Program Certification & Accreditation

The Commission’s 1999 report dealt with certification and accreditation processes of three organizations: the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) and the National Communication Association (NCA).

The latter’s process is a self-help initiative, not a formal assessment of the quality of public relations programs. Therefore, this report deals only with the PRSA and ACEJMC processes, both of which are voluntary external review procedures.

The ACEJMC accreditation process, however, has undergone major changes since 1999. For example, ACEJMC no longer is authorized by the U.S. Department of Education to grant professional accreditation; rather, it is sanctioned by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). It recently condensed its standards from 12 to nine. The PRSA Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) Program has continued to expand.

ACEJMC Accreditation

ACEJMC traces its beginning to 1945, when the American Council on Education in Journalism was formed to evaluate and accredit journalism programs. Originally an association of journalism education and newspaper organizations, the Council broadened its mission to mass communication, including public relations, and changed its name in 1980. ACEJMC offices are located in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. It has no connection to or affiliation with the university.

ACEJMC accredits academic units that offer professional programs to prepare college students for careers in journalism and mass communication. The unit may be a college, school or department. Components of the unit, such as a public relations program, are covered under unit accreditation, but are not accredited individually.

ACEJMC accreditation is voluntary. The process begins with a letter from the chief executive officer of a college or university inviting ACEJMC to review a relevant unit. It then proceeds through four stages that usually span two years: production of an extensive self-study, a three-day site visit by a team of two or more educators and one practitioner, review and recommendation by the Accrediting Committee and review and final recommendation by the Accrediting Council. Units must apply for reaccreditation every six years.

The self-study is organized by nine standards on which the unit will be evaluated. The site visit team, after reading the self-study, examining records and documents, attending classes and interviewing students, faculty and administrators, produces a written draft report in which the unit is found in compliance or noncompliance with each of the nine standards. Based on its findings, the team makes one of three recommendations: accreditation/reaccreditation, provisional reaccreditation (meaning the unit has specified deficiencies that can and must be corrected within two years, when a revisit will be conducted) or denial. The nine standards of ACEJMC accreditation are as follows:

  1. Mission, Governance and Administration
  2. Curriculum and Instruction
  3. Diversity and Inclusiveness
  4. Full-time and Part-time Faculty
  5. Scholarship: Research, Creative and Professional Activity
  6. Student Services
  7. Resources, Facilities and Equipment
  8. Professional and Public Service
  9. Assessment of Learning Outcomes

Starting in fall 2006, the same nine standards will be used by ACEJMC to assess professional master’s degree programs (Ph.D. programs are deemed academic and, therefore, are not eligible for professional accreditation). ACEJMC will make separate evaluations of undergraduate and graduate programs, including separate, and possibly different, recommendations for accreditation.

A fact often overlooked by practitioners is that ACEJMC “embraces the value of a liberal arts and sciences curriculum as the essential foundation for a professional journalism and mass communications education.” Compliance with the standard on curriculum and instruction requires that students take a minimum of 80 semester credit hours outside of the journalism and mass communications unit, of which 65 semester credit hours must be in the liberal arts and sciences. In other words, in an accredited unit requiring 120 semester hours for a bachelor’s degree, public relations students commonly take only 40 semester credit hours in courses focusing on their major. Their education is well-rounded, with twice as many courses taken in such subjects as history, political science, sociology and philosophy.

ACEJMC now also requires that an accredited unit’s students must be educated in 11 prescribed competencies and values:

  1. understand and apply the principles and laws of freedom of speech and press, including the right to dissent, to monitor and criticize power, and to assemble and petition for redress of grievances;
  2. demonstrate an understanding of the history and role of professionals and institutions in shaping communication;
  3. demonstrate an understanding of the diversity of groups in a global society in relationship to communication;
  4. understand concepts and apply theories in the use and presentation of images and information;
  5. demonstrate an understanding of professional ethical principles and work ethically in pursuit of truth, accuracy, fairness and diversity;
  6. think critically, creatively and independently;
  7. conduct research and evaluate information by methods appropriate to the communication professions in which they work;
  8. write correctly and clearly in forms and styles appropriate for the communication professions, audiences and purposes they serve;
  9. critically evaluate their own work and that of others for accuracy and fairness, clarity, appropriate style and grammatical correctness;
  10. apply basic numerical and statistical concepts;
  11. apply tools and technologies appropriate for the communication professions in which they work

In addition, graduate students should be able to contribute to knowledge appropriate to the communication professions in which they will work.

The site-visiting team delivers its draft report to the unit administrator and the university CEO before leaving campus. After input from the unit reviewed, the site-visiting team submits a final report to headquarters, and the team chair presents the findings and recommendation to the Accrediting Committee at its annual meeting, usually held in March. Based on the unit’s selfstudy, the site-visiting team’s report and discussion, the committee votes and forwards a recommendation to the Accrediting Council. The Council makes the final decision regarding accreditation at its spring meeting, usually held in May. An appeals process is in place. All ACEJMC meetings are open to the public, and all votes on accrediting decisions are taken in open sessions. Self-studies and site-visiting team reports are available to the public upon request.

Site-visit team members are selected from a pool of educator and practitioner volunteers who have served on previous teams and/or participated in a training session. Many are members of the Accrediting Committee or the Accrediting Council (members cannot vote on schools they visited as part of a team). In forming teams, ACEJMC is committed to recruiting members who are representative of the unit’s various disciplines. An effort also is made to include a person of color on each team and at least one member who is not a Committee or Council member. Noteworthy for this report, ACEJMC recently cited a shortage of public relations professionals available for service on site-visiting teams.

The Accrediting Committee’s 15 members are nominated and elected by the Council. Eight must be educators, and seven represent related industries, such as advertising, broadcasting, newspapers and public relations. The Accrediting Council currently consists of 18 representatives of 16 professional organizations (for example, the American Advertising Federation and PRSA), 15 representatives of five educational associations (for example, the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication) and three public members who are not affiliated with the field. Membership on the ACEJMC Council is open to all membership organizations of educators or professionals in journalism and mass communication. Dues are tiered by status as an education or industry association and by size of operating budget.

Representation of public relations in the ACEJMC accreditation process has increased substantially since the Commission on Public Relations Education’s 1999 report—demonstrating laudatory response from practitioners to the Commission’s “A Call to Action.” For example, whereas only one practitioner organization, PRSA, had a representative on the ACEJMC Council in 1999, PRSA now has two representatives on the Council, and the Arthur W. Page Society, which became a dues-paying member of the Council in 2004, has one representative.

In other words, instead of one voice and one vote, public relations now has three voices and votes. (In addition, several representatives of educational associations on the Council have a background in and appreciation of public relations and uphold the interests of public relations education.)

Still, participation by more public relations professional associations is needed. In comparison, for example, newspaper journalism has representatives of six professional associations on the ACEJMC Council: the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors, Inland Press Association, Newspaper Association of America Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists and Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.

It is estimated that more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities offer courses in public relations, yet only 88 have units accredited by ACEJMC. In the absence of accreditation to stimulate and encourage sound education programs, public relations will remain a profession in name only.

PRSA Certification

PRSA established its Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) program in 1989. CEPR is a voluntary program and, in many ways, emulates the ACEJMC accreditation process. Unlike ACEJMC accreditation, however, CEPR deals solely with public relations education programs and only at the undergraduate level. It originally was targeted at public relations education programs housed in units not eligible for ACEJMC accreditation (for example, departments grounded in the traditional discipline of speech communication), although, to date, few such programs have taken advantage of the certification opportunity. The program is administrated by PRSA, with the PRSA board of directors making final decisions on certification.

The review process is conducted by two accredited PRSA members, one a practitioner and the other an educator, who examine the curriculum, resources, facilities, faculty qualifications and university support that is provided to public relations education. On-site meetings are conducted with numerous stakeholders, including faculty, department and university administrators and public relations students. Calls are made to local professionals and alumni to learn their assessment of the program. The intensive two-and-one-half day review culminates in a written report and a meeting of the team with the academic vice president and/or the president of the university.

Successful programs are granted PRSA certification for a six-year time period. The process must be repeated for re-certification.

PRSA certification is based on program compliance with nine standards:

  1. Public Relations Curriculum
  2. Public Relations Faculty (Full- and Part-time)
  3. Resources, Equipment and Facilities
  4. Public Relations Students
  5. Assessment
  6. Relationships with Alumni and Professionals
  7. Relationships with Total Unit and University
  8. PRSSA Chapter
  9. Diversity

Overall, only 94 out of more than 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities have public relations programs certified or accredited by either PRSA or ACEJMC; 8 are certified by PRSA, and their units also are accredited by ACEJMC.

Public Relation Programs Certified by PRSA

Currently, public relations programs at 14 U.S. universities, 1 Canadian college and 1 Argentinean university (16 in total) are certified by PRSA. Half of the 16 programs are housed in academic units that also are accredited by ACEJMC. The Certification in Education for Public Relations (CEPR) programs, listed by the unit and university in which they are housed, are as follows:

*Also accredited by ACEJMC

Units with Public Relations Programs Accredited by ACEJMC

As of November 2006, 109 academic units at U.S. colleges and universities are accredited by ACEJMC. They represent only 25 percent of the 432 departments and schools of journalism and mass communication listed in the 2005-06 AEJMC Journalism & Mass Communication Directory. Of the 109 accredited units, only 88 (81 percent) house public relations programs, as identified by a Chapter of PRSSA, which requires at least five courses in public relations to be chartered, and/or a proclaimed concentration of study in public relations included in the unit’s entry in the 2005-06 AEJMC Directory and verified on the unit’s Web site. Further analysis of the 88 schools showed that, of the accredited units, public relations is offered at 25 that grant Ph.D. degrees, 42 that grant master’s degrees and 21 that grant only bachelor’s degrees.

There is substantial variation among the programs, particularly at the undergraduate level. Whereas some offer a bachelor of arts or science degree in public relations, others provide an emphasis on only two or three courses that lead to a degree in another discipline, such as journalism. Furthermore, at some accredited units, public relations courses are taught primarily by adjunct and nontenure-track faculty. In other words, not all accredited public relations programs are equal in breadth or depth. At the graduate level, public relations is almost always a specialization.

2006 Recommendations

Regardless of the outcome of either the ACEJMC accreditation or the PRSA certification process, the value of self-examination cannot be over-emphasized. Reviewing the substance and pedagogy of an institution’s public relations program provides insights and benchmarks, while offering opportunities for alterations and new directions. While the processes may appear daunting, the Arthur W. Page Society, PRSA, the Institute for Public Relations and ACEJMC regularly conduct training programs to increase the number of qualified reviewers and to instruct institutions on the preparation necessary for outside review.

The Commission recommends that:

  • more public relations education programs should seek accreditation and/or certification to complete a thorough self-examination of the program.
  • more public relations practitioners should volunteer to serve on site-visiting teams.
  • more industry organizations, such as the Council of Public Relations Firms and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), should apply for membership on the ACEJMC Council. Representation also is needed from educator associations with large public relations memberships, such as NCA and ICA.