Leadership vacuum at PRSA needs filling

As the search for a new CEO of the country’s largest PR trade association stretches well into its second year, the need for direction and stability becomes ever-more urgent.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

The PRSA is an important organization that represents more than 20,000 members in the PR profession and 10,000 student members.

Founded in 1947, it operates via a national organization HQ-ed in New York City and 110 chapters across the U.S., as well as almost 375 university and college campuses through the PRSSA.

I’ve visited and presented at many local chapters over the years from Richmond, VA to Silicon Valley to Columbus, OH to Detroit, MI and have had universally excellent experiences and enjoyed engaging with PR professionals across the country.

The trade association does a lot of good work and helps PR professionals prosper in their jobs and is a great networking forum. It benefits from the unpaid work of hundreds of volunteers, both at the national and local leadership levels.

Some of those unpaid volunteers end up being the butt of those who are dissatisfied with the organization and, however much you may think they’re not doing a good enough job, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit sorry for them given the abuse sometimes directed their way.

But there's no doubt in recent years some of the mood music around the PRSA has turned negative and the organization now finds itself at pivotal moment in its evolution.

Two years ago, the association faced justified opprobrium when it launched a social media activation called “Which PR princess are you?” that seemed so out of touch with modern communications and PR professionals as to be almost unbelievable. Many women in the industry understandably found it derogatory.

There is also continuing discussion about the requirement to have an APR qualification to serve on the board of the PRSA, when fewer PR pros deem that qualification necessary to practice in the profession.

And, in the past year especially, like many other enterprises and organizations, it has also drawn criticism for a lack of diversity in its leadership.

The association has been without a CEO for over a year now, when the incumbent Joe Truncale departed the role in July 2019, having already given notice of his plans to step down. PRSA CFO Phil Bonaventura took over Truncale's CEO duties on an interim basis and continues to cover the vacancy.

Neither Truncale nor Bonaventura adopted particularly public roles in terms of fronting the organization, preferring to leave the spotlight to the volunteer chairs of the association, ranging from Debra Peterson last year to Garland Stansell this year and chair-elect for 2021, Michelle Olson.

Previous incumbent CEO Bill Murray resigned in March 2014 after seven years in the top role. Murray was more comfortable in being a front person and frequently led media responses on PRSA issues and other PR industry matters.

He stayed on until June to help with the transition and Truncale’s appointment was announced in October that year. It was a fairly smooth and timely transition.

The quest to find Truncale’s replacement started in December 2018 and ramped up in Q1 2019 when recruitment firm Russell Reynolds was appointed to lead the search. My understanding is that 12 candidates were interviewed via telephone in the summer with six subsequently attending in-person interviews.

Two of the six progressed to second interviews in September, with a view to making an appointment prior to the PRSA’s big annual conference in San Diego that October. Unfortunately, negotiations with one of the candidates fell through and it was decided not to progress the other candidacy.

The search was then put on hold until the New Year when more people are looking for jobs and was picked up again in February. COVID-19 hit in March, further delaying it, and, before we know it, we are back to a situation where interviews are planned for September with a view to having the new CEO announced by the time of this year’s (virtual) conference in October.

As I stated earlier, this process is being conducted by volunteers and fate and circumstances seem to have conspired against them, but, by any standards, the CEO recruitment process can best be described as tortuous. After all, this is a very well paid job we’re talking about that should be an attractive proposition for a talented leader.

My sense is that there has been too much focus on infighting, tension between some chapters and the national organization, and not enough attention on advancing the profession of PR.

Members want to see more progress and leadership on diversity and inclusion. It was curious, for example, that the PRSA’s refreshed diversity pledge – allied with an admission that the body’s leadership and membership was not sufficiently diverse – was released late in the day on the Thursday before the July 4 holiday weekend, a notorious dead spot in the news calendar not designed to garner maximum attention.

In the PRSSA, the trade association has a jewel in the crown that acts as a platform for young leaders to develop and should be a fantastic platform and pipeline of new talent into the PRSA.

As the PRSA gears up for its first virtual ICON conference on October 26-29, it is to be hoped there will be a new CEO appointed by then who can grab hold of the challenges ahead and lead the association.

Some members may never be happy with the direction in which the body is traveling, but it needs a strong hand on the tiller with a well-defined strategy to help it unleash its undoubted potential.

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