He is now in this ninth decade, still active and intellectually engaged in the public relations profession, and is probably the most universally respected figure the business of public relations has ever produced, so when Harold Burson speaks, people listen. And when he issues a call to action—as he did at the ICCO Global Summit in Delhi last week—we should all take note, even if the issue he raised is one that has been off the table for more than a decade.

I cannot recall having a serious conversation with anyone in the public relations business about licensing since the death of Edward L. Bernays in 1995. Bernays, regarded by many as the grandfather of our profession, became in his later years a fierce advocate of licensing for public relations practitioners.

“No legal standard for public relations practitioners currently exists,” Bernays wrote in 1998. “Anyone can hang up a shingle as a public relations practitioner and often does. The status quo produces two victims: clients or employers of public relations practitioners who usually have no standard by which to measure qualifications; and qualified practitioners whose positions are demeaned by those lacking the experience, education, skills and integrity that true professionals have long labored to attain.”

I disagreed with Bernays back then—not such much about the problem as about the solution—and nothing has happened in the intervening years to persuade me that I was mistaken. Nor has the possibility of licensing attracted the support of any industry leaders. Until this week, when Burson—who admits that he too was opposed to licensing back then—put it back on the agenda.

At this point, I should probably make it clear than in his ICCO address, Burson stopped short of endorsing the idea of licensing. But in calling on the industry to examine the issue and to give its serious consideration, and in private conversations before and after his presentation, it seems clear that he believes licensing would bestow greater legitimacy on the public relations field, and might also have more tangible benefits, in terms of our ability to attract the best and the brightest and to command the kind of fees our contribution merits.

It’s also worth taking a few moments to put his thoughts on licensing in context, since licensing was one of several possible solutions he proposed in an address that focused on enhancing the stature of the profession he has practiced for more than 50 years.

`Burson’s premise, not original but sadly still valid, is that “we public relations professionals—particularly those of us in the business of selling public relations services—are like the cobbler’s children.   We have been so busy doing public relations for our clients that we have neglected doing public relations for public relations.”

Burson quickly acknowledged that the profession has made immense progress: most Fortune 100 chief public relations officers today sit on the management committees of their respective companies; the chief public relations officer at many Fortune 500 companies is a senior vice president and in some cases an executive vice president. Compensation for senior public relations officers has increased dramatically.

But Burson made it clear that the gap between the potential role of public relations and its actual role remains. He quoted the definition of public relations offered by Bernays in his 1923 book Crystallizing Public Opinion: “Public relations is that function which influences a course of  behavior that reconciles the client’s objectives with the public interest, which, when communicated, influences and motivates a targeted audience to a specific attitude or action.”

Note that in Bernays’ definition, as in Burson’s, public relations is rooted not in the act of communication, but the behavior to be communicated. Says Burson: “My model of public relations is in two parts. The first relates to behavior: the policy and decision making that results in action.  The second deals with communications: in short, disseminating information that reflects that action or behavior.”

Yet many clients, and an alarming number of practitioners, continue to see public relations as “a communications discipline,” a view that diminishes the power and influence of public relations and all but strips it of any meaningful counseling component.

“Communications has all but supplanted public relations in identifying what we do,” says Burson.   “I think this is unfortunate because communications as a descriptor for public relations fails to recognize our advisory role in the policy and decision making process.  It plays into the hands of  those who choose to think of us as spinners, flacks and portray us as, at best, obfuscators and barriers to our bosses and, at worst, as liars and cover-up artists.”

Burson would like to see public relations broadly recognized as an “applied social science” which the dictionary defines as “a branch of science that deals with the institutions and functioning of human society and with the interpersonal relationships of individuals as members of society… a science dealing with a particular phase or aspect of human society.”

According to Burson, “it seems indisputable to me that public relations meets the test of a social science. The practice of public relations embraces a knowledge of history, psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, geography, philosophy, even a rudimentary knowledge of the law. The legitimacy of public relations is recognized in all democratic nations whose constitutions guarantee their citizens the exercise of free speech, the right to petition elected officials and freedom of assembly.”

So far, there’s nothing in Burson’s definition of public relations, his vision of its ideal role in an organization, or his assessment of its current status that rings false. But does the fact that public relations is an “applied social science” make it a profession? And is it necessary for public relations to become a profession—in the strictest sense of the term—in order to achieve its potential and address its reputation problem?

The American Heritage Dictionary offers several definitions of the word profession, the first of which is simply “an occupation or career.” But a stricter definition holds that a profession is “An activity that involves a responsibility to serve the public, has a complex body of knowledge, has standards for admission, and has a need for public confidence.”

Burson suggests several steps that the public relations industry must take if it is to achieve the status of a profession: “institutionalizing a body of knowledge; a specified educational curriculum; an enforceable code of ethics, and some form of licensing that calls for recertification at periodic intervals.”

In calling for an institutionalized body of knowledge, Burson is surely correct. “We have not documented or articulated its historical, philosophical and legal antecedents,” he says. “For all practical purposes public relations has no institutional memory. Today’s practitioners have scant awareness of the public relations greats who preceded them or of their long-forgotten seminal programs and campaigns that are being emulated and reported currently as original award-winning ideas.”

Similarly, the suggestion that the profession should develop a more formal educational curriculum should be embraced by all, practitioners. My own priority in this regard would be rescue public relations from journalism schools and place it firmly where it belongs: in business schools. In most J-schools, public relations commands neither respect nor affection. But more critically, relocating PR education to MBA programs would ensure first that PR counselors in training acquired at least some knowledge about the context in which they will be practicing their craft, and second that their future peers—and CEOs—would have at least a rudimentary understanding of public relations.

Burson, meanwhile, prefers to focus on a “more formal study of the social sciences,” which would surely also be helpful.

And so to licensing. “I raise the issue because I cannot think of a profession that is not government licensed,” says Burson. “Medicine, law, accountancy, engineering, architecture: all are licensed.”

But a case can certainly be made that public relations practitioners have more in common with, for example, management consultants than with any of the professions listed above. And management consultants may not be licensed, but they earn a level of respect—not to mention financial remuneration—that would satisfy most public relations people.

One reason public relations professionals have more in common with management consultants than they do with, for example, lawyers is that management consultancy and public relations consultancy defy easy definition. Lawyers represent their clients in an environment—the court of law—that is governed by strict rules. No similar rules govern the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders, nor is it possible to envision how such rules could be written without restricting free speech.

And therein lies another problem with licensing. Burson says he doubts whether self-licensing will suffice. So do I. After all, the Public Relations Society of America’s accreditation program—a form of self-licensing—is perhaps the single most irrelevant expenditure of energy in the history of the public relations industry. After nearly 20 years of writing about this business, I have yet to hear of a client or employer who made hiring decisions based on accreditation.

But not only does the government have no compelling interest in regulating public relations—it might do so if petitioned aggressively by the industry, but the industry would probably have to show some compelling public interest—there are some serious First Amendment issues (in the United States, at least) that would have to be addressed.

Burson rightly points out that lawyers speak on behalf of their clients and yet are regulated by the government, but I still feel pretty much the same way about licensing public relations people that I would about licensing journalists: it would restrict access to a field that is well-served by attracting a diversity of talent from a myriad of educational and professional backgrounds. 

Then there’s the question of who would qualify for licensing. Burson bemoans the fact that “public relations has come to be defined by ‘dirtiest kids’ and ‘singing dogs’ competitions,” and the reality is that a great many public relations practitioners earn a living doing that kind of work. There’s nothing wrong with that, and anyone who has ever tried to get media coverage for a dirtiest kid competition knows it’s not easy. But do those people need to licensed? If not, should they be forced to stop calling themselves public relations people and define themselves as publicists? If so, can they still work for public relations consultancies?

Burson makes the point that law firms have paralegals, and suggests that publicists—that’s my word, not his—could have the same status within public relations firms. “In general, after serving a five-year apprenticeship, employees of public relations firms would be required to take and pass the equivalent of a bar exam to obtain a license to practice.”

But I’m not sure the dividing line between the one and the other is always clear cut. Nor am I entirely convinced that clients would necessarily gravitate toward licensed public relations practitioners. It’s not hard to envisage a former Wall Street Journal reporter, for example, setting himself as an unlicensed “corporate communications” consultant and finding greater demand for his or her services than a licensed public relations professional. And it’s hard to envisage a legal framework that might prevent such a thing.

Burson concludes that “while I am not yet at the point of endorsing a licensing initiative, my present attitude is that bodies such as ICCO and its constituent organizations should put the issue on their agendas for serious study. Public relations will likely not gain the professional status it wants and deserves unless it embraces licensing…. It is an issue [the current] generation of public relations professionals will have to decide.”

There are certainly implications of licensing that warrant further investigation.

Perhaps most importantly, would a licensed profession attract a higher quality of employees, and would licensed practitioners be able to charge more for their services? With or without licensing, the stature of the public relations profession will not be enhanced unless the quality of people providing the counsel is improved, and to the extent that licensing helps to attract a higher quality of talent it could part of the solution.

That issue is inextricably linked, it seems to me, to the question of compensation, which is determined by the level of fees public relations professionals can charge for their counsel. I don’t think there is any question that public relations services are under-valued, despite a recent survey from consulting firm StevensGould & Partners showing that senior public relations practitioners now earn fees very much in line with those of other professions.

One of my favorite (perhaps apocryphal) stories about Bernays has him contracted by an industry association to solve a particularly thorny issue. He agreed to solve the problem, for a substantial fee. After listening to the industry leaders explain the situation, he offered a single piece of advice: “Do nothing.” Then he sent the group an invoice. When they balked at paying a substantial fee for a couple of hours of his time, he told them they weren’t paying for the two hours he had spent listening to them but for the lifetime of learning and experience that enabled him to offer his counsel with such confidence.

Perhaps clients would be more willing to pay for that learning if it was codified in some form of professional qualification.

Another potential benefit would be the creation of an enforceable code of ethics. No such thing exists in the industry today—at least in the United States—in part because of concerns that by expelling or even censuring members, trade associations institutes might be guilty of restraint of trade or otherwise legally liable. A certified professional organization would have no such concerns, and could discipline members for unethical practices. That would send a strong message about the integrity of an industry often perceived as deceptive and manipulative.

But at the end of the day, those benefits are probably irrelevant unless practitioners themselves, led by the largest public relations firms (and their holding companies) believe that licensing will help.

Burson was clear in his address to ICCO that he was speaking  personally, not representing either Burson-Marsteller or WPP, and there is no reason to believe that they, or other firms in positions of power, have any interest in subjecting their business to government scrutiny—although a case could be made that licensing would work to the advantage of the larger firms, which could better absorb the cost of training and certification.

Under current circumstances, there is little or no prospect of the big firms leading a push for licensing, and perhaps only a crisis—similar to the accounting scandals that destroyed Arthur Anderson in the wake of the Enron debacle—might change that.

But licensing is not a panacea for the problems of the public relations business. Even licensed professions have public relations problems—consider the popular image of lawyers—and even licensed professions have their share of dishonest or merely incompetent practitioners dragging down the reputation of the rest. Licensed or not, it is incumbent of public relations professionals of higher ability and integrity to distinguish themselves in the free market, not on the basis of a license.

At the end of the day, I believe any improvement in the public relations industry’s reputation—or that of individual consultants or firms—must be earned rather than bestowed.

But I do agree with Burson about one thing: this whole discussion—about the definition of public relations, the need for an institutionalized body of knowledge, a more rigorous code of ethics, a curriculum that elevates public relations above its current status as a poor relation of journalism, and even about the potential benefits of licensing—is one worth having.