The idea of certification or licensing of public relations and communications professionals has been around for decades. Edward Bernays, often referred to as the father of modern public relations, spent much of his life pursuing licensing
as a means of elevating PR to “the level of a profession.”
Government control of professional standards through licensing is a bad idea for many reasons though, so talk has shifted to certification, which is managed within the profession itself. Generally, certification is required for professions that have very clearly defined and limited ways of doing their jobs.
For example, certified public accountants can balance the books only so many ways without a lot of room for creativity. Communications, conversely, is open to unlimited imaginative and creative approaches.
However, there are communication fundamentals that aren’t so flexible. Adherence to a code of ethics is paramount among them. A communications certification would assure any company or agency hiring a certified communicator, or any journalist or blogger working with one, that the communicator will perform to accepted professional ethical standards.
The International Association of Business Communications, the Public Relations Society of America, and other communication associations offer accreditation
, which isn’t the same. There’s no requirement that a communicator be accredited before he can call himself a PR pro or get a job for which the accreditation is a prerequisite. Accreditation is great—I’m an Accredited Business Communicator
and damn proud of it—but accreditation does not establish a legally defensible standard for an entire profession.
The limitations of codes of ethics
In our digital, converged, social media and user-generated era, that legally defensible standard has become necessary. Using online tools and channels that were unimaginable a mere 25 years ago, anybody calling himself a public relations practitioner can engage in activities and behaviors that shame and belittle the profession. That’s our own fault as a profession. We have allowed “public relations” to mean anything anybody wants it to.
A recent campaign to define PR doesn’t help. Not only is the definition overly broad, but also there is no mechanism to hold accountable anybody who operates outside the definition. As a result, anybody can say what they do is PR or communications, regardless of how far they stray outside the boundaries of professional or ethical practices.
Here’s an example of the stark contrast between professional standards and the kinds of practices in which a bad actor can engage:
PRSA Code of Ethics: A member shall reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
Bad Actor: “I sent an anonymous tip from a fake email address. I sent the same fake tip to two different blogs who both independently picked it up. And from there, those sites are read from people all over the country, from reporters or whatever, and shortly thereafter got picked up by the Village Voice, and what I realized very early on was, where do reporters get the news? They get the news from blogs. It’s not like reporters are out there pounding the pavement, looking for news or overhearing gossip. They read blogs, and so I found a very clear link between small blogs and medium sized blogs to big blogs, and then, the national press.”
PRSA Code of Ethics: A member shall preserve intellectual property rights in the marketplace.
Bad Actor: “We had these photos that we couldn’t run for copyright reasons. Essentially, we had done these Halloween costumes with the American Apparel clothes that we couldn’t run because they were public figures, like a Lady Gaga costume, let’s say, right? And, we’re not going to pay Lady Gaga to be able to run that costume. So, I’m sitting there talking to the photographer, and they’re like, ‘Look, we got to throw these away. That really sucks.’
“So, what I thought was, OK, so these are the sort of rejected, you-can’t-see material. This is like the stuff left on the cutting room floor. Well, so, if I went to a blogger and I said, ‘Look, here’s some stuff that wasn’t good enough to make our website,’ they’re obviously not going to run that. But, what if I pretended to be someone that stole them from American Apparel, or I pretended to be an employee who ‘found’ them and was giving them away without permission? Now, it’s not just a bunch of photos, which are good for content, it’s sort of this exclusive news angle.
“I know that Gawker loves to run controversial stories about American Apparel. Instead of trying to pitch them another way, which is a fun, lighthearted story, I turned a fun, lighthearted story into a newsy, exclusive sort of taboo story. It worked really well. From their perspective, it worked really well, too, because it did almost 100,000 page views. It’s sort of both laws, right? Because you tell them what they want to hear and then you’re also giving them an enormous gift in the sense that they got paid from that so they’re not very likely to go, ‘Hmm. What are the chances of these being real?’ because you don’t stare a gift horse in the mouth.
These quotes are not made up. They are excerpted from the transcript of a podcast interview
with Ryan Holiday
, who positions himself as a “media strategist.” Holiday is unapologetic for his tactics, of which he shares several in a new book, “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.”
Holiday calls it manipulation. I’m inclined to call it scamming. That may be a semantic difference. Clearly, though, his tactics are in direct violation of PRSA’s ethics code
for that matter). The hour-long interview contains many more examples of activities that would make a professional PR practitioner cringe.
The meaningless of “public relations”
The problem is, Holiday is free to call himself a PR professional. And as his tactics (and those of countless thousands of others who prefer to practice these dark arts rather than earn their coverage ethically) are exposed, journalists, bloggers and the public will learn to distrust anything from anybody associated with the profession. In fact, not knowing the source of information, any content would be suspicious.
And Holiday does claim to work in PR. He used Help a Report Out
by appearing, (in his own words
) “as a fake ‘source’ and a quoted ‘expert’ in dozens of media outlets worldwide including ABC News, MSNBC, Reuters, and The New York Times
(The Huffington Post
did not fall for these obvious tricks)” to dupe journalists into interviewing him, leading to articles that quoted a fake source, impugning the journalist’s credibility as well as that of the outlet for which he reports.
Holiday claims he acted to expose a flaw in HARO, but whether technical adjustments might prevent anyone from duplicating Holiday’s trickery is irrelevant. As HARO founder Peter Shankman pointed out to me, and as I know well from my days as a reporter, it is and always has been the reporter’s job to verify his sources. Peter, justifiably outraged Holiday had abused the resource, called him out
for his actions (which Holiday outlines in his book), and Holiday responded in a comment: “Let’s get down to brass tacks. You’re in PR, I’m in PR.”
There’s no point in debating with Holiday about his behavior; his various posts and commentaries make it abundantly clear that he believes there’s nothing wrong with how he plies his trade; in fact, he’s proud of it. That’s fine. As long as he has broken no laws, he’s free to serve his clients any way he wants as long as the clients are willing to pay for it. Plenty of people who call themselves “publicists” employ the same kind of deceptive, ethics-challenged tactics.
My problem is Holiday labeling his work as PR.
The solution: Profession-wide certification
There are several types of certifications. Our profession needs to adopt a profession-wide approach, in which anybody working in the profession must have a valid certification, just like a CPA. My friend Ike Pigott
, who practices PR for an Alabama utility, points out that anybody can call himself an accountant, but only those who have earned the certification can call themselves CPAs. That certification establishes a chain of accountability. It doesn’t matter who in the office—a bookkeeper, a secretary, whoever—violates the standards. As long as the CPA has affixed his name to the work, he is accountable for the violation and subject to the loss of his certification.
Ike suggests that a communications association—or a coalition of associations—trademark a label, such as PRPro. Since the PRPro certification would be legally defensible, violations of the codes embedded in the certification would result in revocation of the PRPro designation (and expulsion from the credentialing association), preventing the violator from practicing. Without a certification, an agency or company could not hire him or her into that position any more than it could hire an accountant who has lost his certification into a job that requires a CPA.
Before there were bloggers who would pick up stories without fact-checking, before news outlets were too busy trying to be the first to report news to check facts, before individuals could spread misinformation in a millisecond via Twitter and other channels without checking facts, such a certification for communicators wasn’t necessary.
But times change. The sooner the profession enacts certification as an industry-wide requirement, the better our chance of saving the entire information ecosystem from deteriorating into a cesspool of content nobody can trust. In a talk to PRSA’s New York chapter
, journalist Dan Rather said that PR, when practiced at its best, serves more than a client or corporation; it is helping the general public.
“It is through communication and clear understanding that we can, we will, restore a sense of responsibility and public trust,” Rather said.
Holiday and people who practice his kind of communication are the enemies of clear understanding, and restoration of a sense of responsibility and public trust can never happen so long as people like Holiday are able to call themselves public relations practitioners. In his podcast interview, Holiday suggests that his tactics are necessary for a client’s message to rise above the noise. That’s nonsense: We in the business are exposed daily to shining examples of communication successes achieved with complete honesty, disclosure, and adherence to ethical standards.
Let’s ensure that’s the way the profession is perceived, and leave the dubious tactics of others for classification under some other label.
Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self.