April 1, 2014
Members of PRSA’s Universal Accreditation Board wrote the following article. Find the full version here.
The Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) program celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014. Like the PR profession overall, the Accreditation program continues to earn recognition for its value and relevance to senior leaders in organizational management.
The APR credential has emerged as an industry standard and long-standing mark of excellence. However, the value of the credential continues to be questioned by some PR practitioners. Many practitioners wonder how well the outside world knows what APR means. Furthermore, they question whether the business community and HR professionals understand the value of Accreditation or have even heard of the credential. Professional PR associations, including PRSA, continue to wrestle with this.
Since the consolidation of several PR credentialing and certification programs under the APR program and Universal Accreditation Board in 1998, several significant steps have been taken to enhance the credibility and legitimacy of the APR Exam and process. The idea is always to bring it further into alignment with best practices and job requirements so that organizations will want to require Accreditation as a condition of employment or advancement. However, there is more work to do.
As the credential turns 50, the Universal Accreditation Board (UAB) and its participating organizations have made it a priority to enhance its profile and prestige.
Chartered in 1947, PRSA is the world’s largest organization of PR professionals. The organization’s purpose is to provide professional development, set standards of excellence in the industry and uphold the principles of ethics among its members. The Society also considered certification and licensure of PR practitioners in discussions of professionalism.
In 1961, PRSA merged with the American Public Relations Association and started developing its own Accreditation program. The APR program was formally launched in 1964. The Exam and Accreditation process were periodically updated in the years that followed. As the number of Accredited professionals grew, PRSA hired outside consulting firms to review the Exam and scoring process, and ensure that it reflected best practices in the profession. The Exam became more rigorous and precise, reflecting the continuing maturation of the profession.
Meanwhile, dozens of other PR and communication associations also emerged, and many of them developed their own credentials. Organizations competed with each other for candidates to participate in their credentialing programs. For both practitioners and prospective employers — especially those in the human resources community charged with recruiting employees and establishing standards for professional advancement — multiple programs proved confusing, and none met standards for best practices associated with credibility. Multiple, competing credentialing programs diluted the value of each.
Recognizing the value of strength in numbers, PRSA joined with several other PR organizations to evaluate the potential to unify the programs with one credential. Four professional associations formed the Universal Accreditation Board (UAB) in 1998 and agreed to unify all of the programs under the APR banner. This new entity became the administrator of the voluntary certification program, synergistically bringing the groups together with the common goal of Accreditation. Interestingly, the associations found that most already shared the same values in their individual codes of ethics, and many used Exam processes that were similar to the original APR Exam.
Today, the UAB is made up of 21 members representing eight organizations that span the practice of public relations in various economic sectors. The UAB’s responsibility is to grant Accreditation to professionals, develop and update the Exam in consultation with third-party psychometricians, and oversee the Accreditation process. The UAB also is in charge of marketing and promoting the APR brand.
In 2001, the UAB undertook the arduous task of reengineering the Exam and Accreditation process to bring the program into alignment with best practices in credentialing programs, and pave the way for the credential and Exam process to have credibility and legitimacy as a requirement for hiring and advancement.
For organizational HR and hiring managers, a critical barrier to recognition of the APR credential — as well as those offered through other PR organizations — was that the original Exam was based largely on an academic body of knowledge and not on an analysis of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) needed and used by practitioners at the stage in their careers where they would seek Accreditation or certification. Without a formal basis in KSAs, the credential could not be used as a legitimate screening criterion for hiring or as a requirement for advancement.
The UAB commissioned a practice analysis so that the Exam would better reflect best practices in the field, and the APR process changed to include a Readiness Review to replace the previous oral Exam.
The current Exam was released in 2003. Unlike its predecessor, it tests KSAs in an objective, computer-based process. This was a critical shift in the program because for the first time hiring authorities could be assured the Exam reflected the skills needed to be a professional PR practitioner.
In addition, the UAB also took measures to move toward third-party validation of the Exam by what was then known as the National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA). The current Exam was designed to meet higher psychometric standards, as required by the HR community and third-party certification agencies. The UAB also added a Board position for a non-participating organization and attempted to build a relationship with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
Despite those efforts, the UAB didn’t have sufficient financial resources or full-time staffing to complete the NOCA requirements, and third-party validation remains needed for the credential to achieve recognition in the HR community.
To provide the credential to military public affairs professionals — including both military and civilian practitioners for the armed services and defense-related industries — the UAB developed an enhanced certification for the defense community. In 2009, the UAB unveiled the APR+M credential, which includes the APR requirements, plus additional emphases on public affairs competencies that are unique to the military. Within a year, a dozen practitioners had earned the new APR+M designation.
Today, more than 5,000 professionals are Accredited and about 35 have earned the APR+M certification. APR remains the largest national postgraduate certification program for PR professionals.
Candidates enter the Accredited process by submitting an application to the UAB. In the past, five years of PR experience was required before a person could take the Exam for Accreditation in Public Relations. Since 2003, this has been only a recommendation. Once they are accepted into the Accreditation process, candidates have one year to complete it.
The Accreditation process has two parts — the Readiness Review and the computer-based Exam. A candidate completes a Readiness Review questionnaire, answering questions about their PR experience and how they intend to prepare for the Accreditation process. This written submission is distributed among a group of Accredited professionals at least 10 days prior to the candidate presenting to his/her Readiness Review panel. At the Readiness Review presentation, the candidate and panelists discuss the candidate’s answers in the written submission. The Readiness Review is an opportunity for the candidate to demonstrate competence in 16 specific areas of PR KSAs, particularly those that cannot be effectively judged in the computer-based Exam.
Candidates seeking to earn APR+M also have a military component added to the Readiness Review process. At the conclusion of the Readiness Review, candidates are coached on specific areas to study and prepare for the computer-based Exam. When a candidate is advanced from the Readiness Review, he/she may proceed to the next part of the Accreditation process.
The second part of the Accreditation process is the computer-based Exam made up of rigorous, multiple-choice questions. The Exam tests candidates’ understanding of the following areas of public relations: history and current issues, business literacy, ethics and law, communication models and theories, strategic planning process (research, planning, implementing and evaluation), management skills/issues, crisis communication management, information technology, media relations and advanced communication skills.
Upon completion of the computer-based Exam, candidates receive a raw score, and within four weeks, notification of their Accreditation status. An APR or APR+M after a candidate’s name indicates success in the process.
Many people ask why they should go out of their way to earn Accreditation when it requires a significant investment of time and money.
They wonder if Accreditation will help them make more money or help get them promoted. While these are legitimate concerns, a focus on these areas may not provide a full picture of the benefits of Accreditation. Maybe a better question is: What does it mean to be Accredited?
Accreditation can be beneficial to employers during the hiring process. APR and APR+M are marks of distinction for PR professionals who demonstrate their commitment to the profession and to its ethical practice, and who are selected based on broad knowledge, strategic perspective and sound professional judgment.
Accredited professionals have demonstrated — both subjectively to their peers and objectively on a statistically validated computer-based Exam — an understanding of senior-level strategy as well as skills and abilities necessary to succeed as an executive or manager. Furthermore, professionals with the APR credential are required to maintain their Accreditation through professional development and continuing education. They have committed to enhancing the profession and demonstrated the desire to succeed.
The PRSA website says that there are four primary reasons why practitioners would want to earn their APR: It’s a recognized standard, promotes lifelong learning, serves as a career enhancement and is positive for the profession.
The “recognized standard” refers to the fact that the APR has existed for 50 years. APR is a recognized designation among many PR professionals and represents knowledge and ethical conduct.
The second reason to earn an APR is the “promotion of lifelong learning.” When most students graduate from college, they make their way into the business world and begin their journey into a lifelong career. Many never go back to further their education, get exposed to new ideas, attend seminars, or update their knowledge on programs and policies. This stagnation causes them to fall behind on the latest trends and hurts the individual and the organizations they represent. PR professionals enhance their job security and better serve employers by staying knowledgeable in the profession.
The APR designation also has proven valuable in enhancing the perception of public relations as a profession. Because of its beginnings and current and inaccurate portrayals in popular media, public relations is often viewed negatively, and those negative attributes are reinforced by practitioners who do not embrace ethics or best practices.
By obtaining Accreditation, practitioners showcase public relations and set themselves — and the profession — up for future success through a commitment to ethics, professional standards, current and best practices, and ongoing learning and professional development.
In recent years, the number of professionals taking the APR Exam has fallen. While the UAB continues to survey APR candidates and participating organizations’ membership, there isn’t a clear answer as to why numbers have dropped.
Some have speculated that because the reengineered process is no longer restricted to two test periods per year, practitioners don’t feel deadline pressures and can put off taking the Exam. Others cite personal factors, like financial costs and time. A prolonged economic downturn also may play a role. Another reason is that practitioners don’t see the APR being recognized among hiring authorities or the HR community. Regardless, there is concern among the UAB and its participating organizations that the credential is undervalued.
These concerns recently resulted in a study commissioned by PRSA to examine perceptions about the value of Accreditation. The OPG firm delivered its initial report on the state of the APR credential at the PRSA 2013 International Conference in Philadelphia. The firm suggested improvements regarding the visibility and credibility of the APR designation, if it was to survive in the next decade. The UAB and its participating organizations, led by PRSA, are developing a plan to address these needs.
The PR profession is often misunderstood — a challenge that is sometimes reinforced by the manner in which some individuals practice it. Although public relations is needed and valued by many senior executives in organizations across a variety of business sectors, practitioners are often questioned about their work and the value it provides.
In this ongoing struggle for professional recognition, the Accreditation process continues to be offered and undertaken by PR professionals who understand that the profession as a whole is as important as their personal careers, and who realize that Accreditation offers an avenue for self-improvement in the present and continuous learning in the future.
Like the PR profession, the Accreditation process has evolved and matured during the last century. The APR designation continues to offer practitioners opportunity to advance their own careers while enhancing the profession as a whole.