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PRSA’s Advocacy Umbrella

Posted At: March 30, 2011 1:19 PM
by Marissa Stabler

A-B-C-D-E — for many, this is the beginning of the English alphabet; for the Public Relations Society of America, this is the beginning of a multifaceted mission. As the world’s largest society of public relations professionals, a central part of PRSA’s mission has long been to advocate a greater understanding of PR and an adoption of public relations services.

In 2010, PRSA finished its three-year strategic plan for 2011-13. The plan came together as a result of a five-city summer tour in which PRSA officials met with senior-level PR professionals who encompassed different functions of PRSAmembers: corporate, nonprofit, education and agency.

According to PRSA Chair and CEO Rosanna Fiske, the tour provided great input for the strategic vision of PRSA and demonstrated where the organization should be headed. As a result, PRSA adopted a five-letter alphabet that refocused its mission into five core areas deemed “ABCDE”:

A – Advocacy
B – Business
C – Community
D – Diversity
E – Education

“[ABCDE] has set both [PRSA’s] agenda — the strategic basis — and [PRSA’s] operational business plan for the year,” said Fiske. She described 2011 as “an incredible year” for PRSA, a year in which “advocacy is the umbrella,” covering three initiatives that propel PRSA’s ‘ABCDE’ mission.

No. 1: The value of PR

Certain incidents over the past year have caused some to question the value of public relations, such as the U.S. Senate Subcommittee of Contracting Oversight investigation into the public relations contract between the General Service Administration and Kansas City firm Jane Mobley Associates.

Instead of focusing on the negatives, PRSA saw the investigation as an opportunity to further its mission. It presented PRSA with a perfect opening to advocate the federal government’s use of public relations and public affairs, and most importantly, the value of PR.

“[PRSA] viewed [the senate investigation] as an important moment that would help us help define — or better understand — the substantial public interest served by public relations and public affairs to the members of Congress,” Fiske said. “We saw it as an opportunity, really, to communicate with [Congress] and hopefully to make them understand the value that we bring to the table every day for the public good.”

Leading up to the investigation, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) caused a stir in the PR world with her disparaging comments about the government’s use of public relations firms. The investigation, along with McCaskill’s comments, prompted Fiske to write a letter on behalf of PRSA and public relations professionals that urged the Senate to consider “the substantial public interest served by public relations and public affairs” for the federal government.

Fiske said PRSA does not have a great concern that the Senate will pursue a broader investigation. However, PRSA feels that officials need to clearly comprehend the governmental role of public relations.

“Senator McCaskill continues to use largely misinformed terms to describe public relations value,” Fiske said. “We felt that it was important that she really understand that [public relations’ concern is not about] government officials and protecting their images, but it’s rather about protecting the right of the American people to have the accurate information they so deserve.

“We have public relations professionals who are greatly skilled in the public information arena, and all their jobs involve some form of communicating conflict issues or possibly informing the public by appropriate means to help them understand better the very initiatives that any kind government may be taking on whether its local, state or federal government.”

No. 2: Ethics

PRSA’s ethics code asserts that “successful public relations hinges on the ethics of its practitioners.” The organization promotes the protection of integrity and public trust as fundamental to the profession’s role and reputation.

When news broke that Boston-based consulting firm Monitor Group  provided public relations consulting services to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, PRSAonce again found an opportunity to advance its advocacy mission, particularly its ethics initiative.

In response to the Boston Globe front-page article about Monitor Group’s controversial services, Kirk Hazlett, a PRSA board member, wrote a letter to the editor titled, “Public Relations Driven by a Code of Doing Right.”

The Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics delineates what comprises ethical public relations, and could be condensed to a single statement: Do the right thing. Aiding a dictatorial tyrant in the fabrication of a false persona is not the right thing, and most assuredly not the hallmark of ethical public relations of business practices.

“I completely agree with [Hazlett’s] letter,” Fiske said. “[PRSA is] being much more vocal than ever before in making the case for public relations in showing, demonstrating the value of what we do as a profession and really speaking on behalf of the profession as the whole – students, practitioners, educators and so on.”

Each practitioner is a representation of the profession and the PRSA Code of Ethics is a guiding standard for the practitioner to define her professionalism and further her success. Fiske stressed the importance of practitioners going beyond advancing ethical practices for their businesses, but also for the entire public relations profession.

“If we are comfortable, if we feel ethical in providing the services, whatever the services are that we are going to provide, then that’s OK,” Fiske said. “But if we are not confident that we are being ethical, that we are abiding by the very code we had signed on to adhere to, then it’s not right. I know that this is very much an individual position, but it is also a collective position – one that really sheds light on the whole profession.”

No. 3: Diversity

Fiske said for many years, PRSA membership was not diverse. In 2000-01, PRSAbegan a “very strong diversity initiative” with a diversity task force that eventually transformed into a full-fledged national committee.

“We have actually doubled our self-identifying member as ‘diverse’ from 7 percent in 2005 to 14 percent today,” said Fiske. “I think that tells a different story than the story we were telling just five years ago.”

Recent data further incited PRSA to bolster its diversity initiative. In editorials, PRSAofficers advocated the need for a more diverse representation in the public relations industry.

Bey-Ling Sha, Ph.D., APR, chair of PRSA’s National Committee on Work, Life and Gender, wrote an article for Ragan’s PR Daily that focused on the pay discrepancy in public relations between male and female professionals.

Sha wrote that she felt “disgusted but unsurprised” by a White House report, which showed that women’s salary is still only 75 percent of what men earn. She went on to cite PRSA data that indicated the average annual income for men in public relations was about $105K compared to women’s $72K.

“Am I concerned about it? You bet I’m concerned about it,” Fiske said. “I am concerned about it because 1) I’m a woman and 2) I represent an organization where 70 percent of its members are women, so certainly that’s something that is of importance to me and something that should be of importance to anyone in the profession.”

As a Hispanic-American female executive, Fiske knows first-hand the impact diversity has on the public relations profession as well as the American economy and culture.

Fiske wrote an opinion piece for MediaShift, pinpointing the necessity for a more diverse executive suite to prepare for the challenges and financial opportunities of a modern and diverse America.

Fifty million people. One trillion dollars in buying power. Ad spending up 164 percent since 2001 to $3.88 billion. Hundreds of Spanish-language TV stations across the U.S. … If Hispanic Americans comprised their own country, it would be the fifth-largest, by population, in the European Union. And this demographic is growing – rapidly.

Despite these eye-opening numbers, a 2009 survey showed that Hispanics held only 4.8 percent of Fortune 100 executive- and director-level positions, and account for only 6 percent of Fortune 100 board representatives.

PRSA data on diversity revealed that while women comprise two-thirds of the PR workforce, they make up less than half of the executive committee roles at most large PR firms. Similarly, only four women lead agencies with more than $100 million in global revenue.

“I think [it’s] incredibly important to really call on the multinational agencies and the corporate departments to take a hard look at the way they are either mentoring or promoting women or minorities,” Fiske said of the low diversity numbers. “There may be opportunities beyond the entry-level positions, but many times either women fall out for personal reasons or minorities leave because they don’t feel included.”

Fiske believes it is an issue that occurs at the middle-management level and up. She said multinational agencies and corporate departments need to closely examine what they are doing in this section of their employee bases. With the U.S. more diverse than ever, Fiske reasons the public relations profession will financially benefit from having more diversity.

She wrote, “Having a more diverse executive suite … will better prepare the media industry to reap the immense financial rewards of a modern and very diverse America.” She argued that media companies cannot afford to go without the diverse leadership that could help them “tap into a $1 trillion market.”

Thus, PRSA’s diversity initiative not only stresses the business value of diversity, but it places an immediate focus on multicultural communication and hires.

“The fact that we are impacting global economies left and right tells us that we have to be prepared to communicate with more diverse and more multicultural audiences in the business community than we ever have before,” Fiske said. “And all this leads us to realizing that, in the public relations world, we are going to have more partners, more clients with broader, more multicultural issues than we’ve ever had.

“We have to be able to communicate with those audiences to really increase the level of understanding among those audiences and we aren’t going to be able to so if we don’t have the right people, the right players in place that can really augment that effort.”

Fiske continued to drive PRSA’s diversity initiative at Florida International University in Miami, as part of the Center for Hispanic Leadership 2011-12 Tour.

Moving the umbrella’s needle

“I have gotten myself involved in everywhere and anything I can [to] make a difference,” Fiske said. “Once I commit to doing something, I commit to delivering it 100 percent. You really have to give a piece of yourself to be committed to your profession outside of your work.”

In her one-year tenure, Fiske hopes that as chair and CEO, PRSA will garner greater appreciation for measurement standards as well as the public relations professional in all aspects of communication.

“I’d like to really see [PRSA] move the needle when it comes to demonstrating the strategic input and the value that public relations brings to all communications and business functions,” Fiske said of PRSA’s No. 1 initiative.

Fiske said that modern technology such as social media calls for an even greater responsibility from the public relations professional. She hopes PRSA will increase this responsibility by developing more modern ethics standards with its No. 2 initiative.

“PRSA was very involved in the development of the Barcelona Principles and we continue to really be a part of the leadership in our profession in establishing measurement standards,” Fiske said. “The fact that PRSA is right at the forefront leading that, is a thrill for me—personally [it is] something that I’m proud of, but professionally as well.”

Diversity may be No. 3 in PRSA’s advocacy umbrella, but its placement does not mean it is of any less importance. The third initiative is one that the PRSA chair andCEO is “incredibly passionate about.”

“[I’d like to see PRSA move the needle with] diversity in all angles, not just ethnic diversity, but gender diversity and diversity when it comes to disciplinary function and understanding ideals,” Fiske said. “It’s a great opportunity to become a much more inclusive profession than we’ve ever been.”

Advancing PRSA’s five-letter alphabet may not be an easy task, but with Fiske’s commitment to the organization, its mission and public relations profession, it’s safe to say the umbrella will only expand.

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Fiske headshot:

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