Professional Regulation as Brand Management

Professional regulation gets a bad rap.  For many, the word ‘regulation’ seems associated with policing, discipline, or telling members what they can do.  Although professional regulation does include such activities, it is really not what professional regulation is about.  Especially in the context of voluntary designations, a better understanding of regulation would be as brand management, which is to the benefit of members and consumers alike.

The real purpose of professional regulation is consumer protection.  There are two models of consumer protection.  The first model is licensing.  Here practitioners cannot offer their services to the public unless they are duly authorized to do so by a regulatory body.  The second model is voluntary regulation.  Here the mechanism is different in that consumers maintain the choice of practitioner; however, regulated  practitioners are required to be truthful about what they bring to the marketplace—this is called title protection.  In this second model, professional regulation is really about brand management; and brand is important because it is what allows consumers to make informed choices.

Consider tax preparation.  Tax preparation is not a licensed activity in any of the provincial jurisdictions in Canada.  In other words, as a consumer you have the choice of practitioner—you can choose a designated accountant, a bookkeeper, a tax consultant, a neighbour, or you can choose to do your taxes yourself.  In situations like these, professional regulation is all about brand management.  Here, the law does not dictate your choice as a consumer, but it does dictate how different practitioners may represent themselves in the marketplace.  For instance, a tax consultant may not represent himself or herself as a Chartered Accountant unless he or she is a Chartered Accountant.

In the context of voluntary designations, maintaining and protecting the reputation of the brand becomes of utmost importance.  Incompetent or unethical practitioners who are using the brand damage the brand.  Regulatory bodies that manage voluntary designations are also concerned about unauthorized use of the brand.  The reputation of the brand is also the core of the value proposition for membership with the regulatory body.

Unfortunately, the voluntary designation landscape is a bit more complicated than that.  There is nothing to prevent an organization from offering a designation.  For instance, a quick internet search will reveal Certified Tax Specialists, Certified Tax Professionals, Certified Tax Preparers, and Certified Tax Resolution Specialists.  The proliferation of designations is a phenomenon that is especially prevalent in the US.  It is an interesting cultural difference, however, that Canadians have not yet entirely warmed up to American-style credentialism.

Because designations can vary markedly in their requirements, their quality control processes, and their commitment to enforcement, consumers often rely on the status and reputation of the organizations that issue such designations.  Professional regulators must also concern themselves with the value of their brand in the marketplace.

When it comes to professional regulation an important aspect of the brand is statutory recognition.  Any organization can issue a designation, but getting the government to recognize and sanction a professional regulatory body is another matter altogether.

An important aspect of the brand of any professional regulator is legitimacy, and the strongest form of legitimacy is statutory recognition.  Statutory recognition is the real dividing line between true professional regulators and organizations that just offer designations.  The reason for that is that the government imposes its own quality control on its regulatory bodies.  Governments refer to these as “non-governmental bodies that exercise authority delegated by law.”  In fact, it is this governmental delegation that makes an organization a true professional regulatory body.

In exchange for this governmental sanction, professional regulatory bodies must accept to regulate their professions in the public interest, they must accept to abide by high standards of procedural fairness in their regulatory activities, and they must accept to abide by a variety of governmental regulations.

The reason why professional regulatory bodies first seek out and then work hard to maintain this governmental recognition is that there is no better source of legitimacy, and legitimacy is the foundation of the brand as a professional regulator.  The fact that there is government or judicial oversight of the regulatory activities of true professional regulatory bodies is an important source of public confidence.

To recapitulate the argument, in the context of voluntary designations, professional regulation is all about brand management.  Professional regulators are very much concerned with protecting the brand value of the designations they offer.  The reputation of a designation is its ultimate value for both consumers and professionals.  The brand value of a designation is itself closely tied to the brand value of the organization that issues and manages the designation, and legitimacy is the foundation of the brand as a professional regulator.

Claude Balthazard, Ph.D., C.Psych.

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