I always laughed at IABC and PRSA's accreditation programs, with their secret tests purporting to prove passers proficient to practice ... public relations. It was amusing, listening to "Accredited Business Communicators" gas on about how much they learned about themselves from the process of studying for the test, and so forth.
But now that PRSA's APR program seems on the wane and IABC has suspended its ABC accreditation program altogether, I suddenly see the value in having some common standard of excellence—even if the "common" part of that phrase is more important than the "excellence."
In an industry as nebulous as communication, it's crucial to have, if not common tests, at least common texts. Communicators used to subscribe to trade publications, and have some regular reading in common. I worked for some of those publications, at Ragan Communications.
When I started at Ragan—a few years before anyone heard of the Internet—we published two kinds of newsletters:
1. Trade publications for PR people—The Ragan Report, Speechwriters Newsletter, Editor's Workshop Newsletter, Corporate Annual Report Newsletter and even a desperately dreary one called Techniques for the Benefits Communicator.
These weekly or monthly eight- and 12-pagers were filled with interviews with leaders in the business, case studies about successful communication campaigns, essays by top practitioners and survey stories that asked various communicators to weigh in on important issues and problems in the business. The editors of these publications were serious about their work, and performed to the accepted standards of journalistic integrity. And if people canceled their subscriptions or complained to our publisher about our critical coverage, it was tough shit for them, because this was serious business. It had to be, to command hundreds of dollars for a subscription, as these newsletters did.
2. "Tips newsletters" full of cleverly written commonsense ideas for middle manager types. With names like Manager's Intelligence Report and The Working Communicator, these publications offered bulleted lists of tips, like: "At a cocktail party, hold your drink in your left hand so that when you meet someone your shaking-hand is warm and dry." To a one, the publisher, the marketer and the editor of every one of these publications were cynical about the purpose and contemptuous of the audience, which they saw as faceless masses of fools who believed that wisdom and competence could be achieved by merely compiling tips from sharpers like us.
Within a decade, the Internet had all but eliminated those cheap, silly tips newsletters.
And within 15 years, it eliminated the expensive, serious trade newsletters, too.
And what's left? A limp combination of both. A website that purports to offer "news and ideas for communicators," but really only offers generic tips that sound much like The Working Communicator (and worse). One day this month, here were the headlines at Ragan.com:
"The Winnie-the-Pooh guide to social media"
"6 secrets to create a powerful LinkedIn summary"
"8 foods that PR people should avoid"
"What communicators can learn from farmers"
"5 ways to make your brand sound human online"
"12 quotes about readers to inspire writers"
"The craziest excuses employees use to call in sick"
And so on. The only article approaching a case study was a thing on how a pizza chain "deftly" responded when a nude photo of a woman was uploaded to its Facebook contest for children. And what was this "deft" response? They immediately pulled the photo down and issued a corporate apology: "We were disappointed last night to see a shocking photo in our Mini Monsters contest ...."
We don't need a trade publisher to tell us to do that any more than companies need to hire a professional communicator to do that.
I'm not criticizing Ragan; I'm assuming Ragan.com editors are watching traffic patterns and serving their readers what their readers like to eat.
But here's the question that tortures my afternoon naps: When everything is bullshit, who will pay the bullshitters?