Why PRSA’s stringent APR rules need to change

I want to start by making one thing clear: This is not a post designed to bash PRSA or the APR.

I was a PRSA member, committee member and board member for years. I earned by APR years ago. I might not be a current member, but I’m a huge PRSA supporter.

And, I earned my APR years ago. While it was stripped from me when I let my PRSA membership lapse (we’ll get to that in a moment), I am a big supporter of the APR, too.

But, I do have a beef with the APR rules.

My concerns revolve around two key areas:

  • The rule that once you’re no longer a PRSA member, you lose your APR designation.
  • The rule that you cannot sit on a MN PRSA board without the APR designation.

Let’s tackle those one at a time:

1: Once you’re no longer a PRSA member, you lose your APR designation

Found this one out the hard way about 7 years ago when I decided not to re-up my PRSA membership. The current MN PRSA president (I’ll leave names out of this) gave me a call. She said someone had called and said I needed to remove my APR designation from my web site and marketing materials. I wondered why–she said once you are no longer a member, you lose your APR.

I’m still a little surprised this is the policy of an organization that prides itself on advancing the PR profession.

Here’s what I don’t get:

  • What’s the upside of revoking former member’s APRs? What good does this do for PRSA? It’s always felt like a lure to keep members (read: you have your APR, now you have to remain a member forever or we’ll revoke your APR). Sorry, that’s just the way it comes across.
  • If you revoke former members’ APRs, does that make them less of a professional? Of course not, right? Then why revoke it? Does it lessen the value of those who are members and have the designation? Of course not. Then why do it?
  • Isn’t one of the goals of the APR program to advance the PR profession? If so, revoking former member’s APR designations probably isn’t the smartest move. Why? Because now you’ve instantly frustrated former members who were once (and many still are) huge advocated for the profession. These people have spent years in the field. They’re well respected. They’re senior-level. Some are icons in the field. Why would you want to frustrate these people? Aren’t these the type of people you want representing PRSA–whether they’re members or not? I would say unequivocally, yes.

I understand a professional organization like PRSA needs members to survive. But, I also understand that membership doesn’t work for everyone at all points of their lives.

Let me throw out an example. A fellow solo here in Minnesota (again, leaving names out of this) is a friend, former client and a recent APR. She’s a big advocate of the APR and I believe she heads up the APR committee here in Minnesota. And, like I said, she is also a #SoloPR. What if, down the road, business dries up for her (hypothetical)? What if revenue comes to a halt. What if she had to cancel her PRSA membership as a result? She would then lose her APR. Is this person any less of a PRSA supporter? No. Does she still embody the qualities of an APR? Yep. Will she still advocate for the APR? My guess–yep. This scenario is a very real one and could easily play out for any number of people across the industry. And, it highlights perfectly why this rule should change.

2: You cannot sit on the MN PRSA board without an APR

I know this has been a point of contention for a long time within MN PRSA circles. And, I know there are a fair amount of people that agree with me–that you shouldn’t need an APR to sit on the board.

The pro-APR folks will tell you that we need APR candidates because they’re typically more senior, it shows their commitment to the industry, and it shows their commitment to PRSA.

I tend to think, if you use that logic, you’re going to miss out on a whole bunch of more-than-qualified people who could be leading MN PRSA in the next 5 to 10 to 20 years. In fact, here is just a short list of people I think would be OUTSTANDING board members down the road, but people who don’t currently have their APR (and therefore would not be considered): Sarah Reckard, Crystal Schweim, Mike Keliher, Alyssa Ebel and Maggie Habashy.

Now, I realize not everyone wants to sit on the PRSA board, but why not widen the net a bit? Having sat on the board years ago, I know how shallow the pool of local APRs is. So, why wouldn’t you open it up to all folks? Consider the facts:

1) You have a professional organization struggling to find qualified people to sit on its board

2) You have an opportunity to extend the PRSA brand further into the PR community

3) Fewer people are getting their APRs (this was true years ago, guessing it’s probably true now as well)–meaning the pipeline isn’t exactly full for MN PRSA.

I don’t know, seems like a pretty easy decision to me.

I want to close this post by saying again, I don’t write this to attack PRSA. I write it because I want good things for PRSA and the people who are a part of it. And, I think these are two of the more odd rules I’ve seen instituted across PRSA that, over the years, have impacted the reputation of the organization. And, I think both represent opportunities to make PRSA a better organization in the future.

Time for a change PRSA. Ease up on the APR rules. It’ll benefit us all–and, more importantly, the PR profession–in the long run.

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11 comments on “Why PRSA’s stringent APR rules need to change

  1. David says:

    I’ve been a big supporter of PRSA (and IABC, NIRI and others for that matter) for as long as I can remember. I was on the board of our PRSSA chapter in college. I think the professional development and networking opportunities these organizations provide are invaluable. If not for family and professional commitments, I would be more involved. But I’ve never had an interest in the APR (or IABC’s ABC, which I think has been eliminated).

    I’ve enjoyed a successful career working for some of the largest companies in the world. And throughout my 20+ years in PR, not once has a company, recruiter, or hiring manager ever cared about the APR. Hell, most don’t even know what it is, and a few executives have even mentioned how they view it as a little pretentious to see PR people with the APR designation after their name.

    I’ve also hired lots of PR people throughout my career, and I can tell you that not once did a professional accreditation of any kind have an impact on my hiring decisions. What do I look for instead? Demonstrate your skills and experience. Prove to me that you understand that PR is a strategic imperative in this day and age and not just “doing social” or “getting coverage.” Show how you have helped a business advance their objectives and that you understand how PR can contribute to the bottom line.That’ll impress me WAY more than an APR.

    And don’t even get me started on new professionals who run out an get an MBA or other advanced degree before they’ve spent any time working…

    If people want to go for the APR, great. More power to them. I applaud anyone’s commitment to their profession and to improving their skills. And like you, Arik, I’m not anti-PRSA at all. I think it’s a great organization that does a lot to advance our profession. I just don’t think the APR program does much to that end.

  2. Eva Keiser, APR says:

    As a longstanding Minnesota PRSA member who has been actively involved in the chapter since I started out in the profession, I feel that involvement in chapter leadership should be another criteria for being considered for a board position. Accreditation demonstrates commitment to the profession and the organization just as involvement does. If a person wants to aspire to a board position they should demonstrate that desire through active participation and leadership beginning at the committee level. Whatever the avenue, commitment needs to be the strongest driver for being on any board of directors.

  3. Holly Donato says:

    Hi, Arik,

    I don’t chair the Minnesota PRSA APR Committee, but I’m the committee member tasked with recruiting new candidates. But let me give my perspective:

    The first issue is a national rule–that PRSA membership is required for APR maintenance. I believe it’s because membership assures you get the continuing education you need to stay current in the PR profession. PRSA can vouch for the quality of its own conferences, online resources, publications, etc. but it’s hard to gauge the equivalency of other organizations, such as Social Media Breakfast, etc. in pure PR practice, good as they are.

    The second issue is a local chapter decision. Each state chapter sets its board leadership standards. I believe Minnesota’s PRSA requires APR credentialing for board members because it assures people who bring guaranteed mastery of ethics, laws, management principles, strategic planning and other strengths beyond promotion and publicity. Perhaps Jason Sprenger (current Minn PRSA chapter president) or Heather Cmiel (incoming president) could provide additional rationale. I think it comes up for discussion periodically.

    So in summary, I don’t think PRSA puts on these conditions to be APR snobs; I think it’s to guarantee a common body of knowledge and skills in board positions, and to ensure that APRs invest in continuing education.

    Thank you for some constructive input! We APRs certainly don’t want to come across holier-than-thou or mysterious and intimidating. But I think earning, maintaining, and leading with an APR credential is similar to a CPA in the accounting profession. It just signals a minimum standard of proficiency.
    – Holly Donato

  4. arikhanson says:

    Definitely agree on that front, Eva. I pushed the same philosophy during my time on the MIMA board of directors. You’ll get no argument from me on that front. But, I bet many of those committee chairs within PRSA now don’t have their APRs (and may never get it). Correct?

  5. Eva Keiser, APR says:

    One of the great things about volunteering for any organization is the chance to develop skills. Especially for young professionals who want to develop their leadership abilities – from project management to delegation, planning and budgeting. It is also a place where more seasoned professionals can mentor younger professionals. We currently have several co-chairs that have their APR and several more who are in the process of pursuing their accreditation. We also are blessed to have a number of young professionals who have stepped up to lead committees who aren’t in a place to pursue their accreditation yet.

  6. Joel A. Swanson II, APR, MACT says:

    Arik, you’re a friend and one of the good guys. However, I stand by my rebuke. A few quick thoughts:

    1) PRSA isn’t struggling to find APRs; Minnesota has had bumper crops of professionals the past two years, including Julie Batliner, who leads Spong PR.
    2) Public relations needs to see itself as a profession more than ever — our industry has a terrible reputation. A student from a faith-based university interviewed me a few years ago and asked “How do you reconcile the fact you’re a Christian with having to lie all the time in your job.” PR people are seen as flacks and spindoctors by many. Practitioners don’t help when they plagiarize, neglect victims in crisis, remain preoccupied with tactics, provide poor strategic counsel, etc. Look at the attention around political PR tactics right now. Not helping!
    3) A profession has accreditation, certification or license programs to capture a common knowledge base, provide strategic foundations, and ascribe to a code of ethics — and it’s ongoing, not the same as a one-time degree program. As was said by another commenter, you “rent” the designation; you don’t own it.

    Physicians, lawyers, actuaries, and others have similar models. We owe it to the profession and practitioners to do this. And PRSA needs to do better to get ahead of the topical needs that go with it.

  7. Joel A. Swanson II, APR, MACT says:

    Answering your question about local Board Service and APR: The question is framed up wrong by National and often within our own chapter. We should not lower our professional standard just because we sometimes struggle to find enough APRs to serve. Instead we need to do a better job of promoting APR (as we have in Minnesota).

    At the same time, it’s acceptable practice to make specific exceptions to ensure representation of underserved groups. So if we want to specify a Board position(s) for young practitioners (too young to have earned APR) or culturally diverse candidates (whom we struggle to engage with) — I’m all for that. But let’s not water down requirements broadly because “it’s too hard.” The most meaningful work usually is. We’re working too hard to build the reputation of PR as a profession to undermine our own efforts.

  8. Arik — These discussions on APR have been going on for decades. I chose to pursue a master’s degree rather than the APR. Timing was such that it made more sense. I am a huge advocate of continuing education, in whatever format that takes. But for me, the APR is a non-starter. I am 25+ years into my career and the elements of the APR exam no longer fit with my role here at the agency.

    But if the time comes and one of my team wants to sit for it, he/she will have my full support.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding the stripping of the APR because you dropped your membership. You earned that designation and assuming you still uphold the ethical standards of our profession, deserve to tout those letters. To me, the only reason to remove the APR from an individual is if they no longer abide by the principles of the profession. Long after a doctor retires, he/she is still referred to as Dr. So and So.

    PRSA National changed its bylaws to allow the two board member-at-large positions be open to non-APR members. This was not an easy decision, but the organization as a whole recognized that the majority of its membership did not pursue the APR and therefore were not represented at the national level.

    My chapter in Phoenix had a similar requirement several years ago requiring the board chair to be APR. And you know what happened? We ran out of eligible candidates. When we were looking into the membership to find an APR to serve as chair that may or may not have had any previous chapter service, we knew we had to change.

    And we are strong chapter, nearly 300 members and in the 15+ years since we made that change, we have had our fair share of APR and non-APR members serve on our board.

    APR or no APR, it is how you conduct your business, your commitment to being a ethical practitioner and serve your clients and organizations in the most professional manner possible.

  9. Interesting post, Arik that raises some good issues. But it’s factually inaccurate.

    The APR is granted by the Universal Accreditation Board, of which PRSA is a member. They govern the process and I’m fairly certain also set the rules about being a member of one of the UAB organizations to retain your credential.

    This set of rules is similar to other accreditation/certification in other professions. I know that UAB regularly reaches out to similar groups to determine best practices. But I think it’s really important that you focus your comments where they should be focused. Not on PRSA.

    So, while I’d prefer you rejoin PRSA, you could join one of the other organizations and retain your APR…assuming you meet the renewal qualifications.

    As for the rule that you need to be an APR to serve on a local board, I tend to agree with you. There are other credentials that make someone a leader beyond the APR. We had that discussion several times as a national Board. In your case, it’s a discussion that needs to take place at the chapter level with members. So, it’s pretty simple: if you’d like a voice in the discussion you need to join the group. And members need to voice their opposition to the Board so there can be a discussion and a bylaw change can be made.

    As someone who has given countless hours to PRSA on a national and local basis, I feel really strongly that you need to join to make a difference. Discussions like these happen regularly at all levels. If you’re a member you can participate in them. You’ve made this argument before and, as I recall, were asked to join and affect change from the inside. Please do so. Your voice is needed, assuming you’re not alone in this concern.

  10. Margaret Ann Hennen, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

    Thanks for your comments on Minnesota PRSA and APR.

    In the interest of the free flow of accurate and truthful information (one of the PRSA Code of Ethics Provisions) and Honesty, one of our professional values, I want to clarify a couple of things about APR. And I want to share why PRSA has been a mainstay during my PR career.

    Local role in APR designation
    Minnesota PRSA does not grant the APR designation. That is granted by the Universal Accreditation Board (UAB) and its members, of which National PRSA is one. Minnesota PRSA provides support to candidates who are seeking their APR designations.

    Locally, we provide such things as: a series of comprehensive workshops, consultation with candidates to answer questions and help them prepare, portfolio reviews and recommendations to UAB on the preparedness of candidates.

    The UAB and its members provide direction, including the concern you have over non-members using the APR. That is not a local decision. Candidates are informed of this during preparation and when they receive their designation. I’m sorry that you weren’t aware of this. In the excitement of receiving the designation, details can easily slip through the cracks. The local PRSA member, who called you, was likely giving you a courtesy call so that you wouldn’t be embarrassed by the misuse of the credential.

    Why I belong to PRSA?
    As a professional, I’m a strong advocate of professional organizations. When I was a high school teacher, I belonged to the local and national English teachers and world language teachers associations.

    When I moved into public relations, I experimented with several PR organizations. PRSA emerged as the organization for me. In the three decades I’ve been a member, I’ve sometimes paid my dues and sometimes my employer has paid my dues. I look on my dues and the hours of work I’ve donated to PRSA – locally and nationally – as support for and advancement of my profession.

    Each year when I renew my membership, I review the PRSA Code of Ethics and sign the pledge to uphold that Code. It’s one of the things that sets PRSA members apart in our profession.

    The ethics resources available through PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) are worth the cost of dues. My network of PR professionals across the country, and the world, is a huge asset I’ve used in my consulting business. And many other benefits come with membership – if we access them.

    I respect you opinion and I trust you will respect and post mine.

  11. arikhanson says:

    David: Thanks for the comment and insight. Working to make the APR designation more “legitimate” in the business community has always been a challenge for PRSA. But, I’m with you: I didn’t earn it for the opportunity to make more money, or for respect, or for a better job. I just did it for the journey. Like you, I have never had anyone ask me about it.

    Holly: I know that’s why the UAB sets up maintenance requirements. I still don’t see the upside to taking the APR away from those who leave PRSA. What’s the upside? Am I less ethical than you because I’m not a member? If I were to go out and look at what is necessary to earn maintenance points, I gotta believe I’d have a ton (I blog regularly, I share a weekly e-newsletter, I co-produce a podcast and speak at national PR events all to benefit the industry). Those aren’t legitimate ways to earn maintenance? I take issue with that.

    Joel: Great to hear you’re not struggling for APRs–I know we were when I was on the board. But, how many of those recent APRs have the time to sit on the board? Julie Batliner most likely doesn’t have the free time given her day job. I still think it makes sense to open it up–increase your odds. It’s worth the trade-off. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one!

    Abbie: Good input. I think MN would be wise to follow in your footsteps in terms of taking away the APR requirement. I see no downside to that–even if you are flush with APRs. I agree more with Eva–volunteer experience should almost weight more than an APR.

    Mary: OK, you got me on semantics. But, doesn’t PRSA have influence on the UAB’s decisions? As a member, I would think so. I just don’t see an upside to taking away people’s APRs. I realize the accounting industry may do it that way, but PR isn’t the accounting industry. Whether we like it or not. As far as me joining and making a difference, I kinda feel like I’ve done that. I was an active member and volunteer for YEARS. I put in my time. My kids get that time now. It’s someone else’s turn to be that voice. But damn it, we definitely need it! You know I want to help–only so many hours in the day.

    Margaret Ann: Thanks for the comment. And for sharing your story of how you became more involved. One thing I don’t agree with though: Your comment about ethics and members and how “it’s one of the things that sets PRSA members apart in our profession.” That’s implying non-members aren’t as ethical as members. Not sure that’s true. I think I can be every bit as ethical as you and NOT be a PRSA member. Pretty sure many of the people I know who aren’t PRSA members are still ethical folks. So, that’s not a big point of distinction for me. Also: Your comment about the member who “reported” me–keep in mind, he/she didn’t call me directly (which would have been nice; and, speaking of ethics, probably the right thing to do). They called the president and reported me. That’s hardly a “courtesy call”. I’ll be honest–after all these years, still not very happy with that move (whoever it was). At the end of the day, taking the APR away from me, personally, doesn’t matter. I still earned the APR. I still passed the test. I absorbed the knowledge and met a lot of great people (including you!) and had great opportunities as a result. Honestly, it doesn’t bother me at all that I can’t put that on my business card. I just think it’s the wrong decision to take away people’s APRs once they leave the organization.