By Robert Epstein, President and CEO of CareerBank.com
The accounting industry is beginning to reevaluate and rebuild in the aftermath of Enron's collapse, and the AICPA has an important role to play in the evolution of the profession. As the main lobbying arm and service provider for the country's CPAs, the organization should be launching a major public relations campaign to educate both their own members and the general public. An outreach campaign of such magnitude is a tall order, but the AICPA has the resources needed to get the job done. They can start with the following 10 steps as they begin to build a better image for the CPA.
- Being vocal with the media. It's crucial that the AICPA and its leaders are accessible and vocal on current industry events. CPAs across the country are depending on the AICPA to defend the profession as well as be their voice in the media. If the AICPA doesn't comment, they miss an important opportunity to spread their message about CPAs.
- Releasing public policy statements. In addition to being vocal with the media, the AICPA should publish position papers on different issues affecting the industry. These statements will provide easy-to-understand overviews of issues as well as a detailed explanation of the AICPA's position. Media as well as members can use these papers to better understand events and the opinions of the Institute.
- Buying media time to promote the message. The AICPA is the nation's largest accounting organization, and has the resources necessary to get the message out about the value of the CPA credential. Media spots-from radio commercials to billboards to newspaper advertisements-will jumpstart the process of rebuilding the trust between CPAs and the public.
- Providing real numbers. Specific facts and figures are an important piece of a successful public relations campaign. And in the accounting profession, numbers are everything. The Enron debacle is a black mark on the profession, but how many hundreds of thousands of other companies have successful experiences with their accountants everyday? The AICPA needs to research and distribute statistics that put the Enron incident in perspective and remind the public of the hundreds of thousands of CPAs out there who are consistently doing the right thing when performing audits.
- Keeping close contact with members. A grassroots campaign could be the most effective tactic when trying to rebuild the trust that should be associated with the CPA. That means that everyone in the profession-from small firm owners to Big 5 executives-will need support and resources as they spread the message about the profession to their clients and the general public. The AICPA can provide tools and suggestions for these "campaigners" to have the most success. It should also send member letters on a regular basis, encouraging them to do their part as the profession polishes its image.
- Encouraging continued education in ethics. The incident involving Enron and Andersen happened as a result of sloppy or alleged unethical business behavior at some point in the process, though we may never know exactly how it all happened. Regardless of the details, the fact that it even transpired signifies the importance of professional education in ethics (in appearance as well as substance), wisdom and protecting the public good. The AICPA should develop and support more courses in these areas, and work for more CPE requirements under this category.
- Working with state CPA societies to develop outreach programs. State societies have a finger on the pulse of their state and its CPAs-they work in close contact with their members and recognize the different needs they have. But they need the support of the AICPA to be successful in their endeavors, especially when it comes to industry-wide challenges. The AICPA can share knowledge with their state counterparts, as well as provide resources and programs to help states deal with the controversy currently surrounding the profession.
- Providing an online community forum on the AICPA web site. Many CPAs are struggling as they deal with the new distrust of the accounting profession. Others have developed great solutions for dealing with the current state of accounting. The AICPA can serve as a virtual meeting place for members. The institute can establish online forums where members can discuss current industry problems, and share concerns and solutions. This will also allow the AICPA to monitor members' opinions and needs as the industry evolves.
- Educating the Public with Town Hall Meetings. The AICPA can organize with the state CPA societies to have town hall meetings where accountants can have open discussions with the public about the challenges involved in auditing, especially when a company is trying to hide numbers. The public will walk away with a better knowledge of what CPAs and auditors do-in lay terms-so they better understand the inherent risks involved in the process.
- Being proactive. This is the most important of all steps the AICPA should take. As an organization, it should constantly be ahead of the curve in the promotion and support of the CPA.
The general public needs to be highly confident in CPAs before crises occur. The ideas above are the beginning of a proactive plan that will have a positive effect on the industry now, and for years to come.
About the Author: Robert Epstein is the President and CEO of CareerBank.com. His unique combination of accounting and recruiting experience has been invaluable in the founding, development and success of the site. Robert has more than 15 years of experience in the accounting and recruiting industries, including positions as both an auditor and tax accountant at Arthur Andersen, and later as a senior director for the largest accounting and finance recruiting firm in the Washington, D.C. area. He is an established expert on accounting career and staff development, publishing articles and speaking on a number of related topics. Robert holds a BS in Accounting from the University of Maryland where he served as an officer in Beta Alpha Psi, and is a member of the AICPA, GWSCPA, MACPA and VSCPA.