and to the Leadership Assembly at its annual meeting in October.

If you’ve been a part of PRSA for as long as I have, then you probably know the APR is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “third-rail of PRSA politics.” It continues to be a topic of some controversy both within PRSA and the broader public relations profession.

To be sure, passions are high among APR supporters and detractors alike.

“In a profession where licensure is not required and many people practice public relations without knowing key competencies and appropriate ethical guidelines for decision-making, earning the APR Credential communicates that you have the requisite knowledge for principled public relations expertise and proficiency,” says one APR holder. “This mark of excellence demonstrates to employers that you truly know what it means to be a high-performing, effective, and ethical public relations professional.”

Says another APR holder, “The greatest part of Accreditation’s value hasn’t been realized yet … and that’s the value that hiring managers place on the Credential within all range of companies and organizations. At present, PRSA has still not achieved understanding and recognition by hiring managers of the APR.  As a result, APR is not sought as a criterion for job applications at the mid-management to senior management levels.”

Other PRSA members are less charitable in their views.

“It’s never meant anything to any client organization I’ve ever encountered,” said one non-APR who heads a $15 million agency. “Nor has it ever made one iota of difference in considering a prospective employee’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Dissenters also argue that, because public relations is an art and not a science, there are no hard and fast rules, regulations, practices, policies or procedures in which a public relations professional must study and then prove competence in. “One earns his or her stripes in public relations in one way, and one way only: through on the job training,” they say.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I believe it’s important to keep in mind the organizational theme that’s been set forth by this year’s Chair and CEO, Mickey Nall; that is, we are “One PRSA.” Our differences should not divide us, so much as they should enrich us as a Society through diversity of thought, identity, culture and experience.

“Whether or not you personally support the mission and goals of the APR, it is one of PRSA’s most differentiating traits as an organization,” said Nall. “We must value our own professional designation and do all we can to encourage public relations practitioners to value their own professionalism by seeking this designation. If APR is to receive more recognition and support — both from inside and outside of PRSA — then our actions must support that goal.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

Marisa Vallbona, APR, Fellow PRSA, is director of PRSA’s Western District and the Board liaison to the Universal Accreditation Board. Follow Marisa at @mvallbona.

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