Triple-associate Sean Williams asks, “Why join?”
It used to be that the only way to access research, best practices, talent and senior-level guidance in the communication profession was to be a part of an industry organization. You paid dues and conference fees and had access to what simply was not available anywhere else. Thanks to the global communication revolution, that’s no longer the case.
Established in 1956 as the Foundation for Public Relations Research and Education, the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) charges no dues or fees for its research materials; it doesn’t even require registration on its website. Its landmark Essential Knowledge Project brings years of best practices in virtually every aspect of our profession to your desktop – for free. The IPR’s conference fees are considered low (the International PR Research Conference held each March in Miami is downright cheap), especially considering the top-shelf content it produces.
Social media simplifies networking – globally – and for free
The Internet – and social media, in particular – has democratized information. We have more access to more people in more locations than ever before. We can create our own communities, and pose questions and source answers from as focused or broad a group as we like. The argument about whether to join a professional association, then, seems moot on the surface.
However, two major communication/PR organizations, both based in the United States – the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) – maintain the same business model as 30 years ago.
I’m a member of both of these associations, and the social benefits of membership suit my goals and objectives. Local chapter events help me stay in touch with people and to learn what’s happening in the communication and public relations industries in my city. I make friends.
IABC involvement drives value
Although my involvement in PRSA is at the front end, I’ve found that the more involved I’ve got with IABC, the more value I felt I received. The professional community I found at IABC has been vital to me and to my career, and I’ve been willing to pay for access to that community. Expanding my network is why I’ve begun my involvement with PRSA as an “active” member; I’m serving on the local chapter’s awards committee this year.
Where IABC falls short for me is on the education level – the challenging, fascinating, deep dive into my discipline that I need as a senior-level professional.
The IABC World Conference, the association’s annual, seminal event, is an additional significant expense: more than three times the annual cost of membership, plus travel and accommodation. I’d pay it willingly if it were the educational bonanza promised, or if it offered outstanding networking. But much of the content and speakers repeat from prior years, and the need to offer relevant programming for less-experienced members shrink the educational benefit for a senior practitioner.
This is a big disappointment, because access to research and education is a primary benefit of any professional association, particularly one with the word “international” in its title.
IABC’s Research Foundation has a wealth of information developed by some top academic and practitioner pros. But there’s an additional fee to access the majority of the research. And now, Discovery has debuted, a new “member benefit,” which will cost an additional $99 per year to give access to IABC’s Gold Quill case studies and other materials previously sold piecemeal.
PRSA offers potential for a larger network
As indicated, I’m now also a member of PRSA. I joined with the intentions of expanding my network and meeting some new people. Which I have. The publications and programming are similar to IABC’s, as are the issues and questions about our related disciplines and our place in organizational business and other relationships. In that I am still very new to PRSA, and will attend its international conference this fall for the first time, it remains to be seen whether there are significant differences between PRSA and IABC. Interestingly, I’ve been invited to speak at this year’s PRSA International Conference, but have never been issued the same invitation by IABC.
Based on my observations thus far, more PR- and marketing-agency people comprise membership in PRSA – generally not my market. On the other hand, there also are many more academics active in PRSA than IABC. On the surface, it also seems to me that there are more resources included in the dues than at IABC. One definite plus for me is that the speakers contracted and membership base are mainly different from those found at IABC.
IPR Measurement Commission fuels industry education
The Institute for Public Relations – specifically its Measurement Commission – was a terribly exciting discovery for me five years ago. Its primary mission is education: the “science behind the art” of public relations. The IPR runs a few conferences and publishes both scholarly and mainstream (but still intellectual) white papers, which are free to all. The idea is to bridge the gap between academic research and the practice, with both constituencies influencing one another.
The white papers (and Conversations, the IPR’s blog) are geared toward helping practitioners be more effective, to have a stronger database under them. The International PR Research Conference, the Summits on Measurement (one held in the USA, one in Europe, in conjunction with the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication) and the annual Distinguished Lecture are the foundation elements of IPR’s program year. They also hold a PR Leadership Forum, a PR Executive Forum and a Summit on Strategic Communications, among other events.
This is boundary-spanning networking, with researchers, academics, senior practitioners, measurement suppliers all mixing freely. The intellectual heft is significant. I attended the Summit on Measurement in New Hampshire in 2005 and, again, in 2009. What a revelation! A dais of academics, corporate people and suppliers with bone fide cases to share. A discussion framework that tested my mettle; I was rapt.
For the past five years, I’ve:
- been a member of the IPR’s Measurement Commission
- written and published three research papers and edited several others
- presented twice at the International PR Research Conference
I’m on the bleeding edge of measurement research, and it’s thrilling.
I still feel, from time to time, like the 13-year-old at the adult table at Sunday dinner for the first time, but get great satisfaction from my participation in important work.
This participation is on a different level from my active involvement in IABC – the ability to help impact the working lives of other practitioners in a positive way is exceptionally rewarding, as is the knowledge that students of public relations rely significantly on the papers the IPR publishes.
In all three of these organizations, one can get something that feeds a need:
- For IABC, a global community.
- For PRSA, a broad national network.
- And for the Institute for PR, the peerless intellectual stimulation.
Is fee-for-access to people and content the right model?
IABC and PRSA behave much like for-profit conference providers and publishers. They believe their content has value and price accordingly. I know that associations must fund their activities, but is this the best way?
Plus, the advent of social media creates a certain conundrum: Many of the people I joined IABC and PRSA to meet and network with are available outside those organizations. And, of course, the IPR’s research materials are free. Recently, the IPR put out a call for donations to revamp its website – it relies to a great extent on donated support and conference income, a completely different financial model than that of the industry associations.
Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, at least right now, are free.
So what do you think? If we can get top-flight research for free, and access the PR and communication communities for free, do we still need these associations?
Sean Williams, a 20-year veteran in public relations and communication management, established his consultancy, Communication AMMO, Inc., in 2009. He is also an adjunct professor of public relations at Kent State University, Ohio, USA.
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