Association Public Relations

It seems surprising to me that the final chapter in Part II of the 1948 book, Your Public Relations, looks at practice within an industry body as this seems rather a specialist rather than strategic focus. However, its author Holcombe Parkes, Vice President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) believes PR at the association level differs significantly from the organisational one. In the book’s About the Authors section, Parkes is said to have “been engaged in public relations work for associations, either as a consultant or as an elected officer for over twenty-seven years”.  He had been assistant editor of Railway Age before becoming advisor to the Western Railways’ Committee on Public Relations; “while later affiliated with the Norfolk & Western Railway he was loaned to the Association of American Railroads to advise on the development of a new public relations program”. He joined NAM post-World War II. Clearly he brings his specialist knowledge to the chapter.


Association Public Relations by Holcombe Parkes, Vice President, National Association of Manufacturers. (written in 1948)

Holcombe Parkes begins with the statement: “Whatever may have been said in the preceding chapters regarding use of the tools of public relations at the company level applies in a general way to pubic relations at the association level – only more so – and in a fashion which invites a reappraisal of these tools.”

Parkes’ argument for this is based on five factors:

  1. A broader focus required to “meet the needs of a whole group of organisations”;
  2. “The association man, in the majority of cases, is at least one step removed from these key groups (publics) and must therefore reach them by second-hand or indirect methods”;
  3. “Most important is the fact that the company man must deal with a limited number of influential principals all of whom have at least a firm community of interest in the success of their company. The association man, contrariwise, must always work with a small army of “experts” whose community of interest is at least highly tenuous, it being the abstract good or the common denominators of the group”;
  4. “The association man is always faced with the problem of infrequent contact with those who determine policies, with the result that he either has to “fly blind” at times or move so cautiously that some effectiveness is sacrificed”;
  5. Finally, “the association worker is often forced to operate on the thin ice of generalities and to fight grater battles with common denominator pop-guns – all in order to remain within the shrinking boundaries imposed by the many different opinions held by the membership of his organization”.

Whilst understanding that association public relations may work within certain constraints and complexities, I’m not convinced that this signifies a different level of operations. Indeed, the chapter continues by outlining “steps in building the program” that share more with the earlier recommendations in the book than they differ. Also, Parkes’ discussion of “defining the public relations director’s position” echoes arguments in earlier chapters of the book that it is fundamental that organisational details are “threshed out at the board level“. He warns that the head of an association PR program needs to have:

  • the capacity to stand constant criticism” with “the objectivity that permits him to separate the good from the bad in criticism without letting personal actions or reactions to affect his use of the good;”
  • enough of the crusader in him to rise above intrigue, jealousy, and competing ambitions, that he has the courage of his convictions – enough to “speak his piece” on occasion without fear;”
  • “that peculiar make-up which enables him to distil adequate satisfactions out of movement in the right direction rather than in the pace of that movement” – as a result of the “compromises that come from a slow-moving democratic process“.

The tools of association PR, according to Parkes, were advertising, publicity, literature, motion pictures, displays and posters. He also outlines leadership projects with community programs, developing PR executives, and reaching community leaders.

It is hard not to feel rather short-changed by this chapter, in my view.

Although saying “the opportunities in association public relations work today are almost unlimited“, Parkes doesn’t engage with any of the challenges that face association PR practitioners – nor the approaches used by NAM that have been subject to much scrutiny in various books subsequently. He argues for “ambitious plans to reach out for public understanding and public support” criticising those who “have yet to do more than talk about the probable necessity for some kind of public relations program.” Parkes concludes by telling these associations that they should “recognise that a few national programs have been conspicuously successful recently in doing a promotion job in the public interest and making the public understand and appreciate the problems and contributions of the sponsoring industries“.

This all feels rather lightweight – particularly as records of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) at the Hagley Museum and Library state it was:

“organized in January 1895 as a political lobbying organization representing the interests of America’s manufacturers who wanted to maintain a high protective tariff. By the beginning of the twentieth century, N.A.M. sought to curtail the power of organized labor and maintain the open shop. During the New Deal period and World War II, N.A.M. became a significant force in the Republican coalition seeking to decrease the growing role of the state in the American economy. After the war, N.A.M. favored lifting price controls on the American economy, abolising the Office of Price Administration (OPA), and actively lobbied for the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. N.A.M. advertisements (advertising was part of the public relations division) regarding these positions appeared nationally on the radio, and in newspapers and magazines. The ads advanced the positive aspects of the free enterprise system and attempted to dispel the belief that business made excessive profits.”

This indicates a less benign operation than Parkes suggests – some of which is evident in the organisation’s own narrative of its history (it apparently spent more than $15 million over a 13-year period in the 1930s/40s on public relations).

A paper published in 1976 in the Business History Review looked at NAM and PR during the New Deal argues the organisation was “influential in establishing public relations as a permanent fixture in the American corporation and trade association” and a “major weapon in the defense of business”.

It seems rather disingenuous or at the least, disappointing, that Parkes ignores the single-minded remit of NAM in his advocacy of “the public interest”. Although Parkes was “the energetic director of the Association’s post-war public relations”, it would be illuminating to have heard if he justified the association to represent its members’ interests in this way, by discussing such approaches.


Editors’ Notes

The book’s editors, Glen & Denny Griswold, seem to contradict Parkes in writing that “business associations have given more concentrated attention to public relations since V-J Day than in all the previous century. Every convention devotes a substantial part of its program to public relations, and some think and talk of little else. The subject is stressed in all association promotion, in messages to members, in advertising and in every manifestation of association activity”. They argue that there has been “the abandonment of the traditional assumption of association executives that the central body could do the whole public relations job for its members and its industries. It is coming to be almost universal practice that the national association handles only the broadest national problems. Its principle function in public relations is to do the research and provide stimulation and guidance for its members doing the basic job at the community level”.

They then consider examples of “some effective training programs”, “government relations”, “telling the industry story to schools” and “frequent and dramatic progress reports”, the last of which they claim is “a conspicuous weakness n the public relations plans of associations”.


Addendum

Although I found this chapter rather oddly placed in the book, it has made me think more about association public relations and how this is rarely, if ever, included as a specific area of practice in modern PR textbooks.  In the US, it seems to me that the power and position of industry associations is possibly as great as ever. In Britain, they tend to be less influential in my experience, but public relations is an important means by which they communicate with the membership, politicians and other stakeholders. The idea expressed by the Griswolds of PR as a communications facilitator within such bodies also seems to have contemporary relevance. So perhaps this is worthy of greater consideration as a sector – covering both the general operations, and some of the trickier questions that Parkes appears to me to have avoided.
Read other chapters in our series of posts, via this link to the book’s contents list.

Ferdinando Fasce presented a paper on the NAM PR campaign in World War II at the 2014 International History of Public Relations Conference – see Abstracts

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2 Replies to “Association Public Relations

  1. Thanks for the comment Judy. You highlight the important distinction between associations that have individual members and those with organisation based ones. Parkes is clearly focused on the latter only.

    The internal-external aspect is an interesting one – and highlights a trend that increasingly affects other types of organisations. Relationships with stakeholders/publics are rarely one dimensional or simply based on exchange contracts. Indeed, power within such relationships is also complex and may vary depending on many factors, eg interest in particular issues or length of relationship.

    I’ve worked with some public relations, and public affairs, students who are senior practitioners in associations and they’ve undertaken some really interesting research examining communications with membership. They’ve generally found a need to draw across different disciplines for literature to inform their studies. Are member relationships like those of customers, employees, volunteers or something different? That hot topic of ’employee engagement’ is even more interesting when applied to ‘member engagement’ especially when linked to a need to mobilise members as part of campaigns.

    Then as you also raise, whether the association has individual or organisations as members, the PR function needs to often prioritise communications with them at the expense sometimes of addressing strategic issues with other constituents. I know this is compounded when the membership has a hierarchical structure eg into local groups, regions, etc (and that may be on a global basis).

    Two final thoughts for now:
    1. increasingly members will be undertaking communications themselves (especially using social media), which is why I was interested in the Griswolds’ observation about PR as facilitating communications. I find one issue that arises then, is the need for members to understand the difference between communications aimed at them, and communications to be disseminated more widely. This is largely about the way information is communicated, but sometimes what is communicated as well.

    2. Many organisations now have different functions involved with communications both with members and other constituents. I’ve seen challenges occur when, for example, a revenue-generating function can crash all over longer-term PR issues-management.

    So thanks for your thoughts – there’s definitely more to this area of PR practice than either Parkes, or modern PR texts seem to think.

  2. As someone who spent many years working in a professional (member-based) association environment (communication management and public relations)–as well as volunteering at the executive level for an organization provided “information, marketing and consulting services to any organization offering continuing education and lifelong learning programs” (i.e., almost like an association of education providers), I do think it’s probably more of a “specialist” area, but there are a couple of differentiators.

    One biggie is how the membership is a combination of internal-external stakeholders. Internal because the communication about the association and the engagement and calls for input is directed to them, but external because their place of employment is somewhere else.

    And, secondly, because members “pay” for the privilege to be an association member, it also means that the PR representative(s) have hundreds (often thousands) of “bosses” in terms of strategy and communication, above and beyond the formal boss (such as the CEO). There is the governing board and the committees, let alone every member who feels she or he should have a say about organizational direction and advocacy, etc. Often a lot of time is spent on one-to-one communication with members, rather than on other stakeholder publics (government, community groups, NGOs/charities of affiliation reps, etc) or journalists.

    Even something like an ad campaign could evoke ferocious opposition with the members who felt it didn’t “represent” them. Shades of the backlash of PRSA’s “#PRDefined” crowdsourcing project and eventual (voted-upon) definition.

    I do think there are huge differences between the way “trade” associations operate (they tend to be company based) versus that of professional/industry bodies, which relate more to one’s chosen occupation, rather than a sector of business. For example, HR associations tend to be individuals employed in the field, whereas food associations are company based.

    What’s interesting in Canada is that the Canadian Public Relations Society (as well as the Canadian chapters of IABC) are member-based, whereas the Canadian Marketing Association is company-based membership.

    (Translation: member fees are a lot higher. From the website: CMA Membership fees are based on an organization’s annual gross revenues. Annual dues range from $1,525 to $27,150 for corporations and from $910 to $2,897 for not-for-profit organizations.)

    I would also add that the “tools of PR” that Parkes spent most of his time on (advertising, publicity, literature, motion pictures, displays and posters) didn’t match my experience, either in a communication management or PR role. Relating the inside out….and the outside in (to the internal-external stakeholders) regarding existing relationships took up far more time and was infinitely more satisfying. (I also very much enjoyed my interactions with regular members, even when they were a time suck.)

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