ANALYSIS - Trade associations - Why agencies need another association. The APRF wants to be the voice of all the PR agencies and raise the stature of PR. Susan Fry Bovet and Adam Leyland illustrate the past, present and future of this ambitious association.
Trade associations have always had their critics. And the Association of PR Firms has been no exception. Despite its small size - or rather, because of it - the APRF was being attacked long before its inception this August.
APRF chairman David Drobis is unfazed by criticism. 'We plan to be outspoken,' says the chief executive officer of Ketchum. 'No matter what, someone gets ticked off. But smaller organizations can take positions that larger ones can't.'
Yet a lot of this criticism is based on misinformation. The association does not only represent large agencies, as some have suggested. At $1 million in fees, the cut-off point for membership, is actually pretty low, accounting for an estimated 90% of all PR firms, according to one source.
This hasn't stopped the association from adopting an exclusive admission policy. But rather it is based on the quality of a firm, its fiscal and financial stability, and the caliber of its training programs. The APRF even plans to develop and award a 'Seal of Approval' for firms that join.
'We plan to set the bar pretty high for membership of the assocation,' admits Jack Bergen, the full-time executive director of the APRF, who will act as its spokesperson.
Standing up for PR
Nevertheless, to a disinterested observer, there is no doubt that the APRF fulfills a need, even at the most fundamental level. In-house and corporate communications groups have the highly exclusive Arthur Page Society. The PRSA is ultimately concerned with the development of the individual, although it has lent its support to the APRF initiative.
But where was the voice of the agency community? As lawyers, management consultants, accountancy firms, ad agencies, all seek to cozy up to the chief executive, who was there to make the case for PR? Who was there to ensure that its brand and its standing in the business community grows, particularly as the economy becomes more global? The answer was an obvious one.
'Our mission is to build business for PR firms and promote the use of PR firms,' explains Drobis. 'To do global business, we needed an organization that represents firms around the world. We have to become as credible as management consulting firms as a key player in the strategic management of corporations.'
The APRF was at least two years in the making, according to Drobis. Founding members first paid fees for a study by Smith-Buckland of key clients in focus groups. It studied the results and formed a board.
But Drobis also admits that a lot of the stimulus for organizing a firms-only association came from ECO, the European union of public relations agencies. European groups that are firm-based are 'looking for US counterparts,' he explains.
The APRF has clearly been well received by the larger agencies. By November, the association had already recruited 60 member firms. Of the top 50 firms ranked by 1997 fees, 27 belong to APRF; and membership includes eight of the nine largest firms in fees, and 11 of the 23 next largest. There are plans to add another 40 members by mid-1999.
But this is not just a numbers game. The APRF has identified seven major areas of interest, which it plans to target through a program of events and initiatives. The seven are: best practices, business management standards, client practices, government relations, marketing, strategic planning and the recruiting of top talent.
An 18-strong board of directors will oversee this, chaired by Drobis, and also including vice-chair Catherine Lugbauer, Boston-based executive vice president of Weber PR Worldwide; treasurer Margi Booth, who is president of New York-based M Booth & Associates; and secretary Andy Hopson, president of Publicis in Seattle.
But the driving force behind the association will be Bergen. And in the former Vietnam vet and Pentagon speechwriter, who was also senior vice president of corporate relations at CBS/Westinghouse, and head of GCI Worldwide, the PR arm of Grey Advertising, the APRF has found an impressive operator.
It's still early in the game, but the association has larger goals for the future. In January, Bergen and his assistant Sarah Hunt plan to open a small administrative office in NYC. And this fall, the association joined with the PRSA to mount two joint presentations to business audiences.
Also, an ambitious program to raise the profile of PR in the business and academic communities has been announced for 1999. (See sidebar)
'Already, we've evolved from a trade assocation to a body that sets the standard for an industry,' says Bergen. All this despite the fact that the 'body' doesn't yet have an official office.
Still you've got to admire both the vision, and the ambition. 'As advocates for PR, we are representing the profession and helping clarify, define, set and support its principles going into the 21st century.' It will be fascinating to see how things pan out.
- APRF can be reached at 1-877-PRFIRMS. A web site is also in the works at http://www.prfirms.org.
Plans for 1999
Eight things the APRF plans to do to raise the stature of PR
1. Strategic Communication Scenarios: a dozen non-communications industries have already been targeted.
2. Fortune Most Admired Companies report: how PR firms assist leading companies in staying on top.
3. Targeted position papers, op-ed columns and ads on key topics like branding and credibility.
4. A mergers & acquisitions report on PR divisions of leading global communications firms, to raise the stature of PR in multinational marketing conglomerates.
5. Recruiting programs at major business and journalism schools to explain opportunities in PR versus ad agencies and management consultant firms.
6. A pilot program in five top liberal arts colleges and five leading graduate business schools to encourage professors to build PR as a strategic management tool into the curricula.
7. An in-house publication for use as a recruiting tool for non-PR students.
8. Benchmarks for salary levels, client performance and financial management.