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Winard Letter

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Most professions only have an accreditation system if there is an immediate danger that sloppy practitioners might kill people.

Air traffic controllers, health care workers I think we can all agree that we feel a little safer knowing they’ve been certified by some kind of government or professional board.

But P.R. executives? A bad P.R. machine might not get you on Letterman, but it’s probably not going to be fatal.

Which begs the question of whether there is really any point these days to the Public Relations Society of America’s accreditation program.

Ever since 1965, the PRSA has been certifying P.R. practitioners with more than five years of experience who take a series of preparatory classes and pass a day-long written test, as well as a follow-up oral exam.

Completion means you get to write “APR” after your name, which almost no one does unless they’re writing a column for a PRSA newsletter.

In its early days, the accreditation program was seen as a way to bring professionalism to an industry that was, well, considered less than professional.

Printing “APR” after your name on a business card was a signal that you were a serious marketing professional.

But today, public relations is seen by most everybody as a legitimate industry. Most big universities have communications departments offering degrees in the field, and its practitioners have branched out from simple publicity to a wide variety of marketing activities.

Perhaps because of that, many younger P.R. execs today see little or no point to certification. After all, despite assurances from the PRSA that APRs are paid better than non-APRs, virtually no one in the field believes it. And very few heads of agencies or corporate P.R. departments say they would consider whether or not an employee was certified when making hiring decisions.

“I have never, in 12 years of being an executive recruiter, had a client ask for someone with accreditation,” says Smooch Reynolds, president of the Pasadena-based Repovich Reynolds Group headhunting firm, which specializes in communications professionals. “If I have two resumes, and the career path is the same but one person has taken more extracurricular classes than the other, that’s not going to tilt the scales in any way in their favor.”

Most P.R. agency heads say very much the same thing. If anything, getting an APR is more important to P.R. people than it is to clients, they maintain.

“I think P.R. people have this fantasy that our clients think the same things are important that we think are important,” says Maureen Crow, president and CEO of Mid-Wilshire-based Carl Byoir & Associates. “If it’s not meaningful to my client, it’s not meaningful.”

And yet … according to the PRSA, its members with APRs have salaries 27 percent higher than non-APRs. In addition, 31 percent of accredited members earn median salaries of $75,000 or more, compared to 19 percent of non-accredited members.

Does this mean anything? Not exactly. After all, you must be in the business at least five years to even pursue an APR; thus you can assume that on average, the members who have them are more experienced than the ones without, so the salary differences aren’t necessarily tied to the accreditation.

Still, there are a large number of veteran P.R. executives in Los Angeles who maintain that possession of an APR is an important measure of a person’s professionalism.

“If you’re getting an APR to impress clients, to get a raise, to get promoted don’t get it. It doesn’t work that way,” says Hal Dash, president of L.A.-based Cerrell Associates Inc. and an APR holder himself, as well as past president of the PRSA/L.A. chapter. “I think having it has made me a better P.R. practitioner in small ways, and that’s helpful. It’s a small building block.”

Sue Bohle, president and CEO of Century City-based Bohle Company, goes still further.

Bohle, like many veteran execs who maintain close ties to the PRSA, bemoans the younger generation’s lack of interest in accreditation.

“It worries me that young people seem so little interested in improving their professional skills outside the 9 to 5 workday,” Bohle says. “It’s kind of a sad commentary on our business.”

Asked if she would pay her employees more for having an APR, Bohle says she simply never thought of it before. But if it encourages people to take the test, she says she’d certainly consider giving a $500 raise to those with accreditation.

Memo to Bohle’s 30-or-so employees: Your horoscope says this might be a good time to hit up the boss.

Whatever your stance on the value of accreditation, the question remains whether the P.R. industry still needs it and if so, whether anything can be done to make the current program more relevant.

Few people seemed to have the answers to those questions. Those who don’t think APR is worth a hoot tend to believe nothing can or should be done to improve the process. But there is still a persistent belief within the industry that something should be done to encourage professional standards and teach ethical behavior in public relations.

“I think often times some of us are critical of the fact that there is not enough professionalism in this business, and the thing is, if we got off our duffs and were more active with the PRSA, there would be more professionalism,” says Ron Hartwig, executive vice president and general manager of the Mid-Wilshire office of Hill & Knowlton Inc.

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