The 2019 tax filing season was a missed opportunity for the CPA profession. This was the year to get ahead of the new tax laws and the IRS withholding changes caused by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). Not once was there an article by the AICPA, or for that matter a quote by a leader of a CPA organization, explaining why people are receiving a smaller refund this year, or more importantly, how CPAs can help taxpayers navigate the complexities of the new tax law. Everyone was talking about taxes, but no one was talking about CPAs.

National and state CPA organizations should have been all over this, giving interviews in all media. Ads should have said, “With the help of a CPA, you can plan and know what your tax refund will be so there are no surprises.” What are members paying their dues for?

The H&R Blocks and Intuits of the world are the leading marketers for the tax preparation profession, and that is not good for CPAs. Most of the general public lumps CPA tax preparers together with those companies, and then CPAs wonder why people complain about their fees. The general public doesn’t understand the value of CPAs—or even what CPAs are—and how they can help clients minimize tax by deploying proper planning and tax strategies. Their own clients don’t know what they do, or all the services they provide, because CPAs, on a macro and micro level, do a terrible job of marketing themselves.

It’s not that CPAs need to do work for the general public; most people don’t need the services of a CPA. The AICPA and state societies say that people who need to use a CPA know the value of the CPA already, so there is no point in advertising. This may or may not be true, but what this tax season has shown is that CPAs are not the go-to source for tax expertise. They are lumped together with nonlicensed tax preparers, enrolled agents, the IRS, and tax lawyers, and this is not good.

CPAs cannot just sit around and think that the CPA credential is going to mean something to everyone forever. Unlicensed bookkeepers are creeping into the traditional CPA space on the accounting and auditing side, as well as software and unlicensed tax preparers on the tax side. CPAs can have all the expertise in the world, but when people don’t know the difference between a CPA and a tax preparer whose ads bellow, “FREE FREE FREE,” the brand is going to suffer.

CPAs need to pressure the AICPA and state societies, ask them what they are doing to improve the CPA brand and how their dues money is being spent. The AICPA offers so many credentials—CGMA, PFS, CFF, ABV, CITP, CEIV—that most CPAs don’t know what they mean or do. (Certainly the public doesn’t.) The AICPA is, after all, the AI CPA, and it needs to focus its time on their most valuable asset—the CPA—not the other stuff that might make the organization money, but doesn’t do much for the CPA profession.

The profession missed its best opportunity in 30 years to get the CPA brand in the forefront of a national conversation. Hopefully the next time it happens, CPAs will actually be ready.

Jason L. Ackerman, CPA/CGMA, CFP is an accountant with Bernard N. Ackerman (BNA) CPAs, PA, in Rock Hill, S.C.