APR Promotion Long Overdue

I received an email from the Public Relations Society of America PRSA yesterday that announced a new effort to promote the value of the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) designation. Information about the ‘Enhancing the APR” effort is also available online.

The timing of this announcement is interesting to me personally. Just last week in my spring Fundamentals of Public Relations course I explained the APR in a lecture about ethics. I discussed the background and pros and cons of licensing public relations professionals, and why accreditation emerged as another option. I explained how a PR professional gains the APR accreditation, how they maintain it, and why they might want to do so.

But I was also honest. I pointed out that the same week I had once again renewed my APR credential. I filled out the requisite form to demonstrate I had earned the points needed in the past three years to remain worthy of the professional distinction. I sent in my $50 with the form. But I also wondered, why do I do this?

As I told my students, the value of the APR is mostly personal. It has intrinsic value. In other words, as young professionals it can be a way to prove to themselves that they possess a broad understanding of a field that is very broad in the numerous specific jobs that PR professionals undertake these days. To earn the APR is to show to yourself that you care about the profession, that you possess contextual awareness of the role of PR in organizations and in society that goes beyond mere technical skills.

I also told my students that earning and maintaining the APR might help them within the PR profession. In other words, some PR agencies or departments may include professionals who have earned accreditation themselves, or through membership in PRSA, they may value it  and give an edge when hiring to those who have APR behind their name. However, there are also those even among PR professionals who are unaware of or unimpressed by APR.

I said the same things to local professions a decade ago when I was president of the West Michigan PRSA chapter and when I was coach for the APR exam preparation class.

Beyond that, the legions of people outside the profession have little or no knowledge of what APR is or why it should matter to them. I have both PhD and APR behind my name on my business cards, and when I do PR consulting and hand over my freelance consulting card, I almost always get asked “what is APR?” I recently published a book and my father-in-law looked at the book jacket and my bio and asked me about APR. I am editing a new annual report for the School of Communications at the university where I teach and the director of the school, a colleague but who does not teach public relations, highlighted the APR behind my name on the masthead and asked “is this some sort of professional designation?

In other words, the promotion of APR and its value to an audience outside the profession is long overdue.

I was surprised to learn in the PRSA materials on this subject that APR is as old as I am–it will be 50 years old in 2014. I earned my own APR more than a decade ago, and remember standing as a delegate  from West Michigan to the national PRSA conference standing and urging the national committee to promote the value of APR not just to members but to those who may be our bosses, clients and co-workers. My remarks received applause, not because of my great oratory skills, but because back then the issue resonated with professionals who had worked to earn and maintain APR and wanted to have more than the intrinsic value I mentioned above.

I am one of a handful of PR professors who has been asked to do some research about the APR based on feedback from professionals who have earned it. I am now more inspired to do such research. In the meantime, I eagerly await hearing more  from PRSA in August about the plan to “enhance the profile and prestige of the APR credential.”

I am often dismayed when bad practice gives all of us in public relations a bad name. Many times the person or persons responsible for bad practice are not in public relations, or if they are they did not receive a degree in the field. It is my belief that instances of bad strategy, execution or ethics are even more  rare among those with APR.

I also cringe when PR is shown not as bad practice, but just as a limited profession. For example, when popular journalists are hired by organizations as PR professionals because of their quasi-celebrity status and ability to speak well versus an actual broad knowledge of public relations in its many facets beyond media relations. It would be nice if employers would know and respect the field, and give preference in job descriptions for those with degrees in and accreditation in public relations.

It would also be nice if one day when there is a large scale PR blunder, the public and media would not respond by calling it a “PR nightmare” or a “PR stunt” or worst of all “just PR.” That’s insulting and intellectually dishonest, to equate one episode with an entire profession. Rather, it would be refreshing to point the blame at the person and not the profession, to explain the misdeeds by noting that the person responsible was “posing” as a PR professional without any background, to refer to incidents as BAD practice of PR and not examples of what all PR people do.

Making public the APR credential would be a step in this direction.

PR Ethics Month Matters

September is the annual PRSA “Ethics Awareness Month.”  I have two anecdotes that illustrate why singling out a month to emphasize ethics matters.

This ethics emphasis has been going on for quite a few years. I recall nearly 10 years ago when a faculty colleague of mine was up for review and she mentioned some of the activities she had done with PR students related to this emphasis on ethics in their chosen profession. A colleague from photography scoffed: “you mean you PR people are only ethical for one month?”

I get this a lot even today from colleagues in other communications fields. In one breath they refer to something as “just PR” and then turn to me and ask for help promoting their next play or exhibit.

But back to the tenure review meeting and the haughty and ignorant photography professor. I pointed out that ethics month is when the PR profession places special emphasis on ethics; they don’t abandon ethical considerations the rest of the year. In the same way that believers go to church on Sunday (or Saturday) to worship together but don’t abandon their faith the rest of the year. And by the way, I noted, shouldn’t my PR colleague be lauded for stressing ethics outside the classroom? Which of our other communications major programs or their related professional associations have an annual special emphasis on ethics, which includes components for students and aspiring professionals?

The tenure review meeting momentarily become a demonstration of nonverbal communication.

(Years later that same photography professor was delighted to bring a guest to campus to speak about photography. The title of his remarks: “The pleasures of deception?” Irony anyone?).

Fast forward to this past spring when I was at my local PRSA chapter’s annual awards program. I was having a delightful conversation at my table with a man from a local media outlet. He was there to see a colleague collect an award for an effort  to promote the outlet. He had a mixed drink in front of him. I think it was a cocktail of ignorance and anger, because the conversation turned sour and his thinking was slurred.

We had been talking about all things media, and that led to my bringing up branded journalism, in which PR people increasingly are  creating their own content on web sites, mobile platforms, social media and other channels to get relevant information directly to their key publics. As part of this, I noted, PR people don’t rely as much on conventional news media to share information, and they may provide content that is not always just about their own organizations but related industry information.

This was when he talk a long swallow of his fear on the rocks and belched out an expletive and a proclamation that such a model will never work because people will never trust such information. I mentioned that people long have and still do trust organizations with a record of providing honest information, and that sometimes getting it directly from an organization as  opposed to via a media filter is even more complete, relevant and timely to people. I also mentioned that his concerns are real for some practitioners, but most PR people I know provide truthful and relevant information that serves and does not deceive people.

I also mentioned the PRSA Code of Ethics, and how we stress it in every class in our PR program where I teach. I told him that, contrary to the stereotype and mind-numbing nonsense he was imbibing about PR people, most practitioners realize that in this era of transparency consistent ethics is sound strategy.

“Well,” he sputtered (and I use the word “well” in place of his chosen utterance, which was a concise way of describing that which male cattle deposit on pastures) “you can teach ethics  all you want but if you get PAID to provide information….” He trailed off. Maybe because his thinking was slurred even more. Or maybe because someone was at the podium starting the program.

I later tried to turn to him to respond to his folly. First of all, his assertion that being paid leads to unethical behavior begs the question of media credibility for journalists like himself who are paid. You will search in vain for a statement in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics for a prohibition of receiving pay to report the news. Secondly. the evidence to debunk him is overwhelming. My own research and that of other academics shows the public trusts information from PR sources, depending on reputation and other variables. Also, we could have looked around the room that night at all the PR professionals from our local chapter collecting awards for tactics and campaigns that were brilliant and successful….and ethical.

But when I turned in my chair to say all this, he was gone. His colleague had collected his own PR award and he took off. Maybe he needed to go cash his check. I wish he would have stayed. He could have learned what PR is, and practiced the first  statement of the SPJ Code of Ethics: “seek the truth and report it.” Unfortunately he, like many, will persist in ignorant and hypocritical perpetuation of the myth that PR is unethical by definition.

So, yes, “Ethics Awareness Month” matters for the PR profession. But we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves. There’s a world of professors, journalists, and others out there who need to know that public relations is an inherently ethical profession. It often depends on PR professionals having knowledge of the Code of Ethics, which often is more likely when they have a degree in PR, membership in PRSA or the APR accreditation. If people practice PR as a profession stressing “mutually beneficial relationships” as our modern definition does, it’s hard not to be ethical. If they practice it as something else, it just really isn’t PR.

Media Morbidity in West Michigan?

Maybe it’s the Halloween season, but two events I attended last week seemed to have a morbid view of media. First there was the AimWest event with the teasing title “What Has Happened to Journalism?”  The very next day, the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA hosted its monthly luncheon on the subject “Is the Press Release Dead?”

Cue the scary music. Do the zombie walk.

What Happened to Journalism?
AimWest bills itself as an interactive organization, so the panelists discussion of journalism, prompted by moderator Bob Taylor, was in that frame. It was a good discussion, with lots of audience interaction. And far from being gloomy, I would say the discussion was straightforward and even exciting. The event could have been named ‘What IS Happening to Journalism.’

A few of the common themes that came out:

  • journalism is moving from ‘gatekeeper’ model to sharing system;
  • related to the first point, news is not so much a product, but a process as the story never ends with comments, replies, updates etc.;
  • social media provides a ‘first draft of history’ these days, but MSM (mainstream media) provides the authoritative second draft;
  • there are things to do first and things to get right–the reputation of professional journalism is at stake, and lots of things on social media are not correct;
  • citizen journalism does not replace MSM but it does fill gaps, it’s more inside-out from the community than outside-in to the community;
  • MSM has a form of responsibility in the public sphere to correct bad information, not in the sense of policing the blogs, but in sharing factual information when they have it;
  • individual journalists have personalities and unique audience as much or more than the institutions they work for because of social media;
I would add that there are still a few ‘scary’ things about journalism in the current environment. These don’t apply to all media outlets, but there is ample evidence of journalists doing less reporting and more ‘curating’ and ‘aggregating’ other content. This is done for economic reasons, but a long-term view would say such weak repackaging is less of a service, and therefore less value, for media consumers. Also, the stories that are reported can often be done for financial reasons, called “market-driven” journalism, in which the news is still seen as product to be sold and not information of democratic or personal value to citizens. 
My own question about the notion in public relations that all companies or organizations should be ‘media organizations’ (i.e. provide original content directly to the public vs via MSM) was answered in typical fashion from journalists–that the public will trust a third-party journalist more than claims from a company. True to a point–but my own research shows that the nature of information, the interests of the consumer, and the prior reputation of the organization are equal factors. In many cases the MSM does not report certain subjects, and they may not do so thoroughly, so the public satisfies its need to particular information from a company, nonprofit, or government web site, YouTube channel, Facebook page, blog or Twitter account.
Is the Press Release Dead?
Meanwhile, at the WMPRSA event, I was  delighted to learn that the press release is not dead. (Please note sarcasm intended). Of course, when the presented is from Business Wire, one can expect that intimations of death of its primary product are intentionally exaggerated to boost attendance. 
I would say the theme here is that the press release is alive in the sense that most journalists still say it is a primary source of news. But some, maybe even many, news releases are walking zombies. In other words, they need more life in them, using the new interactive tools available, such as multimedia options for actualities as MP3 files, video embeds, hyperlinks throughout the release, and the whole thing written with SEO (search engine optimization) in mind. We teach all this in our media relations class at GVSU, so it was good to hear the affirmation. 
Business Wire, PR Newswire, PitchEngine and other service providers can help PR pros do this. But it is also possible to do yourself in an online newsroom, getting some help from IT or using a simple blog or other CMS option. Although, I met the president of PitchEngine at the PRSA Conference earlier this month, and the basic service is free! 
The point is, you’ll see “the press release is dead” as event titles and ranting blog posts again and again. The thing to remember is the press release is still a useful tool, IF you use it well. And it can be more alive if PR pros take advantage of multiple tools that make it more interesting not only to journalists but the public directly as they engage your organization online and in social media. For proof of this, pay attention to the advanced measurement tools that come with using multimedia and interactive press releases. It might add some life to the way your clients and bosses see the value of media relations as part of what PR people do.

Whirlpool Represents West Michigan in 2011 PRSA Bronze Anvil Winners

Benton Harbor based Whirlpool has won a Bronze Anvil in the 2011 awards given annually by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).  The home appliance manufacturer is the only West Michigan winner in this years list of awards.

Bronze Anvil awards recognize excellence in public relations tactics, ranging from media relations to annual reports, web sites, social media and other communication tools.

PRSA also gives Silver Anvil awards each year to recognize the best in comprehensive  campaigns in a variety of categories. There were no West Michigan winners on the 2011 list of Silver Anvil winners.