The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) is facing what senior industry figures have described as “turmoil” following the decision of the national board to resign en masse.
Mumbrella understands the entire board, with the exception of WA representative Katharina Wolf, has stepped down in the wake of last week’s election that saw Mike Watson replace Terri-Helen Gaynor as national president.
Those who have left the PRIA national board are former deputy national president Cara Burke, treasurer Phil Burfurd and former national president Nicolas Turner along with senior industry figures James Wright, Karen Patterson, Kristin Devitt, Leigh McClusky and Sheena Campbell.
New national president Mike Watson this morning attempted to calm the industry telling Mumbrella he was not concerned, despite the mass walkout.
He said: “It is no big deal for us to find ourselves in this situation. As for why some of those board members have resigned I don’t know, but I’m bemused by it. Apart from one or two I’ve spoken with, the rest of them appear to have resigned without reason. This is quite a normal process with change in organisations and there are processes in place.”
When challenged on this and whether the resignations were unprecedented Watson conceded they were. “There has rarely been an election with more than one candidate and so we’ve not had this situation before,” said Watson.
The organisation is also making efforts to find a new permanent CEO with the interim incumbent Catriona Barry signalling she wishes to step down.
Many senior industry figures Mumbrella spoke to this morning expressed their dismay at what some described as “leadership turmoil” within the peak industry body.
“The place is a basket case. Again,” said one major agency CEO. “It’s only been 18 months since the last round of this and now they have no board, a CEO who wants out and clearly no idea what they are doing.”
“As I understand it, Terri-Helen Gaynor was working hard to fix that place but she’s pissed off the wrong people and now the industry body is in crisis and is going to be worse than it was before,” said another agency boss.
In the aftermath of last week’s extraordinary general meeting, it appears former national president Gaynor and her treasurer Phil Burfurd lost the confidence of key parts of the PRIA membership, with members of the powerful Registered Consultancy Group (RCG) and the PRIA College of Fellows pushing hard for a leadership change.
Gaynor declined requests for comment, but figures on both sides of the dispute say the key issues behind the leadership challenge were a disagreement with members of the College of Fellows over the College’s involvement in the board, personality disputes with members of the powerful RCG over the PRIA national budget, and the level of consultation with various stakeholders.
When challenged on the reasons for his leadership challenge Watson conceded that the decision of the board to exclude the College of Fellows from board discussion was a key factor in the leadership spill.
“The College of Fellows was formed in 1987, it is the highest level of membership within PRIA and it is an honour to be invited to join the College,” said Watson. “For all those years the College has participated in the board in an ex-officio capacity… Terri-Helen advised me that the participation of the College of Fellows was no longer needed, without reason.”
“(I challenged) for a combination of reasons. One of them was lax governance, what I and others perceived as not reporting back to state and territory divisions all the things going on and giving those people the opportunity to participate,” said Watson.
Allies of Gaynor and Burfurd have disputed all of these charges.
“For anyone to say that PRIA’s finances are in a parlous state or there was lax governance is just wrong,” said one former board member who declined to be named. “(Under Terri-Helen) PRIA has been able to pull back the majority of the loss two years ago and the objective was to be making a profit in 2015.”
Another key issue appears to be a dispute between Annabelle Warren, national chairman of the PRIA registered consultancies group and Burfurd. When asked about this Burfurd declined to comment but Warren denied the allegation: “I have had one conversation with Phil Burfurd in the last 18 months and it was civil. That is completely not the case (that there has been a falling out). I have had nothing to do with Phil Burfurd.”
On the broader board departures Warren confirmed the state bodies would be asked to meet in the coming days to appoint new representatives for the PRIA national board.
“Individuals make individual choices but there are a lot of people who express their support for Mike and who will be working with him,” she added.
Many of the board members Mumbrella contacted declined to comment.