PRSA’s advocacy in face of Senate investigation of PR is a good reason to pay association dues2012-03-22
Back in 2007, I wrote a post speculating about the future of professional associations. Digital and social media have made it easy for professionals to tap into an abundance of professional development and networking opportunities that don’t require annual dues. Facebook and LinkedIn groups provide a forum for in-depth discussion with professional peers, for example. Both of these channels, along with Twitter and Quora, make it easy to find subject matter experts. Countless agencies and individuals offer free webinars, white papers and ebooks. In-person gatherings like Podcamp, Third Thursday and the like provide opportunities for face-to-face networking.
As the need for a fee-based association to sastisfy these professional needs diminishes, associations need to focus on other ways of delivering value that makes people want to be a part of the group. (They also need to continue providing networking and education—once people join they find that the quality of programming is likely to exceed what they can get online for free—but marketing these alone will inspire fewer and fewer people to join.)
Advocacy is one important option for associations to consider. Associations bring the strength of their thousands of members, the focus of a staff that can research and strategize an approach to an issue, and the resources to make sure they’re heard by policy makers. Associations that can represent their members’ interests in the development of public policy offer a compelling reason for peoplpe in the audience served by the association to support it with their dues dollars.
I remember, during my stint as an executive board member of IABC (the International Association of Business Communicators) back in the early 1990s, I met a board member of another association that represented audio and video producers. He told me the group was lobbying Washington over proposed legislation that would change the definition of a contract employee. Since video producers often hire contractors on a long-term basis, suddenly they would find themselves responsible for benefits and taxes under the new rules. Since the legislation would hurt its members, the association had decided to do something about it.
Today, PRSA (the Public Relations Society of America) is offering a lesson in advocacy. As the U.S. senate launches an investation into government use of public relations, both PRSA Chairman/CEO Gerard Corbett and President William Murray have taken to public forums to address the issue and represent their members.
The bipartisan investigation is designed to determine whether the use of taxpayer funds for PR activities under the Obama Administration has been appropriate. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) launched the investigation in the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noting that the Governmenet Accountabiilty Office (GAO) reviewed PR contracts and concluded that the largest federal departments had signed 343 media contracts at a cost of $1.62 billion.
They sent letters to 11 federal agencies, seeking details about their PR, publicity, advertising and communication contracts. “The subcommittee investigation will dig deeper and fulfill our responsibility to police waste and abuse in the federal government.”
Public relations practitioners who work hard and ethically to produce meaningful outcomes for their clients must find it discouraging to know that a government inquiry starts out from the premise that their work as wasteful when they know the value of helping a client (like a federal agency) that doesn’t have the skills required to help convey its messages to its publics.
The risk that the investigation will add to the already inaccurate and damaging public perception of PR led to a series of public messages from Corbett and Murray. Writing an opinion piece in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, Corbett said:
I share the Senators’ concern that the government prudently spends taxpayer dollars. What I question, however, is their motivation and seeming interest in using the PR industry as a punching bag for America’s dysfunctional political system. In an era of disastrously low trust in government and politicians, McCaskill and Portman’s investigation may be missing the proverbial boat. It disregards public relations’ central value to government: its ability to engender a more informed society through ethical, transparent and honest communications between the government and its citizens.
Consequently, he said, any investigation needs to include a critical look at the government’s communication practices and “how it can better use innovative PR forms and professionals to best reach and inform citizens. Killing the messenger won’t make the government’s public trust and transparency issues disappear.”
Murray, meanwhile, has published an item to the Institute for Public Relations blog and worked to have it cross-posted to other highly visible sites, like Ragan’s PR Daily. Taking a different approach from Corbett (the two angles on the issue were clearly coordinated at PRSA), Murray argues that the inquiry, “if conducted fairly and objectively, may prove valuable for public relations.”
That’s because an objective review will reveal that PR has been put to excellent use on behalf of the taxpayers who paid for it. For example, he says, “It is well known that better prenatal care reduces adverse post-birth health problems—and that communicating the availability and importance of care is crucial to good outcomes and lower costs for society.”
(On a personal note, I was involved a few years back in an assignment for Fleishman Hillard to help the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy figure out how it could make its web presence more interactive with its teen audience and stay within the boundaries of what the government was permitted to do on the web. Few would argue the benefit of engaging teens to stay “above the influence,” as the ONDCP puts it.)
At the same time, Murray writes:
The federal government is massive. Just as there can be no doubt that public relations does good for both business and society, there is also no denying that at any point in time there’s likely to be a government program somewhere that could be administered more effectively, that should be reassessed, or that has outlived its usefulness. The challenge is that such inquiries need to be undertaken in a balanced and objective manner—and this is where the concerns emerge.
As an investigation proceeds that, if conducted in a biased and subjective manner, could cast a harsh and unfair light on the profession, most PRSA members must be grateful that their dues dollars are being used to represent their interests and protect their reputation. Those of us who aren’t members are also happy there’s an association out there willing to proactively serve the profession’s interests in the face of what could easily devolve into a politically-motivated witch hunt.
Advocacy isn’t the only benefit of membership a professional association can promote as a rationale for joining. But it’s a damned compelling one—compelling enough that I’m considering, for the first time, adding a PRSA membership to my 35-year membership in IABC. I’m willing to pony up the dollars to support PRSA’s advocacy efforts.