Counselors Propose New Trade Association at Annual Meeting

ST. PETE, FLA., May 6 -A day before the Public Relations Society of America Counselors Academy conference here drew to a close, a core group of PR counselors convened at an informal roundtable meeting to discuss plans for a trade association to set standards and lobby on behalf of PR firms. The concept of a trade association is something that's been tossed around in the PR industry for several years. Yet it's too early to tell whether PR professionals will endorse this latest idea. Sources say it's likely PRSA leaders won't oppose the plan since it grew out of a Counselors Academy strategic plan adopted in 1995. Those leading the effort, including Dave Drobis, chairman of Ketchum, New York, and Gary Myers, executive VP of Morgan & Myers, Jefferson, Wis., are emphatic that the association wouldn't be formed to duplicate the Counselors Academy's efforts or to replace PRSA's functions. While PRSA is a professional society which individuals join, the trade association would be comprised of member businesses who would be part of a network of mid- and large-sized firms guiding issues and changes in the PR trade as well as acting as advocates for those in the PR profession. Drobis and Myers are in the process of recruiting members. For now, proponents are looking to raise $200,000 in seed money for the start-up association, with some major PR agencies ultimately being approached to donate $10,000 or more for development costs. Membership fees have yet to be established. Drobis said that development lump sum would include hiring a consultant to aid in setting up the association and its internal hierarchy; creating marketing materials and a plan to promote the newly formed organization; establishing bylaws and a business plan; and managing the logistics of the fledgling group. "This is not something that's intended to come under the aegis of the Counselors Academy," Drobis told PR NEWS, the only publication represented at the private afternoon meeting which was held while poolside learning sessions went on nearby for the more than 300 attendees who traveled to the conference. "This would be a separate organization." The group, which tentatively is being referred to as the American Association of Public Relations Firms, would (among a long list of objectives) be charged with setting industry standards and lobbying on behalf of communicators -much the same way the American Association of Advertising Agencies acts a leader and catalyst for change in the advertising industry. But it isn't clear whether the formation of such an association will stir controversy among PR practitioners and whether PRSA's strength will be rocked. Typically, PRSA's role has been to push advancement for PR professionals on the educational and training fronts. What is clear is that a trade association is likely to elevate the PR industry since there are no industry standards today and the field isn't guided or governed by any kind of formal group. Valerie T. DiMaria, president of New York-based GCI and one of the movement's leaders, admitted that the PR trade has been loosely held together by a "laissez-faire" philosophy. Even though PRSA has been a clearinghouse for suggesting how PR practitioners and corporate communicators should conduct themselves (it has a code of ethics) and handles accreditation, there isn't any kind of PR body which acts as an industry watchdog or, for that matter, a collective voice for those in the PR field. Credibility issues -including how clients are handled -have been driven by individual PR practitioners' ethics in recent decades. "The objective is to build the PR business," Drobis told counselors, who attended the meeting, while fielding questions from firm owners and execs. Among concerns raised by those at the gathering were queries about how the organization would be set up and what its purpose would be. Today, there isn't any kind of formal group which lobbies for -or against -policies affecting the PR trade. Among the new group's responsibilities would be keeping a pulse on how legislation, such as a change in sales tax laws, would impact those in the PR world. Still, "It's guaranteed to be a controversial issue," said one attendee who asked not to be named. Drobis told PR NEWS in an interview after the meeting, which ran less than an hour, that much of the impetus for the trade association "comes from Europe where there are strong trade associations....It's come of age that we need this as well." (Dave Drobis, 212/878-4601; Gary Myers, 414/674-4026; Valerie T. DiMaria, 212/546-1737)

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