License to Censor? Communications Licensing and the Regulation of Speech

Even without licensing, there are some in the public relations field who would like to set the stage to regulate communication.

I was accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in 1990. At the time, accreditation or that “APR” designation was relatively new and unproven. But since I was working for a big agency that covered the costs for things like this, I decided to go for it, and it worked out.

What it meant to my career at that point is another story. Almost everyone in PR then did not see the value in those three letters after your name on your business card, and so it went.

So, was it worth it and did I benefit from the experience at that time?

The jury was out for me at the time on whether it made a difference in my career, but I did benefit from the experience. The preparation process reminded me what I already knew from experience, and it taught me what I had yet to learn.

Industry certifications, accreditation and licensing in 2021

Now, fast forward to 2021 and ask me how I feel about accreditation. To be honest, I still have mixed feelings, but now for entirely different reasons.

In recent years, accreditation has been a highly valuable way to separate the pretenders in our profession from those who are more serious about becoming well-rounded pros. Whether you get that APR from PRSA or the ABC designation from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), I’d say it’s worth considering.

I do think if you’re going to aspire to leadership in your professional association, you should earn accreditation according to the aspirational standards set by that association. As the saying goes, ‘Practice what you preach.’

But there are also some good real-world reasons to become accredited. These days, it’s entirely too easy for someone with no reliable PR experience or knowledge to create an impressive website and claim they can do things they can’t do. Their personal branding skills are at such a high level that you won’t really find out if they are imposters until you’ve hired them to do something for you.

That’s why I’ve had more and more prospective clients and others in recent years reach out to me to work for them or someone they knew simply because I was accredited. To be sure, when a lawyer contacts you to help her clean up someone else’s crisis PR mess, they may not be steeped in background on the PRSA accreditation process, but they do know that anyone who’s accredited in their chosen profession is someone who’s more likely to take the craft seriously.

This has been the biggest sign of progress for me that accreditation in communications has come a long way.

Still, to this day, it’s not hard to find veteran communications pros who continue to question the need for certification, and I do get that. After all, three letters after your name in a business governed by the First Amendment right to free speech may seem unnecessary. In American society, thanks to the First Amendment, no one needs a license to communicate. And that’s where we get to those mixed feelings.

When the push for certification and licensing can go too far

In recent years, I’ve had conversations with some highly respected communications professionals on the notion of licensing. These individuals believe that public relations pros should be licensed in the same way as attorneys must pass the bar exam to practice law, and the same way public accounts must earn their Certified Public Accounting test to become CPAs.

Licensing would not be voluntary. It would be a condition of work, and with that there would be regulatory oversights and penalties. In short, they want communicators, and their content, to be regulated.

Of course, I’m well aware of when and how some forms of communication are already regulated. You can’t share insider information or other financial information improperly, in accordance with SEC regulations. The FTC regulates certain types of commercial speech. And the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in numerous times on landmark First Amendment cases. Though, in the majority of cases, the high court sides with unregulated speech.

The pendulum from a time when no one valued accreditation at all, may have swung to the extent that some see certification as a means to introduce controls over communication that are foreign to a free society.

But this kind of thing doesn’t happen all at once. There have already been steps taken in this direction. They seem designed to usher in regulation of speech, opinion, expression and content, and it’s one you may be unsuspectingly accepting.

Keep in mind, speech in American society is free and protected by the First Amendment. People can say, and do say, many things without fear of reprisal, government controls or institutional censorship. This is particularly true when it comes to individual freedom of expression.

A receptive climate for communications regulation

So, while it may seem far-fetched to worry that professional communicators would be formally regulated any time soon, before dismissing this notion out of hand, consider the following.

There are some in the PR business who see lack of control over information as a serious problem. They don’t trust adults to discern for themselves what is ‘acceptable’ information and what is “misinformation.” They actually think in terms that you need to be “protected from misinformation.”

They talk in terms of “slowing the spread of disinformation” they way we talk about a virus, as though you can be infected by it.

Attitudes like this do set the stage for regulation and censorship. That’s how you create a climate receptive to censorship.

You yourself may already have no problem with social media sites censoring “misinformation” on grounds that it’s “harmful.”

Really? Information is harmful? Opinions are harmful? So harmful that a third party should step in and prevent you, an adult, from even being exposed to it?

Have you considered that the information you want to share, content you get paid to share, could and will at times be deemed harmful will therefore be banned from public consumption? Things that to you not only seem harmless, but are in the best interest of the public?

So, what’s the solution? Have the government or an unknown and untrusted third party like a social media algorithm to decide what’s best of us?

I’ll take my chances on more information, free information, and generally unregulated communication. I’ll take my chances with my experience when it tells me that when someone else wants to “protect” me from “misinformation,” they probably aren’t trying to protect me at all. They may well have their own selfish reasons. I’ll suspect that I probably should have access to that content for better or worse, so that as a member of a free and democratic society I can make up my own mind and not have it made up for me.

As a professional communicator, no one has more to lose than you do should speech be regulated. Once you give others the freedom and control to deny you access to information, you’ve surrendered more than you may realize, and you may not like what comes next for you and your career.

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