Where next for professional associations?

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.


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12 Replies to “Where next for professional associations?

  1. Kiora Catherine,

    As a pr student,I agree that the academic to practitioner knowledge mix needs consistant modification in this rapidly changing industry.

    As for social networking beasts such as Facebook, one just needs to look at the decline of Myspace’s credibility when it was sold to ol Murdock.

    I feel once interactions have a dollar sign on them, or focus groups become anything other than “Down with people who wear Crocs”, then the very people that were attracted to that site will move on to the next fad site/application.

    Admittedly I may be totally off the mark, some people actually like Crocs.

  2. Thank you Toni,
    In re-reading my post, I noticed typos which I am sure you won’t replicate if you decide to use any of the thoughts expressed in te post !
    Is there a way to edit post on this blog?

  3. Jean,
    I will be representing you (and the other leaders of the ga) in lugano on 17th of november for the graduation day of the MSCOM masters of the University of Lugano, where on behalf of the GA I will distribute four scholarships to as many international students.
    The topic of the whole day (which will see presentations from professional leaders of some of the major global and european corporations and organizations) is the inextricable link between values and public relations.
    The inspiring, simple and very clear thoughts of your comments will be very useful for my testimony. Thank you.

  4. Very interesting post and comments.

    Indeed as Toni mentions most of these objectives were at the core of the rationale for the creation of the Global Alliance. This is why I pirsued so vigourously the establishment of world standards in particular to solidify our graps on what the profession stands for. Ethics was no 1 on our list and we have achieved that by analysing and subsequently prescribign a global code of minimum standards for ethics. We are in the process of doing the same for accreditation and have also began work on curriculum standards. The latter is a long term piece of work as it requires consideration of a lot of things such as the role of culture and the effect of globalisation on the profession. Nevertheless, we need global standards in these three areas to call oursleves a true profession. It is simply not good enough to each have our own set of rules and say that we all practice public relations.
    ‘Connectivity’ to borrow a term from IT was another reason why the GA was formed. The ability to establish platforms including advocacy and PR for PR was seen as a must. Here we have much work to do. the GA web site in already in its second geenration and a third is being planned. Social media is a reality and we have not yet adpated to it. My own association CPRS has a group on Facebook I learned last week. I have not visited but am glad that the segment that visits and thrives on facebook are exposed to CPRS. Promoting PR conversations to all of our asscociatiosn as a place where experienced PR pros talk with each other and discuss matters that affect the profession would also be a good idea.
    I think that promoting what we do for the profession and the professional will never be enough. Let’s just hope we are not all starting from zero.
    In my 28 years of membership ion CPRS I have obeserved that there are three kinds of members; 1. those who join to build a network 2. those who join to learn (PD) 3. those who join because it looks good on a CV.
    Segment 1 is served by: a attending local events where they meet peers and now by joining and participating in social media which has globalised the network ( not always relevant to all by the potential is there) Segment 2 is always influenced by the topics of the PD so this must remain relevant at all timeas and be diverse enough to attract junior, mid and senior levels. Segment 3 will always be flighty and the more active one’s PR for PR program, the more they are liklely to renew. The sad reality as Toni points out is that only 10% of the population targetted reacts to these three parameters. Before social media, these practtioners amde their own network and had no sense of belonging to a professional family. With social media we are at risk of loosing them even more as they clearly do not need no 2 or no 3 as motivation to join.
    Now if I thought licensing could cure all that, I would be all for it, but as we have learned from those countries where licensing exists, the vast majority of practitioners will only call themselves something else to escape the regulation.
    Frankly, I agree that if we concentrated on PR for PR we would attract more members who would at least want to join for a while and kick the tires.

  5. Catherine,

    I don’t think filtering necessarily means deciding what we do and don’t see. It can mean signposting, so providing a valuable service to members short on time. For example, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) complements its print magazine with an e-bulletin that focuses on one topic per month. This cluster of resources is extremely useful to 1) decide if I want to read this month’s issue and 2) pinpoint resources when I am doing research. It’s just a shame that the rest of their web content is not organized as intuitively.

    I am a big supporter of accreditation and think that smart professionals use it to differentiate themselves from the masses (it’s on my to-do list). But I am always skeptical of comparisons between communications competencies and science-based competencies, which are much more tangible than what we are usually dealing with. The problem with ethics is that most issues lie in the grey area of judgment where context can be all important. It would be nice to believe that there is a simple yes-no answer to every ethical question, but if that were so, ethics wouldn’t have been a point of debate for millennia! With doctors, there are some questions for which the ethical behaviour seems clear, but debates over euthanasia and others show that even in medecine, it’s not always cut-and-dried. And shifts in the generally accepted position can have wider impacts: look at the effect on capital punishment of some doctors deciding that being present to ensure “humane” executions is in direct conflict with the Hippocratic Oath.

    That being said, there are some associations that have taken gutsy decisions to only include accredited members. FIDI, the international association for moving professionals, did that a few years back. There was an initial backlash, but overall the experience has had a beneficial impact on the profession and the association. Closer to home, our European affiliate, the European Fertilizer Manufacturers Association (EFMA)now has a required product stewardship programme against which members are audited. Performance gaps must be corrected within a given time frame, or the company risks being excluded from the association. In both of those cases, membership is fairly homogenous and the product/service being delivered can be discussed in standardized terms and measured. Can we say the same of PR?

  6. Given that I have been worriting about this topic, it has been really interesting and valuable to read your views – thank you.

    Kristen, I agree that the ‘smooth path’ ahead would see associations and social networks complementing each other and I do understand the ‘multiple personality syndrome’ that the various tools can leave us with! On the print versus on-line preference, I too like to read text on paper but if it is an association’s periodical then I want the content to be new, current or forward thinking, not old news or features that have either been recycled or covered elsewhere.

    Yaryna, you are absolutely spot on when you highlight the low quality of social network content, but it is improving all the time – and improving rapidly. As niche industry networks become established and users learn to operate within that environment, content will become richer and more relevant. The exponential rate of change reminds me of one of those sci-fi movies, where the extra-terrestrial is born on Earth and then reaches maturity in a matter of days, leaving the earthlings no option but to chase along behind in an endless game of hide and seek.

    Heather, again, I agree entirely that competition from social networks means that associations have to be clear about the benefits they deliver, but I don’t know that I necessarily want them to act as information filters – maybe information ferrets would be a better bet. In an information-rich, time-poor world, can any association be an efficient filter? My major concern would be whether my association (whatever the sector) had the resources to be a sufficiently adept collector of relevant and timely information in the first place. For example, I would be positively delighted to learn that any public relations association anywhere in the world has joined W3C*. I can’t see one on the membership list, which surprises me no end as we are, after all, in the business of trust, relationships and communication! (As an aside, I would have thought applying for W3C membership should be an association ‘must do’ with the Global Alliance potentially the nearest membership match as it would be – I am guessing wildly here – within financial reach as smaller associations may find it a struggle)

    But back to associations and information filtering. Do they, as another example, understand and have information on how ‘public relationships’ are now being alluded to and the new and developing contexts against which ‘public relationships’ are set? Haven’t seen a sniff of that one anywhere either. The difficulty I have with filtering is that it generally belongs in the business model drawer marked ‘information is power’. Filtering doesn’t help transparency, collaboration or knowledge sharing and, in my experience anyway, tends not to foster understanding, relationship building or activate organisational growth.

    Keeping pace isn’t the challenge – staying ahead should be the aim. Determine and implement educational competencies that set the benchmarks for my successors, not my predecessors, and, I think as João’s comments and references suggest, work on behalf of practitioners who, through membership and education, demonstrate a commitment best practice, value and effectiveness.

    Part of the problem (and I would again be delighted to be contradicted here) is that associations appear to have been worried about getting and retaining members so have perhaps shied away from upsetting ‘the industry’ – something they might just do if they suggested that the world at large should only engage practitioners who are accredited members of the association in question. Personally, I think this is part of a historical lack of self confidence in our role along with the thorny question of definition – but shouldn’t we be over that now?

    The building industry denounces rogue builders, dodgy doctors get struck off – shouldn’t professional associations be creating and demonstrating the ‘points of difference’ that make their members the ‘best buy’ as far as the public is concerned?

    Toni asked whether we lacked courage, awareness or competencies. I don’t think that any of those have been lacking and many associations (again, not just in our sector) have, to their great credit, worked very hard to stay on top of developments, remain closely aligned and of service to their members and attempted to improve things for the greater good.

    So when we look at this, we need to recognise that facilitating change within the older business models that most of us still use is a time-bound process – which generally means it all takes longer than we would like. This doesn’t let us off the hook, but I don’t think anyone should be disheartened or discouraged – maybe just more focused on upping the pace of things, more determined to offer lasting value to members, the publics we serve and being very specific about benefits, value and impact given the threats and opportunities currently before us.

    *For info: http://www.w3.org/ – so you don’t end up signing on to World of Warcraft by mistake!

  7. Catherine, great post! I’m divided between my role as association officer and as a mere commentator but I’ll try to be balanced.

    I was recently re-reading an old speech by Prof. Tim Traverse-Healy (already mentioned in this blog) at the International Public Relations Association conference in Istambul 2005 where he spoke about the role of professional associations, claiming they should begin to worry more about the professional than with the profession itself. Here’s the quote….

    «For the past 50 years, a major activity of our professional bodies has been performing “public relations for public relations” with the main objective of developing our operations and growing our institutional influence. I believe that for the second half of our century this emphasis should change dramatically and speedily. I submit that the objective should change to “public relations for public relations practitioners”. Positioning the image of those practitioners who are members, who are trained and accredited, who openly subscribe to these ethical standards enshrined in our various codes of conduct. Let the public know what we consider right and wrong. Let our employers and clients know what they can and cannot expect. Let our colleagues know who can and cannot be welcome as members of our fraternity.»

    Following this quote, I would say that we have at least two types of professional associations: (1) Those that have already created an acceptable set of services to their members and have accreditation schemes or equivalent ways to show their member’s professionalism and (2) Those that are still trying to operate “PR for PR” while fighting to create that value that attracts members and retains them.

    I feel that our discussion has focused mainly on the reality of associations belonging to the first group so I will keep my comments focused. To them, I think, the logical priority lies in engaging other stakeholders to create valuable learning and development strategies. Why not partner with Economists or Architects or Manager’s associations to create sectorial projects? Why not follow the suggestion of Prof. Tim Healy and speak up to what they believe is right or wrong instead of dealing with counter-law suits when they chase members who don’t feel they have to be chased for their ethical conduct. Why not reassess the value of research as more than just a publicity tactic or something you do to describe existing realities and try to do something more? These associations’ financing model should also be designed to allow independence and not to constrain decisions.

  8. I would like to split Cathy’s excellent arguments in three distinct sub issues:
    1- the impact of social media in general on professional associations;
    2- the impact of the new pervasiveness of public relations practice on the professions’s associations;
    3- the new agenda of public relations professional associations: who do they represent, what do they stand for, what should they be doing?

    When in the mid seventies I decided to open a public relations agency, after some 15 years of work in various corporates, some journalism and some active politics, I immediately sought out to find an international network interested in having us.
    This, not so much in the hope of attracting new business, but as a learning vehicle for me, as well as my partners and the whole of the agency staff.
    There was at that time no other realistic way to keep updated on professional development, access to new approaches and exposure to different perspectives and points of view.
    Very fortunately, and thanks to my great friend and today teaching colleague at NYU Michael Morley, we landed in bed with Edelman and…. boy! was that a great experience, which lasted until the early eighties when, enamoured with the concept of integrated communication and having learned of the strong independent nature of Dan Edelman, I found an excellent substitute for the network and migrated to the Ogilvy & Mather ‘s ‘orchestration’ concept, only to end up in the late nineties selling the agency to Shandwick.

    Well into the mid nineties, I was always confirmed in my belief that only being part of an international network could a professional find satisfaction in her/his aspiration to learn, consolidate, improve and innovate.

    Then, the Internet came along and I began having second thoughts: the incredible opportunity to access directly any form of knowledge developed anywhere in the world as well as any form of contact, convinced me that, paradoxically, being part of a network could actually become a constraint.
    I say this to comment Cathy’s good points about social networks and belonging to one or more professional associations. There is no doubt that the former have produced great impact on the latter’s role.
    The question is: how aware are they of this?

    This is a first interesting test and the ‘taste the pudding’ part does not reside so much into how associations are using social media as a relationship tool with and amongst their members or their stakeholders, but mostly on how elective and managerial leaderships accept and actually attempt to create value, being conscious of the fact that they no longer control the content.

    A very recent example of ‘cultural luddism’ comes from the leadership of a major association frustrated and aggressive towards this very blog which off-and-on airs unwelcome (for them) criticisms. Not surprisingly this leadership makes little if any effort to argue and debate, while relying on hinting potential retaliations within its direct and privatized control on other unrelated organizations which have nothing to do with any of the co-authors of the blog.
    Of course this is very common inside all complex organizations, all over the world.
    Today, life for organizational leaderships is more complicated than it used to be, and not all are willing to make an effort to cope with these new complications in order to achieve success for the objectives they pursue.

    There is no particular reason why professional public relations associations should be different from other organizations, if not the fact that one may presume that their competencies should allow them to avoid those typical knee-jerk reactions that public relators often criticise of their own employers and clients.

    To conclude on this first point: yes, social media have a strong impact on professional associations and elective and managerial leaderships often fail to come to cultural grips with that impact, although the do offer ‘lip service’ to all sorts of tools making them available to their members (some more, some less).

    In my view, this cultural issue needs very much to be on top of the agenda of association members when they select (if they are allowed to of course…) their elected representatives, and of the latter when they select their managers.

    The second subissue has to do with the fact that, overall and in every country, although in different formats and dynamics, the public relations profession has greatly changed in its value chain, numbers, practices, accesses, excesses…
    By enlarge, and with obvious differences here and there, professional associations have failed to keep pace, thus ending relegated in nice-to-have, irrelevant, unrepresentative, unnoticed organizations…

    One may ironize on many of these being ‘whist clubs’ (as I once called Ipra, of whom I am of course a member); or ‘freshly squeezed breakfast lectures’ as the Cipr (of which I am proud to be an honorary fellow) calls one of its most successful programs; or ‘useless circle of chronysm’ as I once dubbed Ferpi (of which I have been vice president, president and am currently responsible for international relations).

    Yet the fact of the matter is that only 10% (in the best of circumstances) of public relators belong to professional associations, and this is truly a unique feature in any profession. There are of course many answers to why this is so, these are all certainly valid, but some more than others: specifically that the vast majority of public relators do not perceive that public relations associations are sufficiently representative, respected and supply adequate political as well as technical support for one to bother to belong.

    If not for other reasons, this in itself should be sufficient for associations to immediately embark on the definition of a totally and radically different ‘business model’ (as Cathy suggests).
    I frankly do not see this happening anywhere.
    Worse, I see associations culturally retreating from society, shrinking their brains (like those new guinea skulls) and going from uselessness to irrelevance.
    There is a wide open market out there for out-of-the-box people to investigate and exploit…very little seems to be happening.
    Why is this?
    Possibly, those very social networks which Cathy mentions are a boring palliative, as they themselves seem to suffer the same malaise ..not coming to grips with how the profession has transformed in these last twenty years.

    The third subissue has to do with the specific agenda Cathy spells out for this much welcomed and needed association-wake-up-call.
    I entirely agree with the points she makes.
    When I joined the Global Alliance working group rather late in the game, it was very clear then that Cathy’s points, however more pompously expressed, where at the core of the exercise.
    Five years have since passed -three leaderships (my own, Jean Valin’s, Sej Motau’s) have finished, and now Colin Farrington is at it- and we must ask: have we really addressed these points thoroughly?
    Where have we gone wrong?
    What distracted us?
    Do we lack courage, awareness, competencies?
    As much as, for our own benefit, each of us believes we have done useful and fruitful things, I cannot see any one openly saying that the challenge is still there, has not been met, and that we are not sufficiently equipped to lead this (in my view) absolutely essential movement to either formally declare this attempts’ funeral (god forbid!), which however would inevitably imply likewise funerals for its 62 member associations; or to implement strong, visible, detectable, powerful acts of discontinuity before we all doze off (spiritually and naturally).


  9. Excellent and really thought-provoking post. However, I still find that the quality of content in the majority of social networks is rather low. Catherine, you quoted Facebook — but it’s mostly job ads and random posts that very little people care to comment on. I still believe people will be willing to pay their membership fees for a couple of things: (1) good quality content, (2) face-to-face communication with fellow professionals, (3) a platform to lobby the industry interests, and (4) a platform to advance the profession by improving ethical and professional standards. Or, at least, that’s what we in Ukraine find that people are most interested in when they join our national industry association. Associations won’t become obsolete as long as they serve all these functions. I still believe it’s rather a question of using social networks as a resource and a tool to provide better service to association members. The rule that the Internet complements rather than replaces tradition tools applies here, in my opinion.

  10. There will undoubtedly be room for professional bodies despite the availability of “free” online networks – but the greater competition for practitioners’ time and money means such organisations need to be clear about what benefits they deliver.

    With increasing information overload and fragmentation, it is important that those working in PR have reliable and informative organisations helping them to be better at what they do. In particular, acting as filters and agents of the vast amount of information available, able to challenge existing practice and highlight future opportunities.

    As Catherine notes, there is an issue over quality of advice available for practitioners in the wider world – so again, professional bodies need to be linked into research in academia and practice, to evidence their recommendations.

    In addition, the more strategic and robust skills required for a lifetime career – not simply tactical ideas, can be conveyed by a professional organisation.

    In the case of the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (where I am the general secretary), the organisation’s heritage was that of a social networking club (in the days when the Cheshire Cheese watering hole in London’s Fleet Street was even more popular than Facebook). This did not appeal to younger members, and we have instead focused on cost-effective training, communicating professional best practice, offering a free JobSearch service, concentrating on supporting those new to the profession, as well as building on four decades of real world relationships with journalists and other stakeholders.

    Approaching our 40th anniversary in 2008, we have established a professional not-for-profit company footing and demonstrated to members how MIPAA really can help them in their day to day work and career ambitions. We do this using new media but also a printed publication and face-to-face at events.

    We also still know how to throw a good party.

  11. I totally agree that the Internet in general (by breaking monopolies on access to information) and social networking sites in particular raise some fundamental questions about professional associations. However, when I examine my own behaviour, I don’t think there is an inherent mutual exclusion. I think they’re complementary.

    Associations provide useful structures and analysis that help us make sense of overwhelming quantities of information out there. When I analyze attendance at local events, there is almost always better attendance when a specific topic has been defined. It makes it easier to know what to discuss with others. When you look at the online communities for communicators, you find many special topics groups being formed. This is great in theory, but starts to create real problems from a personal management perspective. Rather than simplifying my life, I now find that all of these technologies are complicating it and making me feel like I have multiple personalities.

    First I had a home phone and address. Then one at the office. Then a fax. Then work e-mail. Then private e-mail. Then a mobile phone. And now multiple online communities that I have to log on to. There’s an ever greater number of channels to monitor. One of the roles that associations can play is as an aggregator.

    And I don’t agree about not wanting print materials. The only time I really have to read what’s going on in the communications world (outside targetted research for specific projects) is in the metro. Online is no help on those occasions.

    I also think the role of associations varies depending on whether you are talking about the local chapter, a national body or an international organization. I look forward to seeing how this conversation develops both as a member and as the president of a local chapter!

  12. wow, cathy…what a huge bundle of provocative and stimulating thoughts. thank you. will mumble back as soon as I have overcome and rationalised the feeling that we might be on to a very useful conversations to which I hope professionals, association leaders and educators will want to actively participate.

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