The PRSA has not always exercised the best judgment in its choice of keynote speakers at its annual conference.
Remember Donald Trump telling a young woman two years ago, when she asked him for advice about getting ahead, to "marry a rich husband"?
This year's conference opened on a far more credible and confident note, with PBS' Tavis Smiley and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham opening, followed the next day by former CBS News president Andrew Heyward. Authenticity was a key theme in many of the presentations on the main stage, in breakout sessions, and in the private conversations all around the event.
Authenticity also was apparent in the effort to put the program together. With a well-conceived title of "Benchmarking your public relations strategies with the best," the program strategy was led by Keith Burton, president of GolinHarris' InsideEdge. In his general session remarks, Burton alluded to discussions he has had with industry leaders who asked him why he wanted to be involved with PRSA at such a turgid level. His enthusiasm for the task of putting together the program, and for PRSA's mission, is genuine.
"I have been involved for over 20 years," Burton says. "I agreed to lead this effort because I felt like it was my opportunity to provide content that is relevant to the issues of the day, [to] accentuate leadership, and, for the converts, to really be the seminal event of the year." Burton sought input from industry brains across sectors to identify what topics would be most critical to focus on. "We have to stop and ask the question: What is important?" he notes.
PRSA would do well to ask itself the same question and take Burton's lead in looking outside itself for the answers. Too many senior-level pros leave PRSA behind as they advance through their careers. Perhaps that is not surprising, as professional development is often eventually replaced by networking with peers when prioritizing reasons to attend industry events.
But the problem is that many in the senior ranks, even those who spend time attending and giving presentations at PRSA, leave the organization behind from a leadership perspective. In times of uncertainty and massive change for the profession, PRSA needs to be more agile, attentive, and responsive. Otherwise, it will inevitably lose ground and relevance to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and other organizations that, in their specialization, may seem to offer more than just a chance to swap business cards.
In some ways, there are two PRSAs. One is the highly political organization that is under constant governance scrutiny, owing in no small part to the financial difficulties that once roiled it. No organization that has a volunteer board is an easy one to change, even with the involvement of well-respected individuals.
The other PRSA is the one that is looking toward the future of the industry, and it is evident through glimmers of the conference programming, the swelling ranks of PRSSA, and the deep involvement of leaders like Burton and others - professionals who care about the profession, not politics. It is that PRSA that needs to lead right now.