Who’s turn is to hit the coalface? The Swedes show the way in Professional Association Management and the results are impressive. Let’s take, for once, a glass half full approach.

In a recent exchange on this here blog Catherine Arrow wrote:

Somebody, somewhere has to hit the coalface first, and… (this) is the job of associations, so their members can chip away and follow through with the leadership, back up and support of the big guys….. our current situation has been apparent and evident for some time …. and … no preventative action has been taken.…..So, perhaps…… there should be a recognition and admission that we have previously got things wrong….,

and David Phillips weighed in:

…Public Relations has to re-think its foundations…… I … am frustrated by the PR institutions…associations have almost conspired to keep members in the dark about the fundamental changes that are affecting the PR sector and the Universities are culpable in their use of academic brains to count fairies on pinheads while the Universe is caving in on their students and practitioners alike…..

From this one might expect that the PR institutions (associations, institutes and academia) might be working hard at where the profession is going. They might be showing leadership. They may be examining how to re-energise this profession…..

In many other posts since the inception of this blog, professional associations have been criticised for failing to appropriately listen to their stakeholders (their members first of all, but also the business, financial, political, media, academic and activist communities) and effectively and proactively reach out to argue the true value of a profession which is today more than ever strongly relevant to every single organizational management paradigm, while at the same time (and mostly for the same reason) increasingly demonised because of its growing impact on opinions and behaviours of publics and its parallel resistance to accountability, responsibility and transparency standards adopted by other professions and management functions.

And this, we often argued, is one (if not the) principal reason why, unlike other professions (regulated or not), only 10% of currently active normally professionals belong to these bodies.

I have certainly not changed my mind and have been often challenged to offer ideas, processes and programs which might improve this situation.

I have tried.

For example, I have argued and suggested that the regulatory issue be carefully analysed and become a central concern for associations, not only to anticipate from an acceptable platform what by many is considered an inevitable, and for many reasons desirable, outcome; but also to avoid the present ongoing and unmonitored regulation of specific pr practices in various parts of the world with no harmonization, thus making it increasingly difficult for organizations as well as for professionals to practice public relations with coherent processes.

Others have also convincingly argued that professional associations ( i.e. the Global Alliance, in unison with its members), take on a leadership function in a global outreach to stakeholders program (some define this as public relations for public relations).

Clearly we have not been particularly successful in these efforts so far, as associations seem to be focussing their primary attention on self protection and survival, which is a typical syndrome of every organized body at any time, but that association leaderships should carefully refrain from encouraging, particularly in this prolonged period of re conceptualization of organizational functions and paradigms which leave so much room for public relations to initiate and lead the discussion.

So I will now try a different approach, the best practice one.

Yes, this post is dedicated to the Swedish Public Relations Society who will host the next World Public Relations Festival in June 2010.

Let us begin by saying that Sweden has 8 million inhabitants and that the association has 5 thousand members.

If one compares this to the UK with 60 million inhabitants and 9 thousand members; or to the USA with 350 million inhabitants and 30 thousand members (including students)… one immediately perceives that the membership ratio pro inhabitant in Sweden is anywhere from 5 to 10 times higher than in those two countries whose associations are universally recognised as global leaders in the field.

Wait a minunte!

Is there a law in Sweden (like in other countries such as Brasil, Nigeria, Perù, Panama, Venezuela and more recently Puerto Rico) which obliges public relators to belong to the national association?

Nothing of the kind.

Is the structure of society in Sweden so radically different from other countries to justify that any professional public relator jump on the association bandwagon?

Not at all.

Is the trend ‘to belong’ in general in Sweden much higher than in other countries?

Not so.

Do Swedish public relators enjoy much more than their counterparts to network, socialise or exchange parctices?

Again, definitely not.

Are membership access and fees simpler and cheaper than other associations?

No, they are not.

Is there much less competition in Sweden from other communications associations.

Not so.

The only possible answer is that public relations professionals in Sweden are attracted and feel they need to belong to their national association because they receive value. I cannot think of any other reasonable answer.

Margaretha Sjoberg, the organizational monument of the association, roughly estimates that there are some 15 thousand public relators in Sweden.
If one accepts this figure (which, comparatively speaking would put the UK figure of public relators at 100 thousand, with a membership ratio at 10%; while the USA figure would be 500 thousand, i.e. a membership ratio of 6%), then her membership ratio would be at more than 14%.

Before going into some specifics let me direct you to the association website here
Presuming you do not read Swedish, I suggest you now link here to the English language version here which is clearly more concise than the former, but at least better understandable.

You will find many interesting things to peruse:

° the most fascinating one is the Business Effective Communication program which has now been going on for five years and has produced a series of excellent and innovative papers, translated in the English language, which you may download and peruse.

I am not aware of any other academic or professional project anywhere else in the world which has so specifically dwelt on the public relations function in its more managerial and strategic aspects;

° a highly interesting one is the Communication Index program which regularly scans the Swedish marketplace and, being performed with the same methodology, allows anyone to clearly understand the trends from year to year;

° also take a good look at the Communication Executives Program and at the Communication Mentoring Program. Truly innovative and engaging.

Finally, in a presentation Margaretha delivered last Saturday to the GA Board Meeting now established in the new Global Alliance Centre in the University of Lugano, she outlined a draft concept for the 2010 World Public Relations Festival, to be held Stockholm on June 14/15 which reads:

Communicative organizations – in pursuit of a new paradigm

A communicative organization is one where everyone is convinced of the added value of effective communication and its important role in relation to competition; where decision processes take communicative efforts into account; where an increasing number of employees improve their communication skills; ehre our members provide key competence.

So all our pessimism is ill founded?

It would be if our Swedish colleagues were quickly to become a benchmark reference for all public relations associations.

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2 Replies to “Who’s turn is to hit the coalface? The Swedes show the way in Professional Association Management and the results are impressive. Let’s take, for once, a glass half full approach.

  1. Markus, for me yours is a very intersting and fascinating comment…. let me tell you why.
    Some years ago I wrote a paper for the institute for public relations under the title ‘how big is pr (and why does it matter?). The economic impact of public relations’.
    You can find it here http://www.instituteforpr.org/research_single/how_big_is_public_relations/
    If you accept the basic argument and therefore the parameters I suggest (these are two preconditions that very few agree to follow of course, and for various reasons…) you will see that while the figure of public relators in Sweden estimated by Margaretha Sjoberg is very, very close to those parameters, the figure you indicate for Austria is obviously very much smaller.

    There are various possible reasons for this gap you denounce.

    The first is that it could be (and honestly I do not know and of course would be very happy if Margaretha will want to share with us how she arrived at that figure…)that Margaretha read and was convinced by my arguments to adopt those parameters and therefore arrived at that figure.

    The second is that you also have read that paper and decided it was not convincing and the combination of the two would easily explain the difference in the two estimates.

    The third, most intriguing and exciting for me, is that Margaretha used other parameters and arrived at the same figure I would have arrived at in adapting my parameters.

    At the end it is clear that if you adopt my definition (admittedly ample, but only as ample as this blog has been describing since its inception) you will certainly arrive at a figure which is not so different from the Swedish one.

    I of course realise that if this was true the number of members of the PRVA would appear much much lower than it is.

    But you can console yourself if you compare your figures with Italy (60 million people, 1.000 members and if you add on the members of other similar associations like agency employees, public sector communicators, internal communicators, political communicators… you do not go anywhere near the level of membership pro/inhabitant of Sweden).
    Same thing goes for the UK or the USA as I argued in the popst.

    You are of course quite right to say that professional management of the association is an important enabler for growth, but for me this is often more of an aspirin, of a quick fix, than a necessarily winning solution.
    In fact it could also have an opposite effect as it often, and when improperly implemented, tends to drive away volunteers which instead are the salt of an association and make the difference from a traditional commercial service operation.

    Let me add one point.
    If you accept the premises of that paper and proceed to the evaluation of the economic impact of the profession (and not, mind you, the billing figures of the agencies nor the capital budget figures of the organizations…) but the actual economic impact of the profession per se, you will arrive at a highly relevant figure for Austria which will probably help you to attract the attention of your ‘hidden’ colleagues and maybe even their entrance in the association…..

    Margaretha, please help us interpret correctly.

  2. There’s definitely a lot to learn from our Swedish colleagues (and from the various documents on their new website), especially for associations like the Austrian PR Association (PRVA).

    Though the number of inhabitants is very similar (8.4m in AT, 9.2 in SE) and the GDP per capita is comparable (45k to 43k US-$) the size of the markets for PR seem to differ enormously. If I got the figures right it amounts to 5bn Euros in Sweden, which is approximately 5 times as much as the market in Austria.

    That’s a significant difference, I’d say. It seems to indicate that companies, organisations etc. in Sweden are attributing much higher budgets to PR activities than in Austria.

    5000 members, that’s a figure the Austrian PR Association can only dream of. Though membership is increasing steadily (and even a bit more rapidly in recent years) we have only managed to attract about 550 members – in 32 years of existance – who “represent” about 1500 PR practitioners in total (there are various types of memberships, e.g. for agencies and institutions; usually not all employees of agencies or in-house PR departments are PRVA members but they follow its professional and ethical guidelines).

    Though we most probably haven’t exhausted the full potential we certainly will never (or at least not in the foreseeable future) reach 5k members. There simply ain’t as many people professionally practicing PR in Austria.

    For me there seem to be some underlying structural differences between PR in Sweden and PR in Austria (which would need some more analysis from my side to fully grasp their scope), but more obviously (for me) it’s the professional association management that really makes the difference. SPRA, if I remember correctly, is run by 12 full-time employees, whereas the activities of PRVA rely on the work of volunteers (with the exception of two part-time secretaries). In other words: we haven’t reached the tipping point, yet. And it would (and will) be very worthwhile for us to tap the experience and models of other PR Associations.
    We’ll definitely have a close look at the GA initiative for professional association management and will contribute to it whatever we can. Voluntarily 🙂

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