Jaw-dropping abuses labeled as PR signal that the time is now for certification

Posted on July 30, 2012 1:36 pm by | Ethics | IABC | PR

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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. Certification generally is required for professions that have very clearly defined and limited ways of doing their jobs. Certified public accountants can balance the books only so many ways, for example, without a lot of room for creativity. Communications, conversely, is open to unlimited imaginative and creative approaches.

There are communication fundamentals that aren’t so flexible, however. 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, can be assured that the communicator will perform to accepted professional ethical standards.

IABC, PRSA and a fistful of 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 myself 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, since not only is the definition overly broad, 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 in 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 (and IABC’s 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 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)” in order 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 Holiay’s trickery is irrelevant. As HARO founder Peter Shankman pointed out to me, and as I know well from my days as a reporter (my degree is in journalism), 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 retored 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 not only believes there’s nothing wrong with how he plies his trade; he’s overtly 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 they could hire an 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 so busy trying to be the first to report news to check facts, before individuals could spread misinformation in a milisecond 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, dislosure 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.


(Richard Becker wrote another take on Holiday, focusing on his book and its possible consequences.)



  • 1.It's long overdue. First Amendment should not be a roadblock to the profession standing up and saying "we are better than roaches like this guy. We are not going to allow him to make life untenable for all the ethical professionals in our field."

    Steve Lubetkin, APR, Fellow, PRSA | July 2012 | Cherry Hill, NJ

  • 2.Excellent article, Shel. I'm still undecided on mandatory certification, but you do make a strong case. Which organization, in your opinion, would be best suited to lead the way and get others on board? Or, would a coordinated effort of a strong group of PR industry influencers inspire more action? A post like this could certainly be the spark. Perhaps the most important question, though, is whether certification would make this kind of activity disappear or even diminish? I'm skeptical that it would, but I do share your disdain for deceptive "professionals," and think it's unfortunate when folks tarnish our profession by using our name.

    Perhaps it's time for large media outlets to realize that they can't afford to break news before small, more agile (and sometimes less credible) blogs at all costs. As a consumer, I don't turn to larger outlets for breaking news anymore anyway. I turn to them for what I hope will be a more in-depth, fact-checked analysis (which takes more time than the breaking-at-all-costs approach) that only a larger media outlet could perform. Anyone can lie to a journalist, not just a PR faux pro. We should, however, always stand against deception. The question remains: Is certification an effective way of doing this?

    I would love to see this discussion continue to spread as I think there are great arguments from both sides.

    Nate Long | July 2012 | Tallahassee, Florida

  • 3.Thanks, Nate, for your comment. I have absolutely no expectation that certification would eliminate this behavior, only that it would reduce the amount of it that's labeled "PR." At the very least, it gives the profession a greater ability to look after its own house.

    As to which organization would be best suited to manage it, the problem is that there are many associations and if only one handled certification (and presumably you'd need to be a member to maintain it), then there's no standardization. I would see the various associations that already do credentialing agreeing on a standard so they could each provide it for their memberships. I'm not an expert, though, and there may be a better approach. There are a variety of considerations, from keeping certification from becoming an unnecessary barrier to how punishments for violations are doled out. A would hope a cross-association task force, guided by someone who knows legally-defensible certification programs inside and and backward, would resolve all those issues.

    Shel Holtz | July 2012 | Concord, CA

  • 4.Boy, Shel, I wish you made the rules.

    Josh Bernoff | July 2012 | Cambridge, MA.

  • 5.Holy cow. Not only are those examples unethical, I think some of them are actually illegal. I just can't imagine that someone has a parallel universe in his/her head where things like that could be conscionable.

    Kristen Sukalac | July 2012 | France

  • 6.I tend to be an optimist but until the time when "doing a job well" is both appropriately admired and rewarded ... I doubt we'll see a turn-around of these abuses. (I like to think outrageous abuses are exceptions and not the rule.) Still, it may be easier to help wider audiences understand they must adapt a "Sherlock Holmes" approach to what they read, see, hear. Ask questions! Be aware that if something looks like a duck, acts like a duck ... it still may not be a duck! Take responsibility for gathering more information when your "gut" tells you something is wrong. Place more faith in your intellect. When the audience is "better" the "cheats" won't win the day.

    Marilyn Pincus | July 2012 | Tucson, Arizona, USA

  • 7.To Marilyn's comment, possibly the most valuable course I took in college was Critical Writing, not because it improved my writing (which it did), but because it improved my thinking. It should be required for everyone from about the age of 14 or 15.

    Kristen Sukalac | July 2012 | France

  • 8.Hey folks - there already is a recognized standard in the PR world. Established in 1964, the Accreditation Program is the profession’s only national post-graduate certification program. It measures a public relations practitioner’s fundamental knowledge of communications theory and its application; establishes advanced capabilities in research, strategic planning, implementation and evaluation; and demonstrates a commitment to professional excellence and ethical conduct. The skills acquired through the process are applicable to any industry or practice area. Currently, more than 5,000 professionals from the agency, corporate, association and education fields hold the APR mark. You can find out more at http://www.prsa.org.

    Janet Kacskos, APR, Fellow PRSA | July 2012 | Lancaster, PA

  • 9.Thanks for the comment, Janet. I addressed accreditation in the post. The PRSA and IABC accreditation programs are both terrific, but they don't address the issue because (a) they are not required and (b) they are generally not legally defensible (and even if they are, they're limited to members of a single association). Certification is a different beast altogether, and it's the one I believe we need. We've had accreditation, as you note, since 1964 and the problems are only getting worse. We need to move beyond the voluntary assessment of an individual's knowledge to an industry-wide certification. IMHO, of course.

    Shel Holtz | July 2012

  • 10.Provocative post as always, Shel.

    PRSA's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) examined the issue of professional certification in 2008, as a way of improving the standards of practice in the public relations profession. Ultimately, the board landed on a series of strategic choices that merited further debate.

    Apologies for the length of the information that follows, but I'm paraphrasing here from the white paper, which I'd be happy to share with you.

    Certification is usually a voluntary process conducted by a private organization for the purpose of conveying information on individuals who have successfully completed the certification process. Unlike licensing, Certification has no legal status other than potential restriction of use of the certification title, and a lack of certification usually does not prevent an individual from engaging in professional activity. However, it would help to assure that a practitioner is competent and capable of delivering relevant services through the credibility of the examination process. Of course, un-certified practitioners, just like non-accredited practitioners, do not have to meet any standard.

    Like the APR or ABC credentials, certification is a front-loaded activity. That is, it is up to the practitioner and the certifying authority to maintain the relationship of certification through continuous updating and education, and periodic re-certification through examination. While the profession already has certification options, it may be possible to devise certification regimens in various practice areas that also offer concrete client and competitive value. They can focus on specific areas of practice and therefore test and validate knowledge, competence and experience independently to achieve highly focused, competency-based certifications on subject matter that might include healthcare communications, financial relations or events management.

    PRSA's BEPS concluded that certification may be a tough sell. Public relations and journalism, as professions, are unusual in that they actively question any kind of certification, or authentication of credentials, including the current APR process. While virtually every other profession and regulated trade — from law to plumbing to hair styling — looks for, establishes, promotes and relies on different levels of certification or recognition of professional competence based on core areas of practice and knowledge, professions are judged by more than their codes of conduct and bodies of knowledge. Their value is judged by how practitioners set, adhere to and, to a great extent, rely on practice standards, which clients come to expect as measures of competence and value.

    A profession is also judged by the willingness of its members continuously to seek self-improvement, which further justifies public and client confidence. The concept of Accreditation serves to identify individual practitioners who, on their own initiative, have taken steps to validate a base level of professional knowledge. Certification would reflect a higher level of personal professional initiative and accomplishment, with the goal of establishing bonafide credentials validated by a competent outside certification process.

    The expectation, therefore, is that certification will practitioners a competitive marketplace advantage, or simply the personal satisfaction of having their competencies validated.

  • 11.Thanks, Arthur. No need to apologize for a lengthy reply; rather, it's I who should be thanking you for taking the time to prepare it!

    While I understand it's a tough sell, the concept of a legally defensible certification is a valid one that is applied in a number of professions. I met with a consultant not too long ago whose firm works with organizations on certifications; she drew a clear distinction between accreditation (which is usually given to an organization -- think of accredited universities -- rather than to individuals. We discussed the applicability of a certification to the communications profession, and she didn't see any reasons that it couldn't be implemented, although she was clear that it is, indeed, an onerous process...and one I think bears revisiting.

    One of the nice things about a certification is that maintaining it requires ongoing education, CEUs, which removes the voluntary dimension of seeking to continually improve. I earned my accreditation in 1984 and have been required to submit to no further examination. Why would somebody seeing the ABC after my name believe that I've stayed current over the last 28 years? That wouldn't happen with a certification.

    There's a lot of opposition, I know. But things are only going to get worse. The profession has been talking at itself for decades about this, yet the ecosystem has transformed to the point that talk isn't enough. Of course, I'm open to alternatives. But continuing to promote what we've already been doing for years and years won't solve a thing.

    Shel Holtz | August 2012

  • 12.Shel, I also get frustrated at what some people (practitioners and consumers alike) believe constitutes public relations. Oh yeah, and angry, too, at ethical lapses.

    But here's where I think the PR certification argument falls short: As long as buyers in the marketplace aren't =required= to hire someone who is credentialed in every situation, then they will often -- not every time, but often enough -- let cost be a factor in their choice, along with qualifications.

    For example, and I guess I'm "writing out loud" here, an accountant might charge you "X" amount of dollars per hour to prepare your taxes, while a CPA might charge you "XX" per hour. You (whether a business owner or an individual) decide how important it is to pay more for someone with that credential, but regulations don't require you to do so. While the basic knowledge needed to complete the task at hand won't differ, a CPA might be able to provide advice and counsel at a higher level than someone who hasn’t achieved that level of proficiency.

    “Ya pays yer money and ya takes your chances,” I think the saying goes.

    And thus it's the same with PR counsel. Communication theory doesn't really change, but the advice on how to apply it might differ between those of us who are more "seasoned" (ahem) -- and probably more interested in differentiating ourselves via credentialing -- and those who don't have as much experience, or, perhaps, ethics.

    My two cents; I'll stop my pontificating here and just add in "hello -- boy it's been a long time since we've talked."

    Sharon Bond | August 2012 | Park Ridge, IL

  • 13.Shel, I think that Holiday is confusing pageviews with PR. And I'm not sure that certification for a subjective occupation like PR is the way to go. Note that there are no educational requirements and there's no "official" training. And that begs the question: should journalists and bloggers be certified? My blog post on the subject: http://www.prchicagoblog.com/2012/08/trust-me-im-lying-should-pr-professionals-be-certified.html

    Toni Antonetti | August 2012 | Chicago

  • 14.Thanks for your comment, Toni. Just to clarify, my view of certification is not to test for knowledge of PR, which is a creative and subjective activity (as you note), but only to certify a thorough and complete understanding of, and commitment to, ethical standards.

    Shel Holtz | August 2012

  • 15.As a member of the media for 26 years, I have too been misled by PR individuals, (and I did and still do chase ambulances, pound the pavement, and talk face-to-face to get the story. It's the new generation of journalists (citizens and bloggers included) that depend too much on multimedia and hype to get their sources. On the subject of ethics, I will never join PR organizations that promote ethics and not follow them. Case in point: As media director for a large event, I was told by the PR firm hired from Vancouver to boldface lie to the agents about broadcast and print exposure, ensuring more coverage for the show, even if it was after the fact. The agents specifically told me not to cross that line, as they had a terrible experience in other cities, such as Toronto, with PR planners that set up ambushes for the celebrities. I refused to lie for the event organizers and told the PR rep that I will not sacrifice my legal and ethical obligations to the public and to maintain the high standards of trust established over the years for extra hits online, ticket sales, or more impressions on TV. I was so appalled that this was promoted by this outlet, and somewhat by the organizers, I quit the position after that event. I've also worked for the 'dark side' in ad agencies, and was put off by the manipulation of clients and the egos that reign the industry. The difference between PR and journalism is the legal and ethical requirements. Here's the difference between media and PR: When a media outlet/reporter makes a mistake or lies, they end up getting sued, they lose credibility, readership/listeners/viewers, the reporter gets blackballed, the editors have to apologize publicly, and it could cost them advertising revenues. The sources in the story are also compromised and their reputation is also put at risk, as well as the cause for the story itself. That's a lot at stake. If a PR agency lies, they can apologize publicly, sure, but they probably won't be sued, because it's a 'promotional' event/stunt, (unless someone dies, of course), and they can blame it on the client, who signed off on the idea, and get them to bear the brunt. You never see the PR agency apologizing, but they will be prepping the response to a company whose event backfired because of a concept they were told would work to make them more money. And the agency will still get paid. But in the backroom after the issue is blown over, I have been privy to a PR agency telling the client "but look at all the hits and sales we got! Just make your statement and it will all blow over." Journalists depend on PR agencies to tell them the latest and greatest. That's as far as it should go and the journalist/reporter should check out their own sources rather than be lazy and accept what you get is the actual truth. PR agencies should realize that the media is watching their tactics and if you don't get the love you want for your client, it may be because of your reputation. Sincere and ethical journalists (like the ones in respected news outlets and newspapers do it for the scoop, the search for truth, the chance to educate and inform, for the byline, and the regular (sometimes low) paycheque. I have to ask...what are PR agencies really doing it for?

    D. Gray | August 2014 | Canada

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