Drifting round the social networking sites, I couldn’t help wondering where next for our professional associations. Not just in public relations, but across all sectors. What will professional associations have to offer in order to retain their paid members – when many of the ‘benefits’ historically gained from paid membership can be had elsewhere for free?
Don’t get me wrong – I am an oft-declared and dedicated fan of professional associations – but given the explosion of niche social arenas that provide networking, interaction, education, job and career progress and possibly a good laugh into the bargain, how will professional associations of the future set themselves apart?
Why should I part with my hard-earned cash when in minutes I can be flexing my inclinations towards groupthink over at Facebook? (Not that Facebook is the conclusive future either as all these tools are in the midst of a Mexican Wave of activity at present and will morph again).Now we have different ways of doing things, with new models of interaction either constructed or under construction and the old approach of ‘pay your dues, put the letters after your name and get on with it’ isn’t going to cut the mustard anymore.
Do we care? Is it important or relevant enough to even discuss?Well, funnily enough I think it is actually quite critical to look at this and if it was my job to look at an association’s future progress, it would be right up there on my ‘top-three-things-to-do-very-fast’ list given the impact social networks (that earn their members money) will have on professional associations around the world.
Previously, associations offered the younger (and older) practitioner all that they can now access on their favourite social networking site. They won’t get a designation – but hey, operating in a flattened structure, who needs one anyway? Graduates who have been on site networking through their learning years stay together and maintain and add to their connections – the group name may change, but the participants will stay the same. There is no legal requirement for me to belong to an association and, as one person said to me quite recently: “They’re just for older people. They don’t have any relevance anymore – I can learn what I need to from the network”.The obvious flaw in that argument is that the network might not know or understand what it is collectively up to in the first place – yet in our flattened operational structure who is to say what knowledge is right and what knowledge is wrong as applied to new and developing practice models? Scary? I think so. Because we may find ourselves in a situation where our profession has evolved, only to be wiped out by a bad dose of flu just as we are within reach our coming of age party.And the flu in question isn’t the social networks, it is the misinformation, examples of bad practice, old school views, obsession with mainstream media and ‘weblebrity’ often contained within them that will lead to the wipe-out. (I would add that there is a lot of good stuff too but unfortunately our reputations will be hung out to dry by the naff content).
So here is where our associations need to lead the charge.
We have collectively acknowledged and discussed a few things here over the last year and I have picked out the ones that should be of immediate concern to our public relations associations from one end of the world to the other.
- Our role, with all its complexity and ambiguity, needs to be explained and understood (often by our own practitioners)
- Public relations needs a public relations programme (and if this doesn’t happen soon then I think we should all pack up and go home)
- The impact of our work on and within democratic processes, again, needs to be explained and understood.
- We need to look long and hard at licensing – and whether or not associations will use their teeth when faced with bad practice
- We need to make some decisions on what makes a competent, effective and ethical practitioner both globally and locally
- Public relations education needs to shift to a higher gear and come up with a more effective and consistent blend of academic and practitioner knowledge (take a look around the world – there are huge differences in ‘public relations’ course content)
On behalf of the members, associations need to set the standard – and give those standards a clear, audible voice. A voice not afraid of controversy and conversation. Individual practitioners can do that themselves for sure – and some do – but there are far more who don’t, won’t and can’t or who perhaps have retreated disillusioned to a free social network. Professional bodies have always been something of a Hydra – three heads at least, one that concentrates on furthering the profession, one that acts in the public interest, setting and maintaining standards, and one which occasionally bites the necks of the other two as it sets about guarding members’ interests.
So I’m quite happy to keep forking out my association memberships if I can see that at the very least those associations are furthering understanding of the profession and setting and maintaining sufficiently high standards so the public doesn’t get ripped off and that when I go to a party I don’t get called a spin doctor or – worse – ‘perpetrator of the black arts’. Because that’s not what I do.
As a member, I want to see those assocations visible and working everywhere – not just in mainstream, but in Facebook too, or where I can Stumbleupon them by chance as I link in to another group. I don’t want to have to wait six months to find out how much a conference is going to cost me next June nor do I want an old-school hard copy magazine with information that is weeks out of date, when in my network I can have accurate, albeit competing information to hand in seconds.
Like everyone else, professional associations must surely realise that their business model has changed and that they must work out how to fit/create/devise their new one – fast. I just hope that in our sector, the associations will use the kind of swift response mechanisms most practitioners are used to using in order to facilitate change.Otherwise, why should I click the ‘renew’ button next time around?
What do you think? Or am I worrying needlessly?
*At the time of writing, the ‘Official Facebook PR Group’ had 3388 members and the ‘PR and Communicators’ network 2792.There are similar numbers to be found in special interest groups across all the social networks.