Triple-associate Sean Williams asks, “Why join?”

Sean Williams
Sean Williams

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 USAone 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.

Connect with Sean on his blog, Twitter and LinkedIn or by email.

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24 Replies to “Triple-associate Sean Williams asks, “Why join?”

  1. Hi Sean, this is a great post and well considered – aligns well with much of what has been in the ruck at as well.

    I have to agree that with many of these things what you get out of them is proportional to what you put into it. There is a downside to that though, particularly with IABC which you note above – and that is a tendency for those who have “paid their dues” in the proverbial rather than the literal sense to have a greater voice, speaker platform presence, etc. What I would love to see would be more “newcomers” and nontraditional voices brought in – as well as your point about more meaty education, perhaps even simulations etc. for the more senior practitioner.

    In some ways, I dream of a merger amongst all the different communication associations, a silo-busting love in. Maybe in the next life…

    1. “…a silo-busting love in…” — I love it, Kevin! I do think we’d be better off in many ways with a single US association. But it’s true that PRSA would likely be the dominant partner, and those of us who toil in internal communications might wind up with less in a new 35,000 strong org.

      I’ll be interested to see what happens at the PRSA conference this fall — will it all be too familiar a program, or will it be different?

      Cheers for now.

  2. Mark — many thanks for taking the time to comment here. I agree that the winds of change are blowing hard around IABC — and I think it’s healthy to engage in good dialogue such as this (Thanks again, PRConversations and Judy Gombita!)

    The question of value received will continue to be on everyone’s mind for some time, at least until the wretched U.S. economy recovers more than it has so far.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

    Best regards,

  3. Sean,

    Thanks for starting this rich dialogue. I know it’s a cliche, but it really is true–for most things in life, including and perhaps especially for associations–you get out what you put in. I’ve been a member of many organizations, including various communications and marketing associations, in my long career, and none has provided the value of IABC.

    Is that because of the local and international networking, the content, the conferences, the stellar publications? Of course. But it’s also because IABC is the organization in which I’ve elected to become the most involved over the years. And how did that happen? Well, in addition to being nicely aligned with my professional interests, IABC was and continues to be the organization where I found the most welcoming people.

    When I attended other associations’ networking events or conferences, I sometimes found it difficult to break in to the scene, get to know people, or even find meaningful ways to contribute. Not so with IABC, which has consistently welcomed my presence, input, and contributions over the years, at both the local level (shout out to my amazing Atlanta colleagues!) or globally. This is a part of the IABC culture that defies quantitative valuation, but that is, for me, among its greatest assets.


    1. Michelle — thanks for the support! As I take on my chapter’s membership director job this summer, getting involved is always front and center of my discussion points. I’ve been very grateful to IABC for introducing me to so many terrific people, and that accounts for my continued membership and involvement.

      I do believe it’s helpful to think critically about these matters — not only from an intellectual standpoint, but also to understand other perspectives. I’m delighted that the discussion here has been so well-engaged.


  4. I’ve been involved in a number of trade and professional associations, and the same questions are being asked all over. I am convinced that associations still have a valuable role to play, but I think most of them need to do some serious re-thinking of their models.

    I belong to both virtual online groups and professional associations. I don’t feel the same loyalty and emotional attachment to my LinkedIn groups.

    There are several reasons that I believe you do get more out of an association by being involved:
    * Working side by side with others allows you to develop stronger ties to them. Casual networking or exchanging comments on a virtual group rarely provides that same level of familiarity or a sense of shared achievement.
    * Active involvement allows you to demonstrate your professionalism. I may think you are nice and intelligent if I meet you online or at a networking event, but seeing you in action as a volunteer allows me to determine whether I would feel comfortable speaking favourably in your behalf. After all, I put my reputation on the line if I vouch for you. (On the flip side, when I have witnessed people who either did not respect their commitments or who demonstrated a lack of strategy or focus in their volunteer work, that also influenced any evaluations I was asked to provide of them.

    With regard to communications, I am currently a member of IABC, and the global community is the key for me. My career involves working with people from every continent; I need a network of peers from a similar geographical base as a support network.

    As stated by several people, each person needs to find the right association(s) for their particular needs. Furthermore, here in Paris, we are working to build cooperation with other communication-related associations (Toni will be happy to know that includes the local contact for EACD), including organising joint events. In our case, none of the associations are perfect substitutes, so there is good scope for working together.

    Sean, there’s just one concrete point in your original article I don’t understand: your views on Discovery. 1) A lot of content that was previously paying is included in the basic Discovery access that comes with membership (I can understand you might want even more, but this fact should be noted). 2) Why do you think it is better to pay piecemeal for publications than to pay a LOWER lump sum? Just to take the example you cite, the Gold Quill case studies are USD199 PLUS shipping and handling (which can be more than the cost of the publication for those of us living outside of North America), while access to all publications in the Discovery Premium package including the Gold Quill case studies is just USD99, available online 24/7. And if you don’t opt for the premium package, you still have the option to pay the more expensive piecemeal price, but why would you?

    1. Hi Kristen — nice to meet you in person, albeit too briefly, during the UNConference!

      As for Discovery — No doubt, if you’ve bought the GQ package in the past, or if there are research foundation reports that you covet, it’s probably worth it. Maybe my skepticism is a concern about whether the material justifies it. It may – but why not give the research away? If the goal is to support the income stream, good on ya. If it’s to get important info and research out into the practice, restricting access to members only and charging for it would seem to get in the way. Will the content cloud be able to grow? Will we hear some new voices?

      Maybe that’s my real objection — it seems more like a means to get us to spend $100 on the same content we’ve decided not to buy individually than on making more available to us for less. I could be totally cynical about this!

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment — I appreciate it!

      Cheers for now,

      1. Hey there – great post and comments –

        You know, as Charles says, I think it’s a personal choice. And, as you say, Sean, it’s all a matter of value. That’s one reason why, last fall, IABC embarked on its most extensive market research effort to learn what it takes to stay relevant when so much is available from so many for so little money. And we learned a lot, primarily around the importance of “go-to” content for people in our profession. And the results are leading to new ideas and substantive improvements.

        To me, though, the value reaches beyond content, even beyond networking (although, like many, I can point to an IABC connection as a key catalyst for a very meaningful job). I have also seen IABC as a “leadership development” opportunity that provided the chance to develop skills that, perhaps, I wasn’t getting access to back at work. That’s always meant a lot and, I know, has significantly enhanced the value of the experience.

        Thanks, Sean, for such a compelling post, and a great conversation, Mark

  5. One interesting thing about membership organisations in my experience, given the above discussion over the merits of f2f, is that the majority of members do not engage in attending meetings, seminars or otherwise gaining the interpersonal connection of other members in real life.

    So what do they gain out of joining? Is it about stating you belong to an organisation, or knowing you could attend activities if you chose to do so (but don’t choose to do so), or the other information you gain virtually (the old fashioned way through magazines and now online)?

    I’m not sure as I’ve always believed in getting out what you put into life, be that membership of an organisation or participating in the virtual world of blogging etc.

    Today we really don’t need membership of a body to benefit from professional networking nor access to professional materials – there are plenty of options beyond the traditional subscription based organisations. I’m also not convinced that knowing others belong to such bodies gives them any credibility or kudos over those I have engaged with online. I don’t need to have others’ endorsements nor meet people f2f to work out whether they are worth listening to, or connecting with. And it seems to me to be rather superficial (and even dangerous) to focus on visual appearance over what someone is proposing when making key decisions. I’ve met plenty of dubious characters who look and sound the part.

    However, there really is nothing quite like meeting face to face to add depth to connections. Last week at the History of PR conference at Bournemouth University I met many people (some for the first time and some I knew before) . Undoubtedly this f2f meeting added a new depth to any virtual contacts – but I can’t say that anyone I’ve ever “met” online has proven to be different when I’ve met them f2f.

    But the best thing for me last week was meeting the people behind the text books that I have read over the years. I haven’t connected with these people via the virtual world and it was so illuminating to hear and discuss their ideas over coffee, lunch, dinner or just during conference Q&As.

    I didn’t need to be a member of a professional body to gain that access – but it is surprising that so few people take such opportunities. That’s the real question for PR – why do so few people bother to engage with the area they call their profession, whether through online discussion, active membership of a body, or reading about developments?

    1. Heather — I’m envious. I wanted to attend (especially to support my IPR Measurement Commission colleague, Dr. Tom Watson), but the wherewithal just wasn’t…

      You make a lot of sense (as usual) — much as Charles does. Depending on your objectives, you can be as involved or uninvolved as you choose, and if you meet your objectives, good on ya. I frequently encourage people to get involved, but only to the limits they themselves set.

      I also am a bit mystified at the lack of attendance at lunches, the relatively few people who attend conferences, etc. But I believe I understand. Everyone has financial and time pressures, organizations are less generous with support for professional development (even as they say we’re responsible for our own), and at least here in the States, we’re running hither and yon like mad after kids, pets and other distractions.

      It IS annoying, though, to note how little some people read about their profession!

      Thanks again for the comment.

  6. These are highly individual decisions; there’s no one right model for everyone’s personality type and needs. Some people like to network, whereas some like do-it-yourself information access. Some people like to get personally involved; some do not. Those traits drive preferences.

    There’s no one size fits all model. Personally, I employ a mix of association and do-it-yourself resources to satisfy various professional needs – whether long term or immediate.

    The value one derives is also highly personal. An unemployed person likely derives value from face-to-face contact, whereas a person working on a project may simply value access to relevant content in real time.

    I joined one association, then never attended. That’s my fault, not the group’s failure to deliver.

    When people ask me this question, my standard answer is “it all depends on what you’re looking for.”

    I guess someone who is really into this question could develop a decision-making matrix for newbies 🙂

    1. Charles — thanks. You’re right, of course. What you get depends on what you want!

      In a conversation about 12 years ago, I was trying to recruit a senior pro to be more involved. He said, “I did my volunteering, and now it’s time for someone else. I’m happy to pay my dues and read Communication World.” I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I think I do now.

      Appreciate your taking the time to visit, Charles. All the best,

  7. Arthur, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Indeed, the in-person experience is one thing I find of exceptional value of my triple affiliation — there really isn’t a substitute for being face to face. I am, however, of a certain age — I grew up with F2F being the standard. Perhaps people of less vintage are more comfortable with virtual relationships than I!

    The other important item is that many relationships that start out virtual become in-person, perhaps in part do to our continued existence as social animals. That’s part of the reason for this post’s angle: it’s a sincere question whether we still need such organizations or not. I am too much of an extrovert to give up on them!

    Thanks again –

  8. Sean,

    I agree that the Internet and social media has democratized information delivery and learning. But I can’t help but wonder if the new models provide an experience that is more virtual than social?

    True, there’s value to posting a comment to a LinkedIn or Ragan community and receiving a response. But this manner of learning is a little like buying a used book in college: the previous owner may have highlighted what he/she considered to be important information … but completely missed the mark in doing so. My point is that it’s much harder to “consider the source” when all you have to go on is a self-authored biographical sketch; for example, have you ever seen the descriptor “Social Media Guru” and doubted the individual’s credentials? Same is true with blogs, where questions of editorial quality, accuracy, bias and balance linger.

    The public relations business is conducted face-to-face; I’ve never won a new account based on an email exchange, agency listing or online community referral. And to my mind, it’s both easier and more beneficial in terms of developing professional, networking and social skills (a lack of which has led to criticism of younger professionals, in particular) during opportunities to meet people and network “in real life,” such as those that PRSA’s International Conference and local Chapter events provide. Not only can you “take the measure of the man (or woman)” who’s giving you business advice, you can see how they dress, how they comport themselves, etc. And besides, it’s more fun (and it’s actually social).

    We’re pleased to have you as a speaker at this year’s conference, and equally pleased that our members will have a chance to meet you in person and evaluate – based on a real vs. virtual connection – the value of your counsel. We work very hard to identify and engage the influential new voices in our profession and give our members access to them – in person, whenever possible – and you provide a great example of that.

    Arthur Yann is vice president of public relations for PRSA.

  9. Sharing this comment left on the Bulldog Reporter Daily ‘Dog version of Sean’s post:

    Wednesday, July 07, 2010 1:33:57 PM by Anonymous

    I agree with some of your comments about costs & educational materials availability for IABC, however my experience is that there are appropriate places for charging, and that social media alone will not allow you to have the level of networking and interaction that meetings and conferences allow for. Much of the value I find in IABC (I have been a member for 5 years) is through the interaction and networking with people during meetings. While the lunches I have attended have flucturated in their helpfulness outside of networking, I have found that the price is reasonable for meetings & membership. To make IABC and other such organizations more attractive, I think membership price should include all materials, and a deep discount for the conferences. Other organizations I am a member of have found cheaper ways to keep the networking and share information by having local presenters volunteer, opting for less fancy foods, and scheduling conferences that involve volunteering. In addition to price, combining professional and academic research would be a great improvement.

  10. Although I was a member and active in our two local chapters of similar association (IABC and CPRS) as a student (for a hugely discounted student rate) as soon as I graduated and got into the work world, I didn’t really even consider joining.

    However, last fall, I was asked to join our local IABC board as VP-Professional Development. Since there was a definite benefit to my company to have me involved, I (almost reluctantly) agreed. Over the last year my attitude towards professional associations has completely changed. I wish I had joined sooner and I definitely feel the value (although it does still irk me a little that you pay for EVERYTHING with IABC)

    I should also mention that I attend a LOT of networking events in my city–most of them free or very low cost. This is one of the reasons I was reluctant to pay $50 to attend an IABC or CPRS event.. However I’ve found that a completely different audience attends and in many cases it’s more senior communicators who someone (like myself) on the early side of their career generally has a tough time meeting and connecting with. Also working on the board has allowed me to make great connections and work with a very smart and talented team of communicators–as someone who’s usually worked pretty independently in the workplace, this is an excellent benefit.

    Recently I attended our IABC regional board meeting and heard from IABC members from across Eastern Canada about why they are involved and why they love IABC and it was pretty obvious why the association continues on the same business plan it always has–because once you’re in (generally) you don’t mind paying so much because you see the value.

    1. Kelly, thanks for the comment. The chapter (and now regional) involvement definitely exposed a lot more value for me than merely belonging. And now, it is a visibility tool that could become very important as time goes on. I remain critical of the world conference for the repetition of speakers and lack of unstructured time for business networking — but am planning to remain in IABC.

      Thanks for adding your perspectives here — very valuable!

  11. Toni – thanks for your comment. The question of commercial versus not-for-profit is a good one. Ragan and Melcrum do many of the same things our various industry associations do — in particular, offering a community of practitioners and education. In other industries, is there a similar sort of schism between the profit and not-for-profit worlds?

    Secondly, the alphabet soup is really tedious. Everyone wants your US300 per year, AND your conference payment, AND your webinar and book purchases, etc., etc., etc. I didn’t even get much into the desire for speaking engagements with these groups — as a relatively new entrepreneur, that’s a big marketing opportunity for me. I have to weigh the costs of membership against each other, with an eye to which group will help build my business the most.

    Many miles to go on this discussion.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  12. Very good insight and excellent questions, Sean and Judy.

    A year ago Ferpi set up a group of volunteers to rethink zerobase its business model, the first question being:

    let’s imagine that ferpi did not exist and that the five of us who are in this group decide to create from scratch something which looks like and tastes like a professional association.

    What would we do?

    Honestly we have not yet come up with anything significant, except a general agreement that we would want it to be highly different from what we have now!

    The eads (european association of communication directors) is indeed an interesting case study…..

    It is very recent (three years?), has nothing to do with pre-existing national or european associations, it is a for profit organization stemmed from a german publishing house, its leadership is however elected by members and is a success both in numbers and euros…

    If you look at their website you can get a good idea of what they do.

    Basically they do what other associations do, but better….

    The only thing that bugs me is that my colleagues from national as well as international professional associations snub heads because (they say) it is ‘commercial’.

    But what are they?

    Any idea of the salaries involved in the executive heads of some of the larger professional associations?

    And are they not always trying to find ways to make profits?
    Let’s at least be honest with ourselves and learn how to improve….

    In my view prsa (have not renewed) could greatly benefit from a closer relationship with the ga (this move is now on the way) and (god forbid!) even with prsa.

    Same goes for the IPR and (god forbid!) also with IPRA

    Similarly the same goes for every other national or regional association.

    Some will have to dissolve?

    And what’s wrong with that?

    Less egotistic navel-gazing for professionals and fewer costly bureaucracies….

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