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Should PRSA Board Service be tied to Public Relations Accreditation?

This is cross-posted from a post by Ft. Worth PRSA member, Dan Keeney, APR.

The big debate in public relations circles these days has nothing to do with the outrageous efforts to sully the reputation of  Wiki Leaks founder Julian Assange and its implications for the profession and journalism in general, BP’s ham handed response to the biggest manmade environmental disaster in U.S. history or even whether PR staffers caught posting phony reviews online should be tarred and feathered. Instead, the greatest minds of our profession are embroiled in a no-win argument about whether the Public Relations Society of America should require professional accreditation before being considered for service on the Society’s Board of Directors.

Established in 1964, the Accredited in Public Relations credential (APR) is awarded by the Universal Accreditation Board (disclosure: I earned my APR in 2000). It measures a public relations practitioner’s fundamental knowledge of communications theory and its application; establishes advanced capabilities in research, strategic planning, implementation and evaluation; and demonstrates a commitment to professional excellence and ethical conduct.

The APR credential has nothing to do with a person’s ability to govern effectively on the board of a national PR society. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Currently, PRSA requires that any prospective board member be accredited. When a ground-up rewrite of the PRSA bylaws was proposed last year, the organization’s General Assembly (the PRSA version of Congress) rejected the proposed language that would have stripped accreditation from board requirements. Despite voting a few years ago to drop the requirement that all Assembly Delegates be accredited, the Assembly balked at taking the next logical step.

The reason the PRSA general assembly voted to drop the requirement that Assembly Delegates be accredited (or “decouple” service from accreditation as we called it then) was that doing so eliminated so many highly qualified PRSA chapter leaders. How could a person serve as the president of a large chapter and not qualify to represent that chapter as a PRSA Assembly Delegate?

The rationale for keeping the accreditation requirement for Assembly Delegates then (as it is now for board service) is that it illustrates an organizational commitment to the credential. If PRSA’s leaders aren’t willing to pursue and achieve the credential, how can the organization suggest it has value for everyone else? What kind of PR practitioner would seek a leadership position but not consider it worthwhile to seek this profession’s credential?

That is a pretty good argument, but we aren’t in a world where everything makes sense. The fact is that only about 20 percent of PRSA members have achieved the APR credential. As a result, until the middle of the last decade, the organization basically had a class system of governance. Only 20 percent of the membership had the ability to serve on the PRSA General Assembly and/or Board of Directors. The other 80 percent, for which everything else was the same (including dues) could not participate in leadership.

Included in that 80 percent are highly capable PR practitioners, including accomplished leaders in corporate communications and agency management. Included in that 80 percent are people who have been leaders of the profession for 20 or more years and regularly shape thoughts about effective strategies, trends and ethics. And included in that 80 percent who, until the mid-00s, could not serve as an Assembly Delegate and STILL cannot serve as a PRSA Board Member are practitioners who have given countless hours of their time as leaders at the chapter and regional levels.

It didn’t make sense for the PRSA General Assembly and it does not make sense for the PRSA Board of Directors.

Last year when the general assembly passed an amendment to the proposed new bylaws that re-inserted the accreditation requirement for board service, I thought it was wrong. To make a point, I presented an amendment to re-insert the accreditation requirement for service as a General Assembly Delegate. I knew it would be defeated, but I wanted to make a point that their insistence on requiring an APR for board service made no sense given their vehement distaste for requiring APR for the assembly.

It was and is a blatant contradiction. If you believe accreditation should be a requirement for PRSA leadership, I respect that. But I can’t understand how you can require accreditation for one set of leaders but drop the same requirement for the other set of leaders.

I don’t think anyone really got the point I was trying to make. Turns out PR people are a very literal group and don’t really get irony.

Fast forward to today with forum posts and e-mails flying with semi-respectful insults pitting the leaders of our profession against each other. Each side is entrenched with very little likelihood that many will be influenced by the back and forth argument. But here’s the bottom line:

  • It makes no sense to require accreditation of the PRSA Board of Directors, especially since the PRSA General Assembly dropped the requirement for accreditation for itself and nearly all chapters have no APR requirements for leadership.
  • Given the fact that a majority of the leaders of PRSA chapters, regions and the PRSA General Assembly are not accredited, it is impossible to argue that accreditation has any impact on the ability to govern. The organization is already largely governed by unaccredited PR practitioners.
  • The inability of four out of five PRSA members to serve on the PRSA board regardless of their level of achievement, track record of service to the organization or interest in serving is patently unfair.
  • If the real goal is to illustrate the organization’s commitment to the credential, there must be better ways to accomplish that goal than coupling accreditation and board service.

That last point is where a meaningful and productive conversation really should start, but unfortunately year after year the PRSA General Assembly gets a glossed over report on the status of the organization’s accreditation promotion efforts. Let’s hope this year it is different.

This post was shared in the spirit of having a Point / Counterpoint discussion. What do you think? We are also open to posting a counter argument from membership.

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BP: A disaster on all fronts

By Margaret Ritsch, APR (cross-posted from the Balcom Agency blog)

As PR professionals watch the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history unfold, we just shake our heads in wonder. Are there any seasoned public relations people at BP’s executive table?

It is clear that BP’s mistakes not only have damaged untold species, livelihoods, and local economies. Its problems are compounded by the apparent disregard for some of the key principles of crisis communications. Granted, lawyers are now in control because of the likelihood of criminal charges. But early in a crisis is when a company’s behavior and communications matter most. Failure to respond quickly and communicate openly in ways that meet the public’s needs and expectations will always make matters worse.

1. Accessibility and openness. When a company has a big problem that causes public harm, that company should communicate both internally and externally just as aggressively as it works to fix the problem.

This is one of many principles taught by James Lukaszewski, APR, a leading national figure in crisis communications and public relations. (I’ve learned a lot from Jim Lukaszewski. His company’s website is worth a visit: www.e911.com.)

A public crisis of this dimension demands that a company’s top executive step up, communicate, and answer the hard questions. CEO Tony Hayward should be much more visible and accessible to press and to the many publics affected by this disaster. Sorry Tony, you can’t have your life back, not for a while.

I believe BP would benefit from allowing TV cameras on its rigs to talk with the workers who are laboring around the clock to repair the leak, drill relief wells and perform other demanding tasks. Workers cleaning up beaches also say they can’t speak with press. Now controlling the message is important to a company in a crisis, but within reason. There ought to be a way for the company to demonstrate and describe its cleanup and repair efforts at the ground level.

It would go a long way to rebuild confidence that BP is working tirelessly to try to ameliorate the damage caused by the oil rig blowout and continuing oil flow. It would humanize the company.

2. Responsiveness. Companies have a responsibility to talk about problems affecting the public and to provide important, relevant information as quickly and completely as they can — especially when health and safety are at risk.

Only this week has BP provided the HD video footage that shows the oil gushing out of the well hole. Scientists and others have been asking for this video for weeks in order to accurately gauge the amount of leakage.

3.Ethics. If a company is at fault, it should admit its mistake, apologize, and explain as quickly as possible. With an absolute commitment to telling the truth. Granted, this was a complex operation involving multiple companies besides BP. Still, BP owes its employees, shareholders, and all affected parties a huge apology, an acknowledgment of its role in this disaster, and an assurance — grounded in reality — that this kind of problem will never happen again.

4.Engagement. It is important in a crisis to answer the public’s questions and volunteer information that may be of interest — to use a two-way communications model so that the company is not just talking, but it is also listening and responding.

Instead, BP is engaged in an elaborate, costly, one-way advertising campaign. It is talking at its publics through full-page color ads in the New York Times and likely other news vehicles and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing Google and Yahoo search terms. More direct engagement with the publics affected by the disaster would cost a lot less and be more effective in rebuilding trust in the company.

5. Commitment. Companies need to learn from their mistakes, talk publicly about what they learned, and commit publicly to fixing whatever needs to be fixed internally to prevent big mistakes from happening again.

BP pleaded guilty in the 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery to violating the Clean Air Act. It pled guilty again to another federal violation for its role in causing oil spills in Alaska in 2006. One has to wonder if BP has learned from its mistakes and examined the business practices that have now led to an enormous environmental disaster. In my humble opinion, from this small agency in Fort Worth, this should be BP’s first priority.

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