'Is trade body membership a cost our business can live without?' Agony Aunt answers your questions

Jackie Elliot, the chairman of Cathcart Consulting and a former PRCA chair, offers the benefit of her wisdom and PR industry experience

A vibrant, influential trade association is essential to our profession, says Jackie Elliot

Is trade body membership a cost we can live without?

Q. We are a small consultancy, suffering after a horrible 18 months. We must rebuild our liquidity and are examining every expense. I’m struggling to see the benefit of PRCA membership. The fees are significant and most of what is useful costs extra. What do you think?

A. As a long-term participant and former chair, I have always been a big supporter of the PRCA. I still believe that a vibrant, influential trade association is essential to maintain the health of our profession.

But in answering your question, I realised that I was not up to date with the detail on the benefits the association provides its members.

Two weeks ago I called to ask for the information as a result of a couple of queries from smaller members, like you. I received an extract from the forthcoming annual report telling me how helpful the PRCA has been during the pandemic. It made fair reading, but I hadn’t asked for this, so wrote back again for detail of the overall benefits of membership.

Unfortunately nothing more has been forthcoming. So here is a subjective view.

Training is always important, but you can shop around for bespoke training according to your needs as a company or for individuals.

The business development offer has been outsourced to an agency. I rarely hear glowing reports of success with new business agencies. There is one that is impressive, but I am not familiar with the one working with the PRCA.

I assume legal, accounting and business service resources are still available, but was unable to check the value of these versus annual membership fees.

The events and industry connections were always a useful aspect of membership but there are many other networking opportunities in the business now. The PRCA charges as much as others, so it might be worth looking around for other professional or sector events.

Perhaps you should look at individual membership costs for the CIPR and PRCA. If one or two of your senior people join and maintain contact with peers within either body, you will be able to form a view on the overall benefit.

Response from Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA: "I count Jackie as a dear personal and professional friend, so I won’t be so ungentlemanly as to criticise her comments in print - I’ll address them directly over a martini. We take the feedback of each of our 900 corporate members seriously, and we look always to improve our offering. But I do believe that any agency that wishes to be credible with clients should be a member of the world’s largest PR association, and subscribe to its internationally-respected Code of Conduct."

Age is just a number – it’s about how you use your skills

Q. I’m a well-rated senior consumer PR director. I love the business and am successful in it. But increasingly, I’m the oldest person in the room. Am I too old for PR?

A. Are you asking me or telling me?! Thank you for giving your age, but it’s not relevant to your considerable skills and achievements. I’m sure you are not one of those types who says “We tried that in ’94, and it didn’t work” – or, even worse: “We did that in ’94, let’s do it again.”

Don’t pretend to know everything – use your experience and knowledge to prevent the mistakes of the past from happening again (although they often do) and give the creative bravery of youth free rein.

Here’s the comfort I was once given, by a senior global practitioner at Philips: “If you get the old guys from the ad agency on your business, you know you are not valued. If you get the silver heads from the consultancy, you know you have the best in the business.”

We know the best way to evaluate PR – don’t we?

Q. We are trying to persuade our PR firm to accept a sales-based evaluation for the editorial coverage they generate. It’s so simple these days and we are disappointed that they can’t see it is a great opportunity to nail the real value of PR. Don’t you agree?

A. This is a big question. We want PR to contribute to the sales success of the product it represents, but is the “real value” of PR linked directly, and only, to sales? The long-accepted value of editorial endorsement is still the original (and expert?) influencer when it comes to third-party product comment. But this drives awareness and trust – and is not always a call to action. Affiliate networks have changed that.

This is where the problem is creeping in, of course, and gives your question its edge: the soothing disclaimer “We may earn a commission if you buy something from any affiliate links on our site” (an example from Vogue) that fastens hard-earned editorial to the tracking process enabling publisher, retailer and brand to take a slice of the end sale. Let’s call it “edvertorial”.

There are several issues in play here. Do consumers understand what “affiliate links” are? Does this ecommerce incentive compromise editorial independence? The sites of the most authoritative publications carry significant influence – and this translates to a bigger slice of commission when it comes to the final payout – from comment believed by many consumers to be free of commercial bias. Is that reflected in your estimation of the “real value of PR”?

I’m straying into other and more controversial areas than your fundamental question. My answer (for now) is that editorial track-backs might give you limited sales equivalency, but how will you evaluate the response of a customer who acts, but not via that link? Or put a price on a trusted reputation?

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