Saturday, May 2, 2009

PRSA: Really Advancing the Field?

A little less than one month ago, I wrote a post regarding PRSA's ethical code. Now, I'd like to generate some discussion about whether or not the organization really does much to advance the field of public relations.

The other day, I received an e-mail from PRSA, of which I am a member, about a seminar for young practitioners just entering the field. I've worked in PR in various ways part-time for about three years now, but I am just now finishing my Master of Arts degree and preparing to launch full-time into the profession, so I was curious about this so-called training. Upon further observation, I noticed that the course was something to the effect of "Avoiding Common Mistakes Young Practitioners Make." (I wish I hadn't deleted the e-mail in a fit of rage, as I'm not sure of the exact title, but you get the drift.) I looked a little more closely, as I of course want to avoid common pitfalls if at all possible, but I then noticed the seminar had a cost of about $200.

Pitfall numero uno to avoid as a young practitioner: shelling out two weeks' worth of grocery money on a pointless seminar in harsh economic times. By the way, that little tidbit of advice will cost you $50 (hey, I have PRSA dues coming up soon, give me a break).

Another problem with PRSA is in the subscriptions to Strategist and Tactics. First of all, the daily PRSA e-mail articles and other stuff from the blogs is always reiterated in the print publications of the organization. Not to mention, most of this stuff is just oversimplified fluff about how to write or use social media that young practitioners will find akin to Grandma telling you about how she discovered this new thing called Twitter. So not only are the print publications basically worthless because they have month-old stories in them, but also PRSA is killing the rainforest by mailing out these thick broadsheets that could just be sent out as PDFs or interactive Flash sites or something to that effect. Of course, there has been less actual PR content in the PRSA blogs and articles lately as everything is riddled with personal stories of how getting accredited in public relations has changed some practitioners' life. Once again, give me a break — but at least this brings me to my next point.

The APR accreditation is widely trumpeted by PRSA as the greatest thing for advancing your career as a practitioner since sliced bread, press agentry, Bernays and the excellence theory (all also overrated). But, there's a catch. APR accreditation is targeted to practitioners with five full-time years of experience in the field and who have a Bachelor's degree in public relations, communication, journalism or a related field. However, the organization also says that this is not a requirement, just a suggestion.

The APR exam really doesn't seem complex enough to warrant all the reverance surrounding it. In fact, the APR study guide available for download on PRSA's Web site is very scarce on any sort of in-depth information. For example, the guide mentions agenda-setting theory with no analysis to go on to framing, priming and attribute agenda-setting theories, plus it really fails to acknowledge that this theory is much more a theory of mass media than it is one of public relations like excellence, relationship management or legitimacy would be. Most of the stuff in the study guide was learned during my undergraduate education, which was in journalism and not even in public relations! I feel as though my graduate education and research public relations qualifies me well past the ability to answer the questions on the APR exam, yet PRSA seems to discourage people like myself from becoming APR accredited (even though they do send me an e-mail every other day telling me I should do it). Then again, my reasons might also have something to do with the $385 fee that once again leads me to believe PRSA is more about a money racket than it is about advancing public relations scholarship and practice.

Not only do I not feel as though PRSA does much to advance our field, but also I don't feel like it has done anything to enhance my career aside from giving me some added legitimacy perhaps on my résumé by being able to put four letters in the professional organizations section (though SPJ, AEJMC and others would likely accomplish the same task, and they are listed there also). I do belong, technically, to my local (read: closest, but not really local) chapter. However, they always host the meetings about 45 minutes away from where I live, and they have get-togethers at the strangest times, usually when I have been in one of my graduate classes or teaching one of the undergraduate courses I teach for the Department of Communication here. Not only has becoming an active member of PRSA been made difficult and inconvenient, but also one would think older members would take interest in networking with and helping younger members advance their careers. Instead, I never receive any e-mails about job opportunities from members, nor is there a section for jobs on the local chapter's Web site.

Overall, I don't feel as though PRSA has done too much to advance the field of PR, but I welcome discussion about this in the comments. I feel, as I think many other young practitioners (and perhaps older ones) do, that PRSA is mostly an organization that we think we have to be members of to be considered credible and legitimate. It's a sort of necessary evil. We pay them money so we can say we are members, and in return, well, we don't get much of anything. I've never seen a PR job listing that required a PRSA membership or an APR accreditation. If PRSA wants to survive with the new wave of PR practitioners, it will need to do more for its members, give us good reasons and better ways to become accredited, and it will need to update itself to sound less like the all-knowing authority on years-old technologies and more like the great public relations scholars in our universities who are actually advancing the field through theory and experimentation to achieve actual results in developing strategic communication skills.

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