September 28, 2012
As PRSA Conference Nears, Accreditation Angst Again Rears Its Head — Prestige of APR and ABC Is Wearing Thin
By Ed Lallo, Founder, Newsroom Ink
Accreditation by the two principle organizations representing communicators and public relation professionals has, during the past ten-year period, lost prestige and membership — as well as money.
Any organization, be it Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), American Marketing Association (AMA) or even the Sugar Association, is in the business of serving members. Part of that business includes offering services to advance members' careers, providing information and techniques that allow for increased work skills.
For both PRSA and IABC, accreditation has been the crowning achievement offering members an elite status above peers. Both programs are currently facing obstacles that have forced leadership to review and revise the future of accreditation.
IABC's Accreditation At Crossroads
IABC's Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) program is under internal scrutiny, according to Paige Wesley, vice president of communications. The organization officially suspended new accreditations on the first day of September.
To date this year, 45 members have passed the exam that costs approximately $500 (U.S.) — down from 106 the previous year. IABC currently has 1010 accredited members — off a high of 1443 — from an international membership of more than 14,000. The organization accredited 583 members in the past five years.
"IABC's International Executive Board is firmly committed to the accreditation program, but its model wasn't sustainable," said board chair Kerby Meyers. "We asked the accreditation committee and IABC staff to work together to develop a program that is operationally efficient, truly measures professional competency and builds upon the program's tradition. While that's being developed, the application process was suspended on September 1, which means we are no longer accepting new applications, but accreditation candidates currently in the pipeline will continue to move through the program."
"The question on the table is 'can the communicator's path be defined through the profession, and what does IABC need to do at each level to give support?'" said IABC past chair Adrian Cropley, ABC of Melbourne Australia. "We started to implement that strategic direction. A committee worked to establish the new "career roadmap" that crossed boundaries of numerous IABC committees — looking at integrating accreditation and the award process. We now have a strong direction on which to build going forward."
"Do we need credentialing at different stages of a communicators career? Does it need to be an ongoing process? Do we need a process through which members achieve their accreditation, and then recertify, as an Accredited Business Communicator over time? How do we support them?" these are all questions the committee addressed, said Cropley.
IABC is currently seeking a path to implement a new "career roadmap." It would include the realignment of the current awards process from the current Bronze, Silver and Gold Quills into a more unified program that would say "We Train, We Accredit, We Reward" communicators at every step of their career.
In the meantime, while searching for the new road forward, members have been left without a clear direction where accreditation is headed.
"With such a major change to a long-valued IABC program, it's imperative that we keep members informed as we move forward. And that's exactly what we intend to do," said Cropley. "A Change Communication Plan with regular updates is being implemented to educate members and invite them to join the conversation. Accreditation is their program and their ongoing input ― which we've been asking for and receiving for quite some time ― will continue."
Falling Accreditation Numbers at PRSA
While IABC's accreditation is currently searching for a new road forward, PRSA's accreditation also faces ongoing challenges. The organization recently released results indicating professional accreditations have fallen sharply during recent years, according to columnist Jack O'Dwyer.
For the first nine years of the Society's new accreditation program started in 2003, an average of 136 new communicators per year have received Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) status — half the average 274 per year achieved in the previous ten years.
After 46 years of offering the program, only 18% of PRSA members have obtained an APR despite ceaseless promotion; leaving the organization in a quandary because only accredited members can serve on the national board
Millions of dollars have been spent on the accreditation program by PRSA.
It lost $2,926,080 from 1986 to 2002, resulting in a shift to computer-administered testing. In the year 2000 it cost the Society $411,467 to accredit 234 members — $1,794 for each new APR. This was cut to $352 by 2002 when 411 APRs were inducted at a net cost of $144,679.
In New York City, the epicenter of the PR world, approximately seven percent of members are accredited — 50 of the 694.
Currently, APRs pay $50 every three years to keep their status current. They are required to submit a list of courses and seminars taken, books read and other educational activities.
Accreditation's Uncertain Future
While both organizations face accreditation challenges, it all boils down to "lack" — lack of respect for accreditation by the business community, lack of money by prospective applicants and lack of relevancy in today's social media society — especially to young communicators.
"Accreditation has been a touchy subject with me since joining IABC," said Mary Zicark Bogan, internal communications consultant at Interactive Business Systems, Inc. in Dayton, OH, on an IABC Facebook post. "When I looked into it, much of the work seemed similar to some projects I did in Grad School. Since I had been there, done that, accreditation held little personal value for me. I would be very interested in working on a new accreditation model — one that requires ongoing education -— perhaps in the form of CEUs — to maintain accreditation and meet the education needs of a professional in a changing profession."
A final nail in the coffin for both accreditation programs might come from of all places a former ally.
In 1997-1998 PRSA Fellow Rene Henry, at the request of the PRSA College of Fellows, formed two committees investigate how to get more recognition for PRSA and build membership. During the research he called two-dozen executive search firms and asked about the importance of APR.
The results showed "at best it was only for entry-level positions and few in executive search considered it a factor. And many in HR companies who hired at the entry level had little knowledge of APR."
According to a number of executive jobseekers, the trend continues today. Professional headhunters are telling job applicants businesses do not see accreditation as a plus, so "leave off the "ABC" and "APR" from the resume." Something neither organization wants to hear.