Opinion

‘A broad church’: How the new PRIA president plans to reunite the communications congregation

PRIA-logoOn Friday PRIA elected new leaders with ambitious plans to turn around the industry body. Miranda Ward sat down with new president Jennifer Muir to find out what the future holds.

The past few years have proven difficult for Australia’s oldest professional body for PR professionals, losing money, members and relevance. The industry has changed apace, but the Public Relations Institute of Australia, has not.

Jennifer Muir - General Manager Primary Communication

Muir

On Friday PRIA elected a new president and vice president who come to the roles with aggressive new membership targets. They aim to achieve them by giving the industry a reason to be a member again.

New president Jennifer Muir, whose day job is as general manager of Primary Communication,  told Mumbrella PRIA needs to look at the range of skill sets it represents as a body.

“There’s recognising the diversity of our profession and owning it. We’re a very broad church and part of that is to deliver value to that diversity,” she said.

“What is interesting and required for one person is different for another person.”

In November 2014, then national president Mike Watson said the body would be seeking to expand its membership following the organisation’s third consecutive financial loss.

In positive news for the industry body, Muir says its membership has stabilized, and the group posted a modest profit at the end of the last financial year.

More importantly Muir recognises the need to expand the membership base, and has set an aggressive plan to “grow membership across all categories by 18% in 2016”.

LinkedIn profile photo

Ray

At the same extraordinary general meeting on Friday Jacquie Ray, managing director of Timmins Ray, was voted in as deputy national president. The two women were the only contenders for the roles and lead an unchanged board (you can see the list here).

PRIA has had a rocky few years: with the entire board resigning en masse two years ago and recording three consecutive financial losses before it returned to the black late last year, posting a modest profit.

Muir also acknowledges PR as an industry is rapidly moving on and PRIA was quickly being left behind.

Her challenge is to attract back lapsed members while also focusing on the next generation of practitioners who have very different expectations to their forebears from their work.

That’s where Muir’s next focus for her term as president comes in: Professional development.

Muir has been PRIA’s Professional Framework working group chair for the last three years.

Muir described it as “the first professional framework for the PR and comms industry in the world”.

“That maps all of the skills and competencies, soft skills, that PR people and communicators right across the spectrum need from the time they graduate to the time they’ve been in their career for 25 years.

“It then maps that to the education and professional development they need to get from one bit to another and to be able to manage this journey.

“It is about professional development and recognition – being able to help them navigate through that framework and deliver on what they need to do that.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 9.45.37 amThe Professional Framework is due to be launched by June 2016 after a final round of industry consultation.

For many this is more an “about time” moment than one of real innovation. Most want PRIA to walk the talk and become a real leader in market.

Muir denied the body had suffered from being a “case of a builder’s house – it’s the last thing that gets built”.

She adds: “We’re all busy doing for other people. If you think about it, there is no piece of information you as a consumer receive that hasn’t had a professional communicator touch it.”

But as a paid-for membership organisation there are certain expectations of PRIA in market which many feel have not been met in recent years. And so it is time for it to start delivering meaningful value to members rather than continuing to be a fly-on-the-wall industry observer.

The third agenda item of Muir is to “build recognition and advocate” for the profession of public relations and communications. According to Muir, PRIA is the leader of the profession, and this is what puts it above the pack of other industry bodies.

That statement comes at a time when PRIA comes under pressure from the breakaway body under the Communication Council, the Public Relations Council, set up to represent agencies working more squarely in the marketing sphere.

“The Institute has been around for 67 years years. It’s the one that initially recognised that we were a profession and it has grown with the profession and it is the leader of the profession. The other organisations have been born out of frustration with the industry growing and changing so fast,” she said.

“The recognition of the diversity of our broad profession and delivering on their requirements will bring everyone back together again. Someone over here who does a certain type of PR and someone over here who is a digital community manager, we’re the same profession, they just need different things.

“If they don’t feel like they belong then that’s our problem and that’s what we are addressing. The other organisations happened because that wasn’t recognised.”

PRIA may have been working behind the scenes to help the industry with advocacy, but its lack of effective voice in market in recent years has been a major contributor to its fading relevance.

With new leadership there is an opportunity for the industry body to prove it is worth spending dollars on becoming a voice worth listening to and what value it actually offers its members.

According to Muir, the institute will roll out a number of new initiatives, including the Boyd’s Professional Framework. A marketing push will also attempt to woo back disillusioned former members.

“All our of membership programs, the events program – all of that is being scrubbed clean and being rolled out with revised thinking and members will start to see that roll out. A lot of work has been done,” Muir said.

“You’ll see strategic comms roll out that will be very focused on building value.

“An integrated marketing and communication program will activate a conversation around the value of professional membership, while promoting the national and state-based events and training programs for 2016,” she said.

“PRIA has trialled and rolled out new value membership offerings over the last 18 months to complement the revitalised national and state-based programs to existing members.”

Muir said the new membership category “PRelationship”, launched 18 months ago, has been successful in engaging students enrolled in accredited PRIA academic courses.

“This style of membership gives them a first step into the industry during their study time,” she said.

Mercer PRPRIA has started to show some more substance in recent months. In October it condemned the actions of Mercer PR for releasing the name of a sexual assault complainant on Nauru on behalf of the Nauruan government, showing it is capable of taking a position.

It is that kind of leadership which will help practitioners establish where the boundaries are and help make them make better decisions in the fast-changing industry, and ultimately drive up standards.

Public relations as an industry has numerous challenges – talent and the land grab from other disciplines being just two. It needs a body that helps it deal with these – and it needs solutions, not just working groups.

It’s time for PRIA to work faster, talk more loudly and demand attention – new leadership is just the start of what could be a new era for a more relevant PRIA.

If Muir and Ray can reinvent what PRIA is then there is a chance that new PR professionals will know why the industry body is important and worth paying to be a member of.

  • Miranda Ward is PR and publishing editor at Mumbrella
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