Analysis: Union spotlight falls on an anxious PR industry

Journalism trade unions are now increasingly directing their recruiting efforts at those working in PR. Lexie Williamson reports.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIoJ) are stepping up their targeting of PROs, but they still have a way to go before they can claim a major breakthrough.

The number of PR people who are currently union members is small. The NUJ has 25,000 members, of which 1,600 work in PR. Its smaller rival the CIoJ has 2,000 members and only ten per cent are PR practitioners. Even within these numbers there is a bias towards the public and voluntary sectors, where unionisation is the norm among non-PR colleagues. The number of union members among agency and in-house corporate staff is slender, but growing.

Mike Sherrington, who runs the NUJ's PR section, has in recent weeks started ramping up attempts to win support among press officers in local authorities. 'We call to remind them the NUJ is alive and kicking,' says Sherrington. 'We're keen to develop our own chapel structure among local authorities.'

Many of the NUJ's PR members work for local authorities, partly because they are accustomed to dealing with other trade unions, such as UNISON, which negotiates their pay and conditions. At the start of this year the NUJ and UNISON linked up, offering public sector PR officers dual membership for the cost of a single subscription.

The idea is that UNISON advises on pay while the NUJ handles 'professional issues.' It is currently campaigning on two such issues: the practice of some trade titles charging press offices for editorial or 'colour separation' and the scrapping of Government regulations that prevent Government PROs from holding political office.

However, local authority personnel comprise only 500 of the NUJ's PR sector membership. The next largest area is 'associations, societies and charities', closely followed by PR agency staff. 'No other organisation will fight as hard for their employment rights,' says Sherrington, in a bid to explain the growing interest from agencies. 'I have had cases where agency staff have been treated appallingly. It's seems to be particularly bad where people have to woo clients; they say one wrong word to a client and are out on their ear.'

For £171 a year, the NUJ will advise PR people on work issues or - at the other end of the scale - take employers to tribunal. Sherringham says that overall NUJ membership rates are up by ten per cent year-on-year and insists that the rise is due in part to new members from the PR industry.

The CIoJ's general appeal to the industry is limited as it has strict membership guidelines which state that applicants must be ex-journalists whose jobs involve either writing or dealing with journalists. These members pay £180 a year for services like invitations to networking events and, if need be, representation in tribunals.

Andy Smith, who was until last week president of the CIoJ, says he has witnessed a 'reasonable increase' in interest from the PR sector over the past year. But he is unsure whether this was caused by disgruntled employees who lost their jobs or from a membership agreement with the IPR. The two bodies teamed up last summer, offering discounts to those wanting to join either organisation.

Former Edelman vice-chairman David Davis last week issued a warning of the 'threat' to the PR industry posed by trade unions seeking new members.

'Trade unions could not have picked a better time to make their overtures. The PR business is at it's weakest for years, suffering from heavy redundancies with many agencies reporting losses,' he wrote.

According to Davis, the two unions are now 'challenging' the IPR and PRCA by 'actively campaigning' to sign up their members. He urged both bodies to lay aside their differences and fight the possibility of 'serious infiltration into their memberships'.

The feeling at the IPR is that this view is alarmist. Assistant director Ann Mealor accuses Davis of being 'over-dramatic' and sought to play down the level of threat posed by increased unionisation of the PR labour market: 'We don't see either union as a threat. We all offer different services and can exist alongside each other.'

But Davis is right to claim that the NUJ is actively campaigning for more PR members. The union says it had 50 responses from a recent ad campaign - including a couple of dozen agency staff worried about being made redundant.

Still, while PRO union membership is on the rise, it is hard to find evidence of Davis's 'threat' if you consider the industry's persistent belief that the NUJ is just for journalists.

Smith puts the beefed-up efforts of journalism unions to tap into PR membership down to two factors: the need to bring in a new breed of professionals who straddle the PR/journalism boundary - such as commercial web editors or customer magazine staff - and the simple need for cash. Either way, the established PR membership bodies will need to be on their guard.

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