by Susan B. Waters

I cringe every time I hear someone talk about protecting or restoring the CPA “brand.”

Not that I disagree with the substance of the discussion, of course. I am firmly committed to the efforts of all CPAs to demonstrate the core values of this profession to their colleagues, to future members of the profession and to the public.

The challenges to the reputation of CPAs that we have faced during the past three years have been real. While there is much evidence that we have recovered significant ground, we need to continue our efforts both to strengthen the profession and to communicate to our clients, employers, legislators and regulators that the profession’s integrity is secure.

So, what am I talking about?

I often emphasize the importance of professionalism in my writing and speaking. To be a profession, certain tests must be fulfilled. Among them: the presence of a body of knowledge that its practitioners master, an ethical framework that binds the profession to standards higher than those required by law, and a commitment to the protection of the public, even if such protection is detrimental to the personal interests of the professional. Accounting meets these standards and so is a profession, as are medicine and law.

“CPA” is a professional designation, not a brand. A brand is something that is created to distinguish a good or service from other similar products in the marketplace. Nabisco is a brand. Pick your own favorite brand to think of for the rest of my argument. The purpose of a brand is to establish in the mind of the consumer a niche that the consumer can identify with when making purchasing decisions. Saks is upper-end clothing, Target is comprehensive shopping for goods at discounts or bargain prices, and so on. The point is that branding is a commercial undertaking — not a professional one.

So, it’s worth repeating: Don’t let anyone in your presence refer to accounting as a trade — it is an honored profession. Don’t speak of protecting our brand; speak of strengthening our profession. The distinction is importance.

This profession’s reputation is strong and we should be proud of the integrity that CPAs demonstrate. Let’s not diminish ourselves by using terms that reduce accounting to a commercial undertaking. If we have learned anything from Enron and Andersen, it is that accounting must be viewed in a manner far exceeding its commercial basis. The specialized knowledge that CPAs possess, the ethical boundaries of practice, and the commitment to the public good make this a profession.

Let’s always remember that.

Susan B. Waters, CAE, is chief executive of the 28,000-member California Society of CPAs.

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