Quality Control for Public Relations still an Issue: A Bristol Palin PR Firm?

Edward Bernays was one of the voiced calling for some type control over entry into the field of public relations.  He even called for licensing practitioners.  The idea was that licensing would help to make public relations a profession.  Here is a excerpt from his proposed bill to requiring licensing of PR.  For more information on the topic visit the Museum of Public Relations (http://www.prmuseum.com/bernays/bernays_1990.html):

 “On April 7, 1992, a public hearing before a Massachusetts Joint House and Senate Committee on Government Regulations will address the licensing of public relations practitioners. No legal standard for public relations practitioners currently exists. Anyone can hang up a shingle as a public relations practitioner and often does.

The status quo produces two victims: (1) clients or employers of public relations practitioners who usually have no standard by which to measure qualifications and (2) qualified practitioners whose positions are demeaned by those lacking the experience, education, skills and integrity that true professionals have long labored to attain. Equally important, the public interest is poorly served when those who heavily influence the channels of communication and action in a media-dominated society are inept or worse.

To protect the public and their professions, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and other professionals sought licensing and registration from the English Parliament in the early 1880s. Professionalism was adopted soon after within the United States. This action protected both the professionals and the public from the malfeasance of impostors.

Voluntary registration as that proposed by Bill #374 would not infringe on First Amendment rights. Persons passing the licensing exam would be entitled to use a special legalized title that would denote mastery of a body of knowledge and adherence to a recognized code of ethics.

The legislative action I urge is in the public interest. The academic requirements for the new profession of public relations will not affect any presently active practitioner. Public relations curricula in many universities will be modified to meet the criteria of state boards or examiners.

Edward L. Bernays” 

While many in the field may view licensing as radical, most agree there are benefits to having some standards for the field.  These standards include training.  Consider how PRSA has an accreditation based on skills and knowledge (there are courses to prepare for the test).  As the PRSA web site note:  “Our profession is among the most misunderstood and criticized. Through their high professional and ethical standards, Accredited professionals contribute to greater understanding of public relations as a vital management function, and undermine those who would refer to our craft as spin, our professionals as flacks, and our currency as misrepresentation and disinformation” (http://www.prsa.org/Learning/Accreditation/).   Moreover, PRSA is active in efforts to improve college public relations curriculum as part of the effort be create a profession through knowledgeable practitioners.

Education, including accreditation, is one way to build public relations’ credibility as a “profession.”  Profession is in quotation marks because there are debates over what constitutes a profession and whether or not public relations meets those criteria.  Profession is used here in common usage rather than a technical term.  Bernays complained “Anyone can hang up a shingle and become a … public relations practitioner” http://www.prmuseum.com/bernays/bernays_1990.html.  He meant that as a criticism, not a compliment.

On Jan. 7, 2010, a story begins to spread about Sarah Palin’s 19 year old daughter Bristol forming a public relations firm.  It appeared in traditional media, trade sites (http://www.bulldogreporter.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod.asp?sid=&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=53D88D74A99849C185183B336A3F3B02&tier=4&id=7EB04417671A4C3FAA4988D823377F05&AudID=213D92F8BE0D4A1BB62EB3DF18FCCC68), and blogs.  One observer said she should be prepared because she grew up in a family that was using public relations http://www.prmuseum.com/bernays/bernays_1990.html.  That is a very weak argument.  If your parents were accountants, does that make you’re an accountant?  Bernays pointed is proved if a 19 year-old with no training in public relations can form a public relations firm.  Where is the check on quality?

Idea that the business is a public relations firm is implied in the documents filed by Palin.  Her attorney noted the BSMP LLC and is a single-member limited liability corporation includes lobbying, public relations, and political consulting.  Bristol Palin is an ambassador for the Candie’s Foundation, a pro-abstinence group.  It was observed that single-member limited liability corporations are used when a person starts receiving income from various sources because it offers tax advantages http://www.mediabistro.com/prnewser/media_people/bristol_palin_launching_pr_firm_147936.asp

So the business may never really be a public relations practice.  But still, it raises questions about how easy it is for anyone to call what they do public relations.  Those calling themselves public relations include company designed to be paid for editing Wikipedia content.  Public relations can be harmed when untrained practitioners inflict themselves on unknowing clients.

Question to Consider

  1.  What are the arguments against licensing of public relations practitioners?
  2. Why might accreditation be an effective alternative to licensing practitioners?
  3. What is needed to make accreditation more meaningful in public relations and business in general?
  4. Why is it dangerous to the public and the practice to have poorly trained individuals acting as public relations practitioners?
  5. What does PRSA recommend as the curriculum for a public relations major?
  6. How is this case an example of treating public relations as just publicity?
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