The PR field and the pesky issue of licensing

legaleseAnd it happens every year.  As soon as students get immersed in their ethics courses – regardless of whether it is at the undergraduate level or the graduate level – the issue raises its ugly head.

As they are presented with case studies of questionable ethical practices within our storied field they inevitably begin to call for what they see as the panacea to unethical public relations practice: of course we should all be licensed.  After all you wouldn’t go to an unlicensed hair stylist or auto mechanic would you?  Maybe you would.  But you certainly wouldn’t go to an unlicensed medical doctor because it is actually illegal to practice medicine without a license – despite being able to practice all manner of other licensed activities as an unlicensed practitioner.  After all, if your neighbor happens to have a hoist in his garage and offers to check your brakes, you might be tempted to actually let him, and there is nothing illegal about what he’s doing.

Whenever students – and practitioners for that matter – begin to take the moral high ground about standards in public relations practice, they are doing just that: taking the moral high ground.  What they seem to forget is that a license to practice would be about much more than simply ensuring ethical practice, if it can even do that.  So, let’s take a three-pronged approach to examining the issue: first, what does a license actually license?  Second, how does a field of practice become a licensed field of practice?  And finally, what is the fundamental flaw in the notion that PR ought to be licensed?

What does a license actually license?

The word license itself means the “authority or liberty granted to do or omit an act.”[1] If you hold a driver’s license, then you have been granted the legal authority, or permission, to drive a motor vehicle, and that permission is granted to you by the government.  And in fact, if you do not hold a driver’s license and yet drive a vehicle that requires one, then you are in violation of the law.  This is a key aspect of licensing.

Professional licensing in Canada provides individuals in certain occupational fields with the legal authority to practice, and in many instances, also indicate that without such a license you may not practice that field.  If you call yourself a “nurse” for example, you must hold one of the licenses required to practice nursing.  It is a restricted term.  However, you might carry out some activities that might be considered part of nursing practice, but legally you may not call yourself a nurse.

The term “doctor” on the other hand, is not under legal jurisdiction.  PHD’s call themselves “doctor” but they are not what we commonly understand to be doctors.  If you tell someone that you are “a doctor,” he or she will automatically think you are a medical doctor.  It may not be true, but it will be the perception.  If you call yourself a “medical doctor” when you are not licensed, that’s when you begin to actually get yourself into legal trouble.

Licenses are provided to members of specific occupational practices to ensure quality.  That quality is ensured through standardized training/education, measurement of competence and adherence to ethical standards in the main.

So what does all this have to do with public relations?  At this point in our history, really very little.  However, the issue of licensing refuses to die.

Back in the 1980’s it was a very hot topic.  Many papers were published in both the academic and trade literature, arguing both for and against licensing.  In the summer of 1984 Public Relations Quarterly devoted an entire issue to what they called a print symposium on the topic of licensing.  In his introductory comments, John Bailey who was at that time the President of IABC said this: “Public relations practitioners might well hang their heads in shame that so little headway has been made in achieving recognition as a profession.”[2]  This is what the discussion hinges on: the extent to which PR is a “profession.”  In his view, PR had all the hallmarks of a traditional profession except one: that is the autonomy to police its members that would be afforded by licensing.

In 1979 and throughout the 1980’s Edward Bernays, who for better or for worse is the putative godfather of public relations in North America, harped on the notion of licensing.  In his usual inimitable, PR-sort-of way, Bernays framed the discussion as being for the protection of the greater good.  I can almost see him beating his chest as he pronounced this.  He began the 1979 article by stating: “Today unqualified individuals can call themselves public relations practitioners.”[3] And it has been ever thus.

Here we are more than three decades later, and not much has changed in PR, and yet everything is different.  In over 25 years in this field, many spent researching and writing about ethical practice, I have observed that the call for licensing is less focused on the good of society and more on the good of the field in general and on individual practitioners in particular.  We need to weed out the bad apples or so goes the argument.  Usually those bad apples have been identified not for their utter incompetence, which is at least as prevalent, but for their perceived ethical transgressions, this from a field where most have no formal education in ethics at all.  But that’s another rant.

The focus these days seems to be on the reputation of the field, rather than on any high-level notion of protecting society.

The bottom line is that a license would inject a level of minimum competence and ethical practice to which all those calling themselves PR practitioners would have to adhere.  So what’s the problem? It has to do with the process of becoming a licensed field.

How does a field become licensed?

Man Speaking Into MicrophonesSo glad you asked.  We’ll look at it in the Canadian context, but other countries (e.g. the US) have similar processes.

In Canada professional licenses (e.g. for nurses, doctors, dentists, hairdressers, pharmacists etc.) are granted by provincial governments.  That means that each provincial jurisdiction has to have an “Act” that governs that field.  In that act are all of the criteria that have been deemed to be necessary for licensure and the processes that have to be in place in order to ensure adherence to the policies.  This act has to be researched, written, debated, opened for public scrutiny, further debated and voted upon by law makers.  It then has to be administered.  Then every so many years, the act is “opened” for revision.  At the time of “opening” the act, anyone (and I mean anyone) who has an opinion can have input into the content of the act.  That’s democracy.

Keep in mind that an act to govern a particular field delineates the actions that are part of the purview of practice.  This implies that the licensed practitioner is the only one who can do this: for example if writing news releases happened to be one of the listed activities, that would mean that those without a license could no longer do that….this is getting nonsensical, which leads to my final question.

So, what’s the flaw in the licensing argument?

Although I tread warily on the toes of Edward Bernays, with respect, and to use one of his own words, pursuing licensing for our field is poppycock – or at the very least a waste of time, a commodity that most of us do not have to spend on fruitless activities.  I would love to be able to say that we have a way to ensure that unethical and/o incompetent practitioners will be barred from practice.  But it isn’t going to happen.

There are many little shortcomings in the pitch for licensing public relations, however, the big flaw, in my view is this:  Since PR practice would be governed by an act of law that is created based on democratic processes, anyone could and would have a say in what that law contained.  Over the years, I would have suggested that the first ones out of the starting block in the run at this act would be journalists (after they stopped snickering), but perhaps these days they might be beaten out by citizen journalists and bloggers, but they’d still be in the running.  Then, of course, there would be all those small business and non-profit representatives who can’t afford professional PR consultants, and the list goes on.

So, once these groups have their (loud) say in what could not be in that act delineating activities that could only be done by those with a license, what would be left?  Not much.  All of which is to say that it would be an unproductive exercise.

Many of the arguments against licensing especially in the US relate to the extent to which such an activity might curtail First Amendment rights of individuals (the right to free speech).  Bernays called this poppycock[4], but then he did so long before the advent of the World Wide Web.

Add onto this the fact that there is absolutely no political will to license those of us in the public communication fields, and you have a situation where we have to find another way to ensure the competence and quality of those who practice public relations.

Accreditation or other forms of “certification” always rise to fill the void here, but the voluntary nature of these means that holding an APR for example, actually means very little.  That’s because no one outside our field really knows what it means (well, there are other issues, but this is neither the time nor the place for a rant about accreditation procedures/standards).  The designation is rarely required (or even preferred for that matter) in the hiring process.  This is partly
because no one knows enough about it, but is also partly a result of the fact that there are many competent, ethical practitioners who do not hold this designation.  So, we are not much further ahead.  Perhaps we need a new approach – I’m just wondering what creative approach that might be.

[1] Webster’s Dictionary.

[2] Bailey, J. N. (1984). The Credentials of Public Relations: Licensing? Certification? Accreditation? A Symposium in Print. Public Relations Quarterly, 29(2), 9.

[3] Bernays, E. L. (1979). The Case for Licensing and Registration for Public Relations. Public Relations Quarterly, 24(3), 26

[4] Bernays, 1979.


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