Is there any sense in attempting -in days such as these when one is supposed to be thinking of new issues to tackle in order to keep up with change, and where possible anticipate it- a critical analysis of professional association performances within the global public relations community? For most of us -those 90 percent of active professionals in the world today who do not even consider it worthwhile to pay an annual fee to belong to a professional association, let alone participate in its activities- the answer to the question is a flat NO!…it makes no sense and is a loss of time.
For me, instead -and there are at least some who agree: albeit not necessarily the full other 10%, but certainly more than half of them.. if one considers that there are some who don’t even bother to cancel their order to the bank to pay annual dues, or have them paid for by employer as a ‘bonus’ and therefore give it for granted- the answer is a clear YES!… it does make sense because it relates to maybe 100 thousand of us…if one accepts the Global Alliance count of more than 150 thousand professionals members of its 62 plus member associations in as many countries. But, most of all, it makes sense because I am convinced that the prime cause for the disarray (to say the least..) in which the status of our profession is perceived today in society-at-large lays in the overall abysmal shortcomings of these organizations.
Before immediately snorting at me, please consider that I have been a member of a professional association since 1972, I have been and am active in associations (many criticise and say I am hyperactive) and I was privileged enough to be the first Chair of the Global Alliance. I am all for associations, only I would like them to be more effective and more professional. What is even more important, I would like them to more self critical and recognize they have one hell of a lot of work to do in order to purport with reason that they actually represent our profession in any given country or area of practice.
The first question arises: why are there so few of us?
On one side it is clear that many public relations professionals do not think of themselves as such, and therefore are not attracted to belonging… and this is fair enough… although -as in any other market- the onus for any service provider who wishes to induce potential customers to consume, is to deliver an attractive (for them) offer… On the other side it is also clear that those organizations which purport to be professional associations do not seem to be able to attract even those who are aware of being public relators but are yet not attracted to the idea of belonging, simply because the activities of those associations do not satisfy their professional needs and expectations.
The second question then is: why are professional associations so ineffective in attracting even those potential members who would belong, let alone induce awareness in those others who do not even think of being public relators? There are no simple answers to these questions and one wonders how often association leaders take the time to consider them, let alone do something about them. And this speaks loudly to the fact that many volunteers who have some sort of overall, management or program responsibility (maybe five thousand in the world in any given period?) and members of techno structures (maybe five hundred?) who are employed in association activities, do not seem to have sufficient competences and skills to be effective. In a couple of occasions at least -during the first two global festivals of public relations in Rome (2003) and Trieste (2004)- shy attempts were made by the Global Alliance to engage association representatives in sessions of professional training and case study exchanges, but with very limited consequences and certainly no real consistency.
I strongly believe this element should very much be on the agenda of any association and presidents elects and other incumbents, for example, should feel the need to engage in training. And this because managing, being responsible for specific programs, or chairing a professional association requires, besides time and good spirit, skills and competences which are not necessarily part of a normal professional’s carry on baggage. Also, many of the technocrats are ex professionals or come from other totally different types of professional experiences and will agree with me that managing and taking care of a professional association requires skills and competences which are quite unique.
Of course there are associations and associations, and each has its own culture, history and specific background…some are more successful than others, many come and go as a function of the quality of leadership and management, others are simply small exclusive ‘clubs’….. From my recent experience and exposure in these recent years I could certainly volunteer to suggest that Sweden, South Africa, Spain and the UK appear to be, although from diverse perspectives and each with its own weaknesses, farily well advanced in terms of professionalization… with the UK possibily taking the lead, while in many other countries the standards of performance appear to be dismally unprofessional, to say the least, and many of the volunteers seem to be there for many reasons, the least of which is to improve the behaviour and the perception of their peers. Very much, of course, depends on available resources, but not all. If one takes the worlds largest and financially most powerful association (the PRSA which is now in a new beginning process changin the two top posts simultaneously) and compares its activities with any of the ones I mentioned in the first lot, the divide appears clear. Maybe the same can be said for other well known organizations who often appear to struggle along in controversy and/or benign neglect.
But these are obviously personal opinions, and a reliable study on this subject needs yet to be done and it is high time that someone (the Institute for Pr? A reputed University?) tackled the issue and, through a comparative analysis of organizations around the world, came out with accepted guidelines on how to improve performances in a professional public relations association. And this, at least for the reason that other legitimate and influential publics (governments, other professional associations, media, educative institutions, employers…) have only the option to refer to existing associations in a given country if they wish to engage in a however meaningful relationship with the elected representatives of what they believe is a profession which –undoubtedly- is dramatically growing in social, political and economic relevance. How does one become a member of an association? In most places it is fairly simple: you compile a request with a few questions which aim to certify that you have been professionally involved in public relations activities for a variable number of years (2 to 5, according to the different requirements), you vow to respect its code of ethical conduct, you pay an entry fee or even only an annual membership fee and that is it. In other cases the process is somewhat more complicated: you do all the above but also need to have two existing members to sponsor your request; in some you agree to undertake a person-to-person dialogue with representatives of the association and in others you are actually required to pass an oral examination and to submit to a periodic check up of the endurance of those initial conditions. Surprisingly the ratio of membership compared to the estimated potential does not really seem to change that much.. In other words, no matter how simple or complex the procedure, the ratio is always anywhere from 5 to 10% of the estimated potential.And what happens if a member of an association behaves in a way which goes against those ethic codes which she accepted to abide to while signing up for membership? A fairly recent analysis by the Global Alliance indicates that, by enlarge, the answer is –to put it mildly- nothing, as highly structured and complex procedures are required to even open an inquiry and the risk of legal consequences normally discourage from pursuing the case. If one considers that a compelling reason which induces a professional in belonging is the aspiration of being perceived as ‘different’ from most other peers, in the sense that her behaviour is expected to be of a higher standard, then it is clear that other values are to be offered in exchange for membership, and this specific one needs to be fully readdressed.And what happens when governments, authorities, hard or soft regulatory bodies around the world intervene –as they do- to norm specific practices which are part of public relations, such as health, consumer, financial, political, lobbying, security, internal relations? Nothing. In many cases, professional associations are not even aware that these increasing constraints are being put in place in their own country with the implication that professionals are not represented in the public policy process, not even to voice that such norms be consistent and interoperable around the world.And what happens when respected professional leaders from all countries call for a reconsideration of existing preconceived stereotypes, for example, related to the professional community’s traditional rejection of licensing procedures, and require that associations carefully analyse the scenario and prepare the ground for what many believe to be inevitable, where not auspicable? Nothing. After a few days of wonder and buzz, associations go back to their normal activities.And what happens when a small group of enlightened professionals unite to develop a universal computer language which, if adapted to existing and ever more widely used xbrl and newsml processes, reduce operative costs by 20%, unleashing significant time for professionals to think rather than cut and paste? Nothing. Associations do not even make an effort to try and understand what this could all be about.
And what happens when an unprecedented number of students graduate in public relations from colleges and universities in every country and challenge older professionals to make room or simply remove themselves from the scene, as they are considered the principal cause for the unfavourable reputation of the profession? Nothing. Associations pay lip service to the younger generations but are strongly resistant to change while protecting their members short term interests, rather than, as they themselves preach to their employers and clients, adapting to their stakeholder expectations.
I have voiced my gripes and am sure that any of you will have other reasons to criticize professional associations and their performance and I hope they will all be filed here, at least initially. This blog is read by leaders, executives and employees of professional associations from many countries and it might help for them to profit from these few days of relative absence of urgent matters to reconsider their role and realize that their ‘license to operate’ is only renewable if they prove capable of addressing the compelling issues which challenge our growing profession. Let’s give them a hand.
Personally may I suggest a comparative analysis of associations worldwide conducted by a credible organization (not a front group..) resulting in guidelines for effective association management which become mandatory training materials for all volunteer and professional individuals involved in associative responsibilities.
What do you suggest? Happy New Year!