As a longtime PRSA volunteer at the National and Chapter levels, I’ve taken part in a fair number of debates over whether or not to broaden the criteria for PRSA membership. Today, we’re approaching the tipping point: In November, the 2009 General Assembly will be asked to approve a more general definition of who is eligible to join the organization. It’s one of several recommended changes to PRSA’s Bylaws that will be put before the group at that time.
Having served on the Membership Committee, the National Board of Directors and the Bylaws Rewrite Task Force, I’ve listened to members, spent time examining association trends and consulted with PRSA’s professional staff. I’ve determined that there are so many reasons to broaden PRSA’s membership guidelines, that I would just ask one simple question … “What are we afraid of?”
PRSA’s mission is to advance the profession and the professional. There is no limit on the types of professional our mission encompasses, nor on where geographically those professionals practice their craft. The programs and opportunities offered by PRSA help all communication professionals … senior, junior and new professionals; specialists and generalists alike. We should open our doors to all — assuming they have, or have had, a job in public relations that requires a substantial amount of time performing some combination of 16 different skills that include marketing communications and institutional advertising.
This is not just about creating a larger, richer or more diverse society. Every day, our profession faces new challenges from people who don’t understand what we do. Why wouldn’t we want to offer learning opportunities to all, so that challenges come from informed positions, rather than uniformed?
Our profession has also changed dramatically over the years and that evolution will continue. A review of PRSA’s National leadership shows that only about 15 percent of those individuals have the words “public relations” or “PR” in their title or company name.
Too, there is a need assert and maintain leadership and fluency in new communications channels. Social media is the latest opportunity for the public relations profession to expand its scope of influence; accordingly, it’s the most popular professional development topic offered by PRSA. Yet someone who spends a substantial amount of time in social media currently does not qualify for membership.
Finally, when a person joins PRSA, they sign a statement agreeing to abide by our Code of Ethics. As we continue to work to educate the general public about the ethical practice of public relations, it seems even more important to engage a broader range of communications professionals in upholding the tenets of that code.
So, why put related communications professionals through hoops in order to allow them under our tent? We should embrace anyone who is interested in learning about our profession, help them gain the knowledge they need to be better professionals and enable them to advocate for what we do day in and day out.
Our membership is already open to professionals who work at companies that sell important services to the public relations industry, so the level of participation from those types of companies isn’t likely to change dramatically. And, their participation in our organization today further illustrates my point: While not public relations practitioners, per se, these individuals volunteer their time every day — often in leadership roles — and provide essential lifelines to the companies who support PRSA educational programming, conferences and publications.
The recommended Bylaws change seeks to broaden the criteria for membership so that we may welcome those interested in public relations, as well as those who work into the field, under our tent. I, for one, look forward to greeting them as members and growing our active membership to include more and more communications professionals who advocate daily for the ethical practice of public relations and communications.
Mary Deming-Barber, APR, Fellow PRSA, is an Immediate Past National Board Member and a volunteer on PRSA’s Bylaws Rewrite Task Force.