In July, the APPC’s management committee narrowly voted in favour of proposing a formal merger with the trade association PRCA to the association’s membership.
Of the 15 management committee members that attended the meeting, eight voted in favour, five voted against and two, including current APPC chairman Paul Bristow, abstained.
Merger discussions between the two bodies have informally been taking place for several years, but now APPC members have a formal proposal on the table to determine the future of the self-regulatory body, with the results of a binding vote to be revealed on 8 October.
Opponents fear merging the APPC into the PRCA’s fold will compromise its autonomy and could erode the high ethical standards enshrined in the APPC’s code of conduct and independent complaints procedure.
Another major concern has been a consultation process that left most APPC members blindsighted by the merger proposal until July.
This opposition has crystalised into the Campaign for an Independent APPC, launched in late August, which has the support of 23 senior public affairs figures at the time of reporting.
The pro-merger faction, which has the backing of at least 30 public affairs chiefs, has been actively lobbying the move, including sending a letter spelling out the benefits.
At last week’s London event, APPC chairman Paul Bristow said a merger made sense because the APPC is a voluntary organisation with only one part-time employee and did not have the financial and human resources to carry out an increasing scope of work, such as lobbying for the public affairs industry and training.
A merger would also reduce the duplication of ethics codes, registers and fees that both bodies currently provide.
In arriving at its pro-merger position, Bristow said the management committee had considered a comprehensive review of the public affairs industry led by former APPC vice chair and merger opponent Emily Wallace, and had decided that a merger was the best way to achieve its recommendations.
"I understand many people are attached to the APPC’s brand and its history...and there is a part of me that never wanted to become the last chair of the APPC," Bristow said.
"The ambitions of the management committee has changed and gone beyond a self-regulatory body.
"This is being done because of a very genuine and heartfelt view of what is in the best interests of our industry now and in the future. A united voice together would benefit the whole industry."
PRCA director general Francis Ingham reiterated these views and stressed a merged APPC, which would be renamed to the Public Affairs Board, would remain autonomous, independent and be given a permanent position on the PRCA board that public affairs doesn’t currently hold.
Ingham said current members of the APPC, PRCA or both, would not be worse off financially, and the combined membership of public affairs organisations would nearly double the APPC’s current base of 76 organisations to 134, with 3,000 clients. Further merger terms are outlined in a memorandum of understanding.
"This would represent the vast majority of our industry and it would [raise questions] about those people who are not within our self-regulatory framework," he said.
The joint code that has been released is almost entirely based on the APPC’s ‘gold standard’ with one important amendment – its scope would apply to member’s public affairs work for any institution of government, whether it is based in the UK or abroad. This is designed to prevent any repeat of the Bell Pottinger scandal in South Africa, which left the APPC powerless to act.
Where’s the democracy?
A major criticism of the merger proposal has been the consultation process, which left several APPC members felling stunned and sidelined.
One lobbyist who shares this view is FTI Consulting senior director and former Labour MP Gemma Doyle, who described the process as a "real mess".
"As a member of our representative body there is an onus for this to be done in a democratic way and I’m not seeing that this is what’s happened," Doyle said.
"We believe there is a need for a bespoke representative body, particularly given the challenges of the next few years."
The Whitehouse Consultancy founder and chairman Chris Whitehouse, who supports the merger, went a step further in his criticism of the consultation process and merger debate.
"What a mess everybody has made of this. It’s dragged the reputation of the profession down quite substantially," he said.
"Comments that I’ve seen made to colleagues that I respect by those who oppose this merger have been absolutely disgraceful and if some of those were published, reputations of businesses and individuals would be absolutely damaged. It’s truly shocking."
Whitehouse said that democracy and consistency are not strengths of the APPC and that its governance is in urgent need of reform.
Bristow agreed that governance reform should be looked at and the consultation process has not gone as well as he would have liked.
"If I had my time again, I would have put this out to consultation as an idea to the members earlier than we did, rather than just done as a fait accompli....rather than go straight to the vote," he said.
A question of timing
Doyle and Pagefield director Lucy Holbrook suggested the consultation hit pause to provide a six to 12-month window to consult more widely.
The idea was challenged by the PRCA’s Public Affairs Committee chair and Zetter political services MD Lionel Zetter.
"There’s five weeks between now and the vote. That is more time than the British public have to get their head around political parties’ manifestos and decide which way to vote," he said. Zetter later told PRWeek: "Public affairs officials are a way more more sophisticated electorate than the great British public, who I think are pretty good at it.
"The opposition to the merger is about two things – sentiment and process – and while there is some validity to both of those objections, they are being over-egged."
Bristow said that he did not believe the discussion lacked enough "noise or information" and has offered to visit member organisations to discuss the proposals further.
Ingham said the PRCA invites suggestions on how these documents can be improved.
"I say to people in the industry who are opposed or uncertain about this, if there is something else you want as a guarantee, then let us know what it is and we will guarantee it," he said.
"We just want an effective, autonomous, independent body that works to represent our industry – a self-regulator that can speak on its behalf."
On Friday, Ingham told PRWeek that not a single suggestion had been received since he offered last Tuesday.
"Nobody at all has come forward with a suggestion, nobody at all. What I was saying on Tuesday is a genuine open-air offer. We’ve tried to make it really clear that the public affairs board we are proposing to constitute will be independent, autonomous, powerful and well-resourced, and we’ve given lots of reassurances in the documents so far.
"If anybody finds a grey area in any of those documents I would be delighted if they contacted us and help us to improve those documents."
Although Ingham hasn’t yet been contacted, PRWeek doubts it is the last we will hear about an issue that has divided the public affairs industry right down the middle.