The UK market has a lot to learn from the society across the pond.
Last week, I had a chat with Gerry Corbett, Chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the world’s largest organisation of PR professionals. I’ve been really impressed by this organisation, which seems to have addressed many of the issues afflicting our associations in the UK. In this post, I will tell you all about the PRSA, its membership structure and (most interestingly) how it represents the industry to the rest of the business community.
The Society currently has around 31,000 members, consisting of 21,000 professionals and over 10,000 students. Membership is open to anyone with a personal and professional interest in PR (individuals only, not companies). It costs around $255 a year, and you might be surprised to know that you do not need to be American, or based in the US to be a member (although at this point all regional chapters are located within the 50 states).
This is the bit that I really found interesting, as I think the organisation strives to add genuine value to the industry (and seems to do quite a good job of it), while actively defending the PR’s interests within the wider business environment.
Advocacy. The society speaks out on issues associated with the industry, and you will see many of its campaigns featured in the business media, not just in PR Week (I did a Factiva search and found around 900 mentions in the last year). As far as I’m concerned, this should be an industry association’s core function. While it’s important to maintain communication with members through the PR trade press, there is a much more pressing requirement to support members by educating their clients, colleagues or peers about the industry, how it functions and what value it adds. This is particularly relevant in PR, which tends to be widely misunderstood and generally undervalued.
I found two of the PRSA’s campaigns particularly impressive:
Initiated about 7 years ago, the goal was to provide MBA candidates with an understanding of PR’s strategic role in protecting corporate reputation, building a basic knowledge of how strategies can foster brand trust and relevance.
According to Corbett: “At the C-suite level, over the last decade, there hasn’t been a high appreciation of the role of PR in sustaining reputation. To address this, the PRSA has developed a curriculum for training MBAs in PR. We will be rolling this out in beta to five MBA schools across the country this fall. The idea is to instil the value of PR into executives at the start of their careers, so that by the time they get to CFO or CEO level they will be able to appreciate how a good PR strategy can further an organisation’s corporate objectives.”
Moreover, these executives will be in a stronger position to select quality providers and evaluate them.
Having just finished an MBA myself, where the phrase public relations was not mentioned in 22 courses in two years (and the only questions I got about my industry were from people looking for party planners or wondering whether I could help them negotiate better advertising rates!) I cannot stress how important this is.
The second critical function of the PRSA is its emphasis on outward-focussed research, in an effort to justify the value of PR. The PR Journal, the academic journal published by the society, is run and staffed by academics. It has a review board which looks at all the papers submitted before they are published. And its goal is to advance the knowledge of PR.
Again, I am very supportive of this. A few months ago, I started a blog post outlining research that demonstrates the true business value of PR. I had to abandon this, as there simply wasn’t enough (in the UK at least) data to justify a full post. PR is continuously questioned, and any research that serves to improve the discipline and make it more accountable, will benefit every PR professional on the planet.
As expected, the organisation has a code of ethics which governs the behaviour of its members. An ethics committee examines every breach that is reported to the society, mediates in disputes, and starts early, educating students on ethics.
The PRSA employs 45 full time staff, led by an executive director, who is the president and COO. The CEO and all officers on the board are volunteers from within the industry who have been elected by the members. The CEO’s position is the second in a four-year commitment, with the role transferring each year from Chair Elect to CEO and Present, then Past Chair (in year three) to chair of the nominating committee (year four).
As an association, the PRSA needs to be very careful to ensure its members feel they are all treated equally and believe that they are getting a good deal. The society has a number of checks and balances in place to prevent corruption, favouritism, or any other deliberate or unwitting naughty stuff.
The organisation has a 17-member board of directors all members and all volunteers, who must have been accredited. Importantly, there is a limited length of service, with board terms capped at two years (although members can run for a second time). The Chair and the CEO can only hold the position once.
Furthermore, as a non-profit, the PRSA comes under US regulations for non-profit organisations. It is also incorporated and has to abide by the laws of the state of New York. All this means that there are built-in checks and balances that make sure the money is well spent. There is also a system to evaluate president and COO and an annual budget process, in which is developed a three-year strategic plan. The result is that the organisation is run well and smartly and without any negative effect.
The B2B PR Blog is a resource for both PR professionals and people working in B2B industries on how to devise and implement successful B2B PR campaigns. The blog was founded by B2B PR specialist Heather Baker, who runs video production and corporate animation agency TopLine Film and digital PR and SEO agency TopLine Comms. The B2B PR Blog takes contributions from sensible industry folk with something interesting to say.
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