Tuesday, November 01, 2005

PRSA Drops the PR Ball

This article was written for, and first appeared in Jonathan Bernstein's excellent crisis manager e-zine newsletter, available at no cost (but worth a lot) from Jonathan by using the "subscribe to" box on the home page of Jonathan's site, http://www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com

Now, the article, complete with Jonathan's introduction ...

Editor's Note: Ned Barnett is very well known to PR-related listserv members as one of our industry's leading curmudgeons (a category I use to describe myself periodically). After seeing all of the comments about PRSA's conference debacle on my favorite PR listserv, PR Mindshare (hosted on Yahoo), I invited any member to submit an article, and Ned graciously accepted.

When it comes to making bad PR moves, few organizations excel quite as blatantly as the Public Relations Society of America. This is exemplified by their remarkably inept handling of the last-minute cancellation of their national convention, thanks to the intrusion of Hurricane Wilma.

In handling this eleventh-hour cancellation of their annual PRSA Conference - scheduled for October 22-25 in Miami - PRSA's staffers demonstrated, not for the first time, their apparent inability to practice sound PR principles themselves. You might think that PRSA should know that conference pre-planning must include crises pre-planning - particularly when scheduling a conference for the heart of "hurricane alley." If so, you'd be wrong.

When it comes to practicing what PR professionals preach, PRSA's staff are the original "gang who couldn't shoot straight."

There is at least one reason for this organization's continual failure to "do" PR, one related to the nature of member associations. From personal experience at one of those associations, I know most "outsiders" assume that staffers are experts in their association's field. When I was at the Tennessee Hospital Association, for instance, members just assumed that our professional staff understood hospitals - in fact, only two of 64 staff members had ever worked in a hospital. I was one of those two, and key execs often hunted me down for a reality-check. They weren't about to say something about hospitals that would make no sense - at least to hospital people.

The same situation appears to be true at PRSA - except that, apparently, PRSA didn't seem to have ANY staffers who've ever had a real PR job - or if they do, those individuals are clearly not being consulted.

This hurricane snafu is only the latest blunder in a series of ill-considered staff decisions that have cost PRSA dearly. For example, until earlier this year, PRSA hosted an Internet listserv - a highly professional virtual PR discussion group. Then, someone on staff decided that non-members were somehow "stealing" a benefit from PRSA, and with no notice, they abolished this highly-effective list, replacing it with a highly-moderated web-based bulletin board that was purely members-only. Not only did this exclusionary policy destroy something of real value to participants (for the most part, members), but they also closed the door on what should have also been a useful member-recruiting tool.

Worst of all was the way they handled it - abruptly, with no advance notice, and with no opportunity for participating members to approve - or disapprove. This so angered the listserv's members that - overnight - several new, independent discussion groups formed, continuing that useful once-PRSA-sponsored forum. There, a regular topic for discussion is PRSA's inept public- and member-relations.

Instead of serving members - which, after all, is an association's prime duty - PRSA further alienated both dues-paying members and potential members. In return, they got zero positive value from their decisive action. Zero.

Which brings us to their current PR debacle. In handling the hurricane-forced convention cancellation, PRSA did several things wrong:

1. First, PRSA scheduled a convention in Miami in the middle of hurricane season. This is not rocket science - they might as well have scheduled an outdoor tanning convention for Fargo in mid-January.

2. Second, when it became apparent that Wilma might target Miami, PRSA was painfully s-l-o-w to inform members of the cancellation. Based on performance, PRSA apparently had no on-call crisis PR plan waiting in the wings. They had no pre-existing mechanism for notifying members of the cancellation. And they made few - if any - efforts to reach out to the media to help spread the word. They even ignored in-house communications channels. Active accredited member Rich Barger commented that "PRSA didn't even bother to post anything about the cancellation in their own now-scantly-followed, draconianly moderated discussion forum."

3. Finally, they intentionally made it very difficult for members to reclaim their pre-paid registration fees. At first, there was no mention at all of refunds. When pressure built, they finally decided to refund any member's fee - but only if that member asked - in writing. Probably notarized in blood.

It would have been so easy to avoid this - first, by scheduling their convention outside hurricane alley, or for Miami before or after the hurricane season. Either option was available to PRSA.

Next, they should have had a crisis PR plan in place. It's not like member associations haven't had to execute last-minute cancellations before. It was only six years ago that the National Rifle Association had to cancel a long-planned national convention, tragically scheduled for Denver just days after the Columbine shooting.

If that wasn't close-to-home enough, the International Association of Business Communicators - PRSA's prime "competitor" - planned their 2003 International Conference for Toronto, about the time SARS all but closed down that city. However, IABC had a crisis plan, and easily salvaged their convention. Those experiences were crisis-planning wake-up calls for every member association, but apparently, PRSA wasn't paying attention.

Even without a plan, PRSA could still have sent e-mails to registered conventioneers (I presume that even PRSA now asks members for their e-mail addresses). This could have been buttressed by a PRNewswire press release that would have put the cancellation news on the Internet.

Finally, PRSA could have offered a member-friendly refund policy, instead of making members pull hen's teeth to get their money back. One useful approach: offer members the opportunity to apply their payment to any future PRSA event - many members would likely have accepted, knowing they'd be helping PRSA's cash flow without losing anything.

For those who preferred refunds, a simple web-page refund request form, promoted by e-mail, would have been a far more member-friendly approach. Instead, PRSA blundered once again, putting the needs of the organization (hold onto that cash!) ahead of their members' best interests.

In short, PRSA had options. Which they ignored - in part because the staff is not made up of PR pros, but of career association bureaucrats - and in doing so, blundered every step of the way.

No professional PRSA member would have made such monumentally PR-inappropriate decisions. This highlights the dangers of turning a PR association over to career "association executives" - instead of to PR professionals who also know how to run an association.


In 1978, Ned Barnett became (to that time) the youngest person ever to have earned PRSA Accreditation. He then served in a variety of PRSA chapter offices for a decade. Ned has written nine published books on PR, and he's won a PRSA Silver Anvil. He owns Barnett Marketing Communications, Inc., based in Las Vegas, Nevada; and although he's got years of experience in association management, he wants nothing to do with trying to salvage PRSA. Barnett can be found at http://www.barnettmarcom.com, or contacted at ned@barnettmarcom.com.