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State of the Profession 2019: We Need to Talk About Accounting’s Big PR Problem

Not sure if anyone’s noticed but the profession is in trouble. You know it’s bad when the most cynical of cynics feels compelled to say yeah, this is kinda actually bad.

Sure, I’ve talked plenty of smack over the years but I’ve also been one of the profession’s biggest cheerleaders, lifting up future CPAs when they’re about to give up on their dreams, supporting ambitious accountants at conferences and lobbying days, even sharing press releases that in the back of my mind I thought were completely stupid but knew deep down had the best of intentions. But now? Now we’re in a really dark time.

I wish I was more into sports, then I could say something relatable like “if the accounting profession were a team, it would be the 1981 [shitty team here]” and Bramwell would commend me for my extensive knowledge of shitty sports teams. Are the Clippers still a joke? The Cleveland Browns? Yeah, I’m terrible at this. Anyway.

Accountants behaving badly

Anyone noticed Bramwell has been writing an “Accountants Behaving Badly” column on the regular for weeks now? WEEKS. Used to be maybe we could scrape one of those together once a month or so, but now every single Monday conference call we have with The Powers That Be, when it comes time for our publisher to ask what Jason is working on for the week, he confidently exclaims “working on Accountants Behaving Badly, should have that done this afternoon!”

I pulled up headlines from the last few he’s done, and yikes. These aren’t just your run-of-the-mill middle-aged accountants embezzling from clients, we’re talking theft, fraud, kiddie porn, even murder. MURDER.

  • Yorba Linda accountant arrested on suspicion of embezzling $1.8 million from Suzuki of America in Brea
  • Rensselaer accountant sentenced in child porn case
  • Phoenix tax preparer sentenced to prison for stealing his clients’ tax refunds
  • Lansing accountant sentenced to 7 years prison for fraud
  • Wakefield accountant sentenced to jail, probation for stealing from church
  • Essex accountant admits fraud against Cats production firm
  • North Las Vegas murder suspect a UNLV graduate student
  • EY employee conspires in £76k staff fraud
  • PwC accountant fired after 1,700 upskirting images
  • Accountant lied on oath to protect crime gang torturer

I could keep going but we’d be here all day and we still have a lot of ground to cover. You get the point.

I looked back in the archive and it appears it’s worse than I initially suspected. Bramwell has had no shortage of weekly material going all the way back to July, with even more littering the pages of the archive if you go further back than that. What in the hell is going on?

I mean, maybe people are just losing their minds. These are hard times we live in after all. Everyone is all worked into a lather politically, the future seems bleak, and you know, maybe otherwise good, honest accountants just snapped and started stealing and lying and, uh, killing their wives and then sloppily trying to pass it off as suicide.

I want to say these are isolated incidents but in the aggregate, it’s starting to look like accountants around the world have collectively lost it.

KPM-Good Lord they did it again

No discussion about the profession’s PR problem could be had without mentioning the elephant in the room. Not pointing fingers but I just have to say it: KPMG.

Has KPMG had a single positive headline all year? Honestly I have no idea, I’ve been too distracted by all the not positive ones. They’ve had a rough go of it, no doubt. Just when you think their reputation couldn’t get worse (on top of the baseline reputation they’ve always had as the sweaty armpit of the Big 4, that is), something else appears that makes you sigh the sigh of a bitter, alcoholic, old accounting tabloid writer who is sick of this nonsense (I’m projecting here, obvs).

Rather than blockquote the dozens upon dozens of articles we’ve written in the last year or so that simply beat this already dead horse to a pulp, let’s just pull some headlines from the last year, shall we?

Should I keep going? I could keep going. That’s only some of the worst ones going back to March. Of this year. Soooo… seven months. Of course, no discussion of KPMG malfeasance would be complete without including what I think is my favorite headline of the year:

Alright. So yeah, KPMG has a problem. But bigger than KPMG’s inability to keep its nuts out of the fire is the fact that thanks to the Big 4 oligarchy, every KPMG screw-up is a screw-up for the Big 4. The average person doesn’t know nor care that it’s a single firm bogarting all the screw-ups. All they see when opening up their Wall Street Journal is some accounting firm cheating or failing in their duty to clients or whatever the hell it is KPMG is screwing up this week.

That’s not to say other firms haven’t had their fair share of screw-ups. Which brings me to my next point.

Our toothless regulator

Those of you who know me know I’ve been an outspoken critic of the PCAOB over the years. At the same time, I can respect some of the work they do in the way I respect about 60% of what is posted in /r/therewasanattempt.


Back when the PCAOB was formed in the early ’00s, I was but a starry-eyed 21-year-old, and let’s just say I had more important things to care about back then without turning this already long piece into another tangent about Adrienne’s Poor Choices in Life That Lead Her Here. It would be five whole years until my world would come crashing down and send me spinning into the purgatory of accounting, where it seems I’ve been banished to exist for eternity like some drunken, angry ghost. I digress.

Not sure if you guys heard but the PCAOB is failing in its mission as it quickly approaches its 20th birthday. Wow, has it been that long? Am I that old? Ouch.

Francine McKenna writes via MarketWatch:

The PCAOB board is staying out of the public eye in 2019, in violation of bylaws established by the law that created the PCAOB, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. The law requires the PCAOB to hold at least one public meeting of its governing board each calendar quarter. However, the PCAOB board has held no public meetings of its governing board since December 20, 2018.

MarketWatch asked the PCAOB to comment on its apparent lack of compliance with its bylaws regarding open board meetings.

A PCAOB spokeswoman told MarketWatch, “Consistent with long-standing practice, the Board holds open meetings to take action on business such as standard-setting or voting on its budget and strategic plan. We expect to hold two open meetings in the coming months to address our 2020 budget and a proposed concept release related to our quality control standards.”

Not only is the PCAOB getting called out by us pundits circling the profession like hungry vultures waiting to pick the last rotten piece of muscle off a rapidly-decaying corpse (no offense, Francine, you know I love you), the normies are starting to pay attention, too.

In September, the Project on Government Oversight wrote a scathing hit piece on the PCAOB titled How an Agency You’ve Never Heard of Is Leaving the Economy at Risk that I absolutely recommend reading in its entirety.

A federal watchdog you’ve probably never heard of is supposed to be protecting your financial security.

It’s supposed to be policing some of the biggest and most powerful firms in American business.

It’s supposed to reduce the risk that, as a result of fraud, error, or corporate incompetence, your financial future goes poof.

Indirectly, it’s supposed to help safeguard any savings you’ve stashed in the stock market, any stake you have in a pension or retirement fund, and maybe even your paycheck and employment benefits.

It’s supposed to help avert man-made disasters like the financial crisis and mortgage-meltdown of a decade ago; the accounting scandals that destroyed a long list of corporations such as Enron and WorldCom almost two decades ago; and the savings and loan crisis that consumed mountains of taxpayer money in the 1980s and ‘90s—the kind of catastrophes that can cripple your community, crater the economy, or collapse the financial system.

But in key respects it’s been doing a feeble job.

That goes on for, well, let’s just say it’s a long read. Read it. All that to say, everyone’s getting called out now. Remember the good old days when mainly all we had were low blows for Grant Thornton and McGladrey cracks? Yeah, that time is over.

Meanwhile, in Canada

So we’ve established that the profession has a PR problem and that’s all well and good, but at this point, I’m not entirely sure even Don Draper could turn this dead horse into dog food.

On September 11, I wrote an article about CPA Canada’s new advertising campaign, the goal of which I believe was to make CPAs “cool” although who the hell knows with these things sometimes. Yeah, I guess that was it.

In its ongoing effort to smash the green eyeshade stereotype and convince the public that CPAs do more than just annoy their clients and vague tax-like things civvies will never understand, CPA Canada hired advertising agency DentsuBos to develop a new campaign with the lofty goal “to portray CPAs in a modern light.”

The “new face” campaign comes on the heels of last year’s “boring CPA” campaign, also developed with DentsuBos, which ran a cool $5 million. Personally I prefer the AICPA campaign in which a small business owner literally gets his ass beat until a CPA appears to rescue him but whatever.

Just nine days later, Canadians across their fine country opened up their Financial Post to read all about how CPA Canada absolutely borked the Common Final Examination, which for my fellow ignorant Yanks who might be wondering, is their version of the CPA exam essentially. Abject failure, slapped all over the national news. Embarrassing.

So what now?

This article is already way too long and since no one is around to edit it I could probably make it even longer, but let’s not turn this beating into a massacre, K? Point has been made.

So I have to ask: What is the solution? For all this talk of public trust and ethics, the profession is wobbling unsteadily at a pretty crucial crossroads and in desperate need of a come-to-Jesus moment. All it’s gonna take is one more big scandal to topple the whole thing, and at this rate, we should see that, I dunno, next week sometime?

I don’t about y’all but I’m getting tired of getting all worked up over the potential for some big blow-up only to be disappointed when literally nothing happens. To be frank, I’ve had doom and gloom blue balls since 2008 still waiting for the economy to fully bottom out and that never happened, so let’s just say I’m not too hopeful even Enron II will have much of an impact at this point when not if it happens. Sure, there will be a few salacious headlines and maybe we’ll get another toothless agency out of it but will anything really change? From the depths of my cold black heart I’m inclined to say nah.

I guess all we can do is wait, see, and hope middle-aged bookkeepers would stop robbing their employers blind.