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A call for change

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  • 1. A Call for ChangeIntroduction to why Trade Groups Should Question the Status Quo The dynamics of the communications profession have changeddramatically in the last 10 years, but many trade organizations like IABC andPRSA have failed to keep pace in fundamentally redefining their mission to reflectthe drivers of change and respond to the very different needs of their members.Here, he discusses the need for professional associations to fundamentally redefinetheir mission to reflect the changing role of the communication practitioner andrespond to the different needs of their members.Explication…. Professionals who run corporate communications departments orserve as senior practice managers in large public relations firms, they wouldgenerally agree that the greatest challenge to the profession is finding people whocan think and act strategically. We have lots of folks in communications who are talented tactically,but we have fewer who bring the analytical and big picture perspective that canreally add value to the development of strategy for senior management and clients. Being strategic means influencing outcomes and affecting results. Itmeans not seeing yourself as adjunct to the business strategy, but an integral partof that process. Strategic means not seeing yourself less as "client driven" (e.g., Ido whatever my client asks), but seeing yourself as a "catalyst for change". In thisrole as a catalyst, communication professional bring with them a definedphilosophy or conceptual framework for what they do. They set their ownbenchmarks for excellence, and they demonstrate by their performance and abilityto get resultsRunning a War Room In today’s real time communication environment, professionals will berequired to have experience across disciplines (e.g., media relations, employeecommunication, issues management, marketing communication) and function as
  • 2. interchangeable players. Corporate communication departments will function likea war room in a political campaign headquarters, with sophisticated research onperceptions of various publics becoming standard practice as a baseline forplotting communications strategy. This change in role means that today’s communication professionalscan’t simply react to business problems: we must influence them. And this meansthat communication associations and trade groups like IABC and PRSA have aleadership role to play. Trade groups need to reinvent themselves based on thereal time nature of the profession. If communication has become a knowledge-based profession, then professional associations can become the enablers of thesehigher thinking skills. Now, I’ve just done the unthinkable by challenging the current statusquo of our trade groups. The truth is, however, that the original mission of thesegroups was successfully accomplished more that 20 years ago and theseorganizations have not redefined their role or kept pace with the profession.Getting Strategic Trade groups are doing little to prepare professionals for the currentreal time communication environment we face – and to think and act strategically.Rather than promoting dialogues on the "What" and "Why" of communicationstrategy, trade group conferences are obsessed with the "How to" or tacticalapproaches to communication programs. Workshops are conducted in atraditional classroom approach, which limit give and take among professionals inthe audience who may have equal knowledge and different views from the speaker. While it’s nice for younger professionals to hear about differentmodels, this experience does not challenge or empower them to think outside thebox. The conferences need facilitators and panels of senior professionals who candiscuss, debate and pose alternative strategies based on a given role-playscenario. This approach, pioneered by Fred Friendly, offers the dynamics ofinteraction that get at the "What" and "Why," in the broader context of factors andvariables that influence communication strategy.Accreditation University programs have eliminated a major emphasis of trade
  • 3. groups: the need for trade group certification programs. At one time in history,years ago, there was concern that communication professionals would not be takenseriously unless they were certified. Today, these programs are an anachronism. Idon’t believe these certification programs ever gained wide credibility. Instead of competing with university training, trade groups have a newand significant role to play in creating methodologies for validating whether theeducational process is turning out professionals who will succeed in the changingcommunication environment. Trade groups should champion their role in offeringfeedback to universities on real world requirements, through the involvement ofsenior communication professionals. They should also play a more aggressive role in challenginguniversities to uphold the value of communications or public relations degree.Almost anyone and everyone wants to be a communications major these days, butthis does not mean they are being rigorously prepared to succeed as acommunications professional, when universities can turn out communicationsmajors who can’t write or don’t know different styles of writing, then theprofession is not being well served.Learning from each other Award programs sponsored by trade groups also represent misplacedemphasis. My first concern is that most of these programs focus on tacticalsolutions, in isolation from the larger overall communication strategy of thecompany. My second concern is that the documentation required by these awardsis lengthy and dense, so it’s less accessible as a case study to use in benchmarkingother companies or in searching for best practice models. Trade groups should beputting more emphasis on research and creating laboratories in the profession,rather than publishing reams of documentation.…And from the world of politics Why is it that many of the perceived leaders of our profession, and themost innovative, breakthrough strategies in communication, come from the worldof politics and not from our own senior level practitioners? Why is it that whencompanies feel most threatened, they bring in an ex-White House staffer soonerthan hire a senior communications professional from a major PR firm? Perhaps
  • 4. it’s because the political environment comes closest to a laboratory for innovationsin communication theory and practice: you have a fixed time frame, a product thatisn’t easily quantified and a rapidly changing communication/media environmentin which to operate. If that’s so, communication trade groups can learn from thismodel and look to create laboratories of their own on innovations. It’s time to crest laboratories for change. Why not for example,establish a more active collaboration and closer working relationship withcolleges, universities and corporations to test new strategies and structures. Inprevious articles, I’ve talked about the growing importance of research to pre-testand post-test messages. Some companies have begun to use overnight pollingtechniques. These are ripe subjects for experimentation and thought leadership. It’s ironic, but the basic structure in how we manage communicationshas not changed in more that 20 years. However, innovations in technology andtelecommunications have expanded the quantity, quality and speed ofcommunications worldwide. The margin for error in communicating the rightmessage is narrower, as access and opportunities for communicating messages hasleveled the playing field for our competitors. Communications has become aknowledge-based profession, but we have few laboratories for testing newapproaches, structures and methodologies. The pressure for change has never been greater on the tradeorganizations. While universities are turning out thousands of potential newrecruits each year, the exigent reality is that there may be fewer positionsavailable for those without the requisite analytical, writing and leadership skills.Corporate communication departments and PR agencies will be hard pressed tolimit growth, and the key differentiator in hiring will be professional who can thinkstrategically about message management, corporate positioning and branding. I’ve raised some points in this article that are likely to cause reaction.But as a practitioner and long-standing member of these trade groups, I believe apublic discussion of how trade groups can more effectively serve the profession islong overdue. The more of us who do speak out, the quicker change will come.Font:-Stuart Goldstein