PR's best bet to regulate itself now

The writing's on the wall: The practice of PR will be licensed. It's not a question of if. It's a question of when and how.

The writing's on the wall: The practice of PR will be licensed. It's not a question of if. It's a question of when and how.

Once we see that social media has jump-started journalism more than it's jumped it; once we see that relationship management is a strategy, not a goal, and that the goal of PR is competitive advantage; once we see that our clients can't comply their way to success; once we see that ethics, trust, and reputation are shared duties, not exclusive PR domains; once others see that the Fourth Estate is a fragile land on which we tread too much and too heavily; and before we experience our own Arthur Andersen-sized scandal - we should hustle to Congress and present our ideas for how PR should be regulated, even licensed. If we don't, we'll ultimately be dragged there and told what to do by far less patient and less expert stakeholders.

These are some of PR's inconvenient truths - part of what we'll face if we listen to Harold Burson.

At October's International Communications Consultancy Organization Global Summit, the Bur- son-Marsteller cofounder challenged the industry to consider again the question of licensure.

It's a sticky wicket, of course. Free speech is at stake, and who has the authority to regulate that?

But, as Burson noted, PR has little in the way of institutional knowledge or an enforceable code of ethics. Such things, he reminds us, are the hallmarks of full-fledged professions. Doctors, lawyers, and accountants have a wealth of science and literature by which they practice. But PR pros don't. We are like chemists without a periodic table. We are more art than science.

Burson argues that within academia, PR is an applied social science. If economists have game theory and linguists have transformational grammar, why shouldn't PR have a descriptive framework?

For many, the reason has to do with a fear of knowledge. Do we really want to articulate what it is we do? Even Burson suggests that our purpose is to "leverage public opinion to motivate a target audience to a specific course of action."

This is what's behind our infatuation with social media. All are ways of more smartly targeting and relating to audiences, and so they should be mined for that potential.

It's what's behind the stunts we orchestrate - from the mocked-up Bernaysian-style protests of yesteryear to the mocked-up YouTube plants of today. These are tactics for leveraging public opinion, and so they should be used.
We are obligated to advance the causes of our employers and clients. We also are obligated to study and publish our observations and to live and work by those systems we can construct and confirm.

To some, the findings might be ugly. After all, one practitioner's influence is another's propaganda. But they might also be liberating. Influencing publics is not something to apologize for. It supports the process by which better ideas emerge and more efficient practices coalesce.

We used to marvel at the curious efficiency of PR. Now, we bank on it. Is there any doubt today that the strategies we employ have remarkable impact and marked ROI?

PR is just one crisis away from a very public and unwelcome inspection of its means and motives. If we wait for that, we'll be regulated like hedge fund managers. If we do it now, and do it ourselves, we'll join the ranks of doctors, lawyers, and accountants.

Alan Kelly is CEO and founder of The Playmaker's Standard (www. plays2run.com) and author of the newly released book, The Elements of Influence.

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