NEWS ANALYSIS: Trade association under the spotlight

Agencies are divided over the benefits of joining the PRCA. David Quainton canvasses opinion on the body.

The PRCA seems to divide the PR ­industry as much as payment by results – or whether one should lie on a client’s behalf. The organisation was set up 38 years ago to serve UK public relations agencies and, if you ask, it will proffer advice on both of the above topics.

With the PRCA’s MD Patrick ­Barrow heading to Ketchum (PRWeek, 8 June), and the search well under way to find a replacement, now is a good time to take stock of how it is performing – and a little questioning uncovers wide-ranging opinions about the trade body and its role.

The PRCA divides opinion because many agencies fail to see the benefits of joining an ­organisation that has only a modest profile outside the PR industry. There is also confusion over the PRCA’s relationship with the CIPR, which serves individuals rather than agencies.

Fourteen of PRWeek’s top 20 agencies (according to this year’s PRWeek Top 150) are members of the PRCA – but there are dissenters even among this group.

‘I struggle to see what value we get from the PRCA. That is why our relationship with it is under review,’ reveals newly installed Edelman UK CEO Robert Phillips.

HoughtonBut Barrow and PRCA chairman Richard Houghton (pictured, right) insist it is not what the individual agency gets from the PRCA that matters. Rather, they say, it’s about setting industry standards. ‘The Consultancy Management Standard (CMS) is an industry-leading standard that has been adopted in 17 other countries,’ says Hough­ton. ‘Clients recruiting agencies with the standard are guaranteed a certain level of service.’

With PR still struggling to shake off the ‘fluffy’ tag applied by much of the public, such standards are welcome.

Finsbury, which is on the cusp of joining the PRCA for the first time, has confirmed that setting industry standards is its primary motivation for signing up. But it is fair to say that small shops and start-ups (whose annual fee will be less because it is based on income) benefit from the PRCA’s general services more than large agencies.

Many start-ups use the CMS to validate their practices in the difficult early days. For such agencies, the PRCA’s management and legal tools, as well as training, can prove invaluable.

But it would be difficult to find any agency with more than 100 staff lacking all these systems.

And that makes it easy to understand why many larger agencies struggle to see the benefits of joining the PRCA.


An information portal offering a broad -range of advice on everything from ‘accounting software guidelines’ to ‘writing skills guidance’, Brainfood can be essential to anyone starting up a new agency or starting on the first rungs of the PR industry ladder.

Several agencies said the in-depth paper on graduate recruitment was worth a read, as was the sample employee handbook. Some of the older studies, such as ‘evaluation survey 2002’, were described as a little redundant.

For large agencies, the site appears a little less useful, especially for those which are members of a larger network, but the content is generally up-to-date. This week it contains an interim amend­ment to the PRCA’s code of conduct.


PRCA members up to account manager level address the ‘frontline’ issues of the PR industry through meetings and different projects. Committees around the country ensure a good regional spread of information.

From the membership, the PRCA appoints the ‘FrontLine Executive’, which meets regularly to drive new projects and to discuss the progress of the working groups. Junior PROs involved report good career support, although the impact on the industry in general is hard to gauge.

The FrontLine awards, which will be seven years old in October, are starting to make their presence felt, but do not pull in the crowds in the same numbers as PRWeek’s annual offering.

But then the catchment area is smaller.


Consultancy Management Standard, the brainchild of Quentin Bell and Dr Tom Watson, was inaugurated in 1997 and reviewed in 2001. It has become a genuinely industry-leading guarantee of standard practice.

To date, CMS has been adopted by a further 17 countries. It offers standards in areas such as leadership, business planning and financial systems, and is the primary driver for many of the 130 or so PRCA members joining.

Off the back of its success it is not unusual for some briefs to require agencies to have reached the management standard.

Organisations including Motorola, Fujitsu and Alliance & Leicester require it in all briefs.


PReview is an agency search providing clients for PRCA members and ensuring clients receive a certain standard of ser­vice. The PRCA stresses that it is a stand­alone, self-funding service that exists outside the membership fee – it is finan­ced by a commission on the first year of fee and a small charge levied on the client.

The service is criticised by some for not generating great referral numbers and PRCA chairman Richard Houghton revealed that it would be reviewed and perhaps outsourced in the next year.

Despite claims that it is not part of the membership benefits bundle as represented in annual membership subscription, it is only accessible to those holding CMS and is prominently featured on the PRCA website.

Note: PRWeek spoke to 15 PRCA members, non-members and agency heads, and asked them about the usefulness of the PRCA’s services. From the responses we derived an average rating out of ten


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