Letters are a big deal, right? Whether school letters, Greek letters, professional letters, they become symbols that deliver a sense of pride, a sense of belonging. I have kept a well-worn sweatshirt from high school, boldly proclaiming my letters at the time: SME. In a large school district with five high schools, wearing your letters was laying claim to your friends, your teachers, often your teenage world. The same was true in college, where letters bearing the names of sororities and fraternities created another level of self-identification. (Although I did not join a sorority in college, the letters were meaningful symbols to me and most others on campus.)
Professional letters came later — CPA, MD, MBA, Ph.D. Like the letters before them, these tell another person a great deal of information. If I see these letters with someone’s name, I can likely quickly discern the type of work they do and their level of education. As a journalism student studying public relations in college, professional letters weren’t on my radar. It wasn’t until several years later — almost 10 years ago now — that I haphazardly joined the world of school public relations. And shortly after that, I learned about the APR credential — accredited in public relations.
So, for my friends and colleagues who don’t work in public relations, here’s the skinny…
- I passed a review panel of my peers (peers who already had received their APR) last March.
- I passed a three-hour computerized exam with 163 questions in early January.
- I can now tell you a thing or two about Grunig’s situational theory of publics, the difference between line and staff functions and why P.T. Barnum was way more than just a circus guy.
It’s a credential that is widely recognized across all disciplines of public relations. Someone once told me that, in certain circles, the APR is more highly regarded in the public relations profession than a master’s degree. (In fairness, it’s entirely possible that these particular circles may consist of APRs who do not have master’s degrees…but I’m fine not knowing that for now.)
Most importantly, my APR means I’ll continue fine tuning my work to be strategic and based in best practices of social science and professional ethics. It’s a commitment to continued learning, throughout my career, to ensure that I deliver ever greater value to my employer — with focus and confidence as I do.
Now, for my PR friends and colleagues, the APR also might mean, “those letters I really should start working on.” At least, that’s what APR meant to me for much of the last 9+ years. Because I quickly noticed that many of the people who were helping me adjust, learn and grow in this new-found school PR world of bond issues, teacher negotiations, angry parents and Kindergarten Roundup — also had APR behind their name. I admired the quality of their work, the value of their perspective — and I wanted to join their ranks. I wanted the letters.
Getting the APR was a long and winding road, mostly because the past 10 years have included having a baby, raising kids, buying groceries, doing laundry and working in a busy full-time job. (This is where I give a HUGE shout-out to all the single moms, working college students and others who find a way to fit these things together. You are amazing.) I also was crazy enough to write a book two years ago, which put me back a good year when I was really starting to prepare in earnest.
But in spite of all the unexpected and absorbing things life brings, I got there. And along the way, I was reminded, over and over, that I’m surrounded by incredibly generous colleagues — some friends, some strangers — who went out of their way to encourage and help me succeed. And now I’ll pay forward some of their kindness. If you’re thinking you might want the APR letters behind your name, here are my top five things to consider now…
- Start when the time is right. I leveraged a bit of a mom window, nestling the bulk of my work in a sweet spot between when my kids were old enough to be in school, but (mostly) young enough to avoid a family schedule packed with evening and weekend activities. The accreditation board requires that candidates have at least five years of experience; looking back I’m certain that I was a better APR candidate at this stage of my career than I would have been a few years out of college.
- Enlist your boss’ support. Key to my shift from That’s a goal of mine to I’m working on my APR was having it written into my evaluation a few years back. It kept me on track, held me accountable and allowed me to spend some of my regular office hours on my panel and exam preparation. Having it formally documented in my evaluation also paid dividends when I transitioned to a new superintendent partway through my preparation.
- Don’t let the time frame fool you. Candidates are given one calendar year to pass the Readiness Review Panel and complete the exam, and this is more than enough time if you complete the panel shortly after you apply to be a candidate. Leaving yourself 9-12 months to pass the exam, you have all the time you need — likely more than you need. Map out a study plan, schedule an exam date and keep pushing forward. (The 12-month timeline does allow flexibility, however, if life throws you a curve ball or two — and it definitely did for me with the death of a family member, my sister-in-law moving to Hospice care AND being notified by the accreditation board that the exam I’d all but finished preparing for was going to be retired and replaced with a new exam the following month! If planned correctly, the year-long window also allows you time take the exam more than once.)
- Expect a shock to your system when you begin studying for a major exam, especially if you’ve been away from college for 10 or 15 years. I found myself longing for the discipline I once had as a successful high school and college student. Flash cards, study guides and textbooks — exam preparation takes dedication, persistence and old fashioned hard work. More than one APR has told me that a second try at the exam is what they needed, after coming up short the first time. The goal is not to be perfect — the goal is to finish.
- And most importantly, enlist the help, encouragement and support of the APRs around you. Find them through NSPRA or PRSA. Find them on Twitter. Ask your friends. And ask for help. Without exception, current APRs were happy to provide whatever I needed to make the journey a little easier.
If you’re a communications professional, I would love to connect and encourage you to go for your APR when the time is right. And as much pride as I feel having these letters on a letter addressed to me, it truly pales in comparison to the perspective, knowledge and clarity I gained along the way.