The image of the profession has finally gotten to the point that references to CPAs are appearing on national public radio. (Hint, this is not a good thing.)
On Saturday, host Garrison Keillor performed a sketch on his weekly radio show, "Prairie Home Companion," in which a breathy young female accountant from Andersen talks to private detective Guy Noir. (That followed earlier comments between Noir and Ken Lay, CEO of the End Run corporation.) After Noir comments that the young lady doesn't look like a typical CPA, she notes "It's become a more welcoming sort of profession, Mr. Noir. Like the hospitality industry. We try not to stand in the way of a good time." The two move quickly to define CPAs as "Completely Prostrate Amateurs."
The global credential (Cognitor was pilloried by Charles Osgood on national radio during the summer), Enron, on and on-- this is where the profession's leadership has taken its members. It has managed to generate more jokes about CPAs than have probably been made in the previous ten years.
This brings me to a letter to AICPA members from chairman James Castellano and president Barry Melancon outlining the campaign they will take based on advice from their integration marketing consultants. It's frightening to think the communications program followed by the AICPA could be the result of advice they've paid for. These must be the same people who are coaching Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura on sensitivity.
My favorite comment from this letter is the following: "We will use every communications vehicle at our disposal, including mail, e-mail, our Web site, CPA Letter and Journal of Accountancy, to keep you apprised of developments and to provide you with the information that you need."
This is from a group that shunned interviews in a major story in BusinessWeek and has done everything it can to alienate the trade press. This is the same group who, anticipating negative articles in the Washington Post about the profession's self-regulation (now there's a funny concept) sent an e-mail message to state societies warning them to be on the lookout for the bad press.
The AICPA is the same group that had surveys to show that WebTrust would be a big hit and that the global credential was something that the market is demanding. This is the group that spent two years on the Vision Project to get in touch with its membership views, came up with the universally reviled name "Cognitor," and saw 62 percent of its voting members reject the global credential. We haven't seen a performance this lame since Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards competed for Great Britain in ski-jumping in the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Now I'm just a journalist who has never run a business or conducted a marketing, public relations, or branding campaign, so I'm probably being naïve when I suggest the following: How about engaging in open and honest communication with the press, public, and members? How about admitting that these constituencies have the right to know what the AICPA and its employees are doing? How about actually engaging in conversation with people who disagree with you? How about taking responsibility for your mistakes?
On "Prairie Home Companion," Garrison Keillor (www.prairiehome.org) has a standing sketch that involves promoting the use of duct tape to solve about every crisis known to humanity. Maybe we can send a truckload or two to AICPA headquarters. It's got to be better than what they are using.
-Robert W. Scott
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