Thought piece: CIPR and Newer Entrants to the Profession

by Peter Holt Chart. PR, FCIPR & Naomi MG Smith MCIPR, October 2020.

This short thought piece on the topic is offered following discussions between two CIPR members – one a relatively new entrant to the profession and joiner of the Institute, and the other a longer-serving member.  It is intended as a provocation on some issues perhaps warranting further and wider discussion, rather than as a comprehensive analysis nor detailed manifesto for change.

‘Catch them early, keep them for a lifetime.’

This a simple, straightforward and intuitive proposition for a membership body.  Attract new entrants to the profession to join the Institute, to take an active part therein, to realise both immediate and ongoing benefits of membership, and they are likely to stay members – active members – throughout their professional careers.

When considered in the context of a relatively unregulated industry, in which entry to the profession and right to practice does not depend on being a member in good standing of the self-regulating professional body (like, say, solicitors and the Law Society via the SRA), this puts the emphasis for CIPR on both recruitment and retention as a constant challenge, with no room to rest on our laurels.

In our handful of informal discussions, we threw around a handful of key questions:

Could we make it easier, more affordable and more attractive for new entrants to join the profession?  Should we abolish the £55 admin joining fee as it feels like it’s from a bygone era, and is in reality a barrier to joining?  Should we introduce lower membership fees for people on lower salaries – both benefitting younger people/new entrants to the profession, but also returners to work and part-timers.  Neither of these ideas is new.

It is only months since new members were allowed to pay by monthly direct debit our previous policy was to only allow members to pay monthly from their second year of membership – meaning that a new member had to pay £235 up front in one payment – a massive hit for a self-funding member on probably a low wage at the start of their career and what intuitively feels like a sizeable barrier to entry.  This was a change proposed by one of this paper’s co-authors, against initially stiff internal opposition, showing that it is possible to achieve such change.

If we want CIPR to be welcoming to newer entrants, then are we equally serious about including them in our decision making structures?  These internal groups are currently more dominated by longer-serving, more experienced and generally more senior practitioners.  There have been initiatives to involve more new entrants on key decision-making bodies in recent years, including by recent Presidents during their terms, on which to build, but which have not yet become fully embedded.

Is the student offer for CIPR members in need of a refresh?  Most members don’t come in to the Institute through the student route, so we don’t imagine this is a silver-bullet solution, but it is a positive contribution to the broader issue.  A short comparative study carried out by one of this paper’s authors just last year compared CIPR’s student offer to that of nine other UK professional bodies, and identified much room for improvement and learning from elsewhere

How welcoming are we to newer members when they do join?  Once someone has joined, are they left to work out how to get the most out of membership, or do they get inducted?  A membership body is often described as being like a gym: you don’t get fit just by paying a gym membership – you have to turn up and put in the hard hours, sweating.  But a gym tends to give you a gym induction, so show you round, how things work, and to welcome you.  Should we be sharpening our act there too – maybe an informal buddy system?  And how about involving more newer-entrants in shaping our Institute’s priorities – it’s a rarity to see a newer member on any of the CIPR committees or groups, so shouldn’t we be making more of an effort there too, to bring through the next generation of talent into CIPR leadership roles?

CIPR Membership fees – #PeteListens

I’ve been overwhelmed in the week since the #CIPRElection campaign started with how much reaction there has been to some of the key themes of my campaign.  At the Monday-night CIPR Hustings, Wednesday night’s marathon #PowerAndInfluence tweetathon, in Thursday evening’s #PeteListens membership-themed session, and by people just directly approaching me via all sorts of channels.

I won’t pretend there’s a consensus – there very much isn’t – and I don’t pretend that I’ve heard all that needs to be said.  I certainly don’t presume to offer a fully formed set of proposals yet either.

So – here are three sets of perspectives submitted to me over the last few days, in their own words, that I think tease out the issues very well.  They include a few snap Twitter polls too – completely unscientific, but included out of interest value.

  1. Is our membership fee a barrier to entry?

Surely it makes sense to sign up members at the start of their career, and then to keep them all the way through.  Here are the words of Amrit, currently hunting for his first PR job.

“As a fresh Masters Graduate, I can confidently say that CIPR is a platform that is not just helping me, but many of my colleagues to find potential jobs and gain industry insider knowledge from some of the brilliant minds in the UK. CIPR is a professional safe space for all individuals in the communications sector and those who want to make it big in the same field.  A lot of ua want to join the same platform and the only thing stopping them is the joining fee. Bringing it down to £80 for the first year would help new graduates take advantage of this platform at a lenient cost.”

Here’s what the (unscientific!) snap poll said:

Sure – there are student routes to entry at more discounted rates at the moment, but we don’t (proportionately) have very many CIPR student members, so this is not a solution for the vast majority of new entrants to the profession.

And yes, I’ve heard it said that investing in their own career is a sacrifice it is reasonable to expect a new PR practitioner to make.  I think there is definite merit in this point, but I for one think that the balance is nonetheless just all wrong, and that we ought to be offering new entrants a stepped fee in their first few years.

What do you think of the idea of a stepped entry fee e.g. £80 in year one, £160 in year two, before ramping up to the full £235?

2. Is our flat-rate membership fee just plain unfair?

Is it really fair that a director on six-figures pays the same membership fee as a low paid practitioner?

Here are Meg’s words, who for a few years before her recent retirement stepped down from a full-time management level job to working part-time in a more junior job for a charity.

“I think there is an assumption that a lot of people get them paid by employers. The fees were one of the reasons I left CIPR whilst still working as the fee was actually half a month’s take home pay for my part time job with a charity. As the courses were also expensive the only benefit was the north east breakfast and early evening events and having CIPR on my cv. And I could have attended the north east events as a non member for a lot less than the fee.”

The same kind of challenge is often faced by many parents – predominantly women, of course – returning to work after having a baby, many of whom step down to working part-time hours.

And our snap poll?

Sure – having a graded level of membership fee might be slightly more complicated to administer, and if we don’t want to be asking people to prove their income, there’d be a danger of people telling fibs to only pay the lower level, but how much of an issue would that really be, and what does it say if we just don’t even trust our own members, where professional ethics is a key part of membership?

3. What do you think of the idea of a different membership fee level so lower paid members pay less than the high paid?Should we really still be charging a £55 one-off membership processing fee?

Is the one-off extra £55 that we charge new members really justifiable.  In an age of automation, it surely can’t actually cost us £55 to add someone’s details onto our systems, and they don’t receive some big, glossy expensive welcome pack, so what is it for?

Maybe there’s an argument that if we’d rather people stayed members rather than dipped in and out of membership, so does this £55 fee help with that?  I just can’t imagine that it does – after all, if someone wants to save their £235 membership fee (£215 if paid by direct debit) by stopping their membership, is the prospect of having to pay an extra £55 to rejoin in a few years really going to stop them?  If anything, once again, it feels like an outdated anachronism.

Here are Tracey’s words:

“I used to be the head of membership for a UK organisation with hundreds of thousands of paying members.  We’d have thought it bonkers to charge people extra to join on top of the basic fees.  We wanted to get them in, show them a fabulous first year full of benefits, give them a welcome that made them feel like they were part of the family, and then get them locked in for decades.  Our metrics showed that this approach worked, so CIPR’s £55 joining fee baffles me.”

I get that anytime anyone talks about reducing membership fees in any fashion, people are naturally going to worry that we’ll lose income, and that we can’t afford to do that.  The truth is though, as all successful businesses know, if you structure your charges effectively you can get a lot more income through a lot more sales overall.

And our snap poll?

A younger member, joining for an initial £80 and then staying for their whole career would bring us much, much more income than one who never joined in the first place.

So what do you think – time to ditch the £55 joining fee, and time to properly restructure our fees overall, to help grow the Institute and stop losing members at such a rate?

This election has turned into an ideas laboratory!

We had a great CIPR AGM a few weeks back – big turnout on Zoom, and lots of chat, very ably chaired by Jenni Field.  It was virtual ‘cause it had to be, but ended up much more engaging in many respects than the usual smaller room.

I think we’ve seen the same levels of wonderful engagement in this current #CIPRElection – with the hustings, the truly-bonkers (but equally wonderful) #PowerAndInfluence mass simultaneous Tweet-fest, and other online campaign events that Rachel and I have run separately.

With just 24 hours notice, and 3 Tweets worth of advertising, 64 people joined in an online chat about CIPR membership fees.

So here’s my point – this campaign has thrown out a big pile of ideas.  I don’t know if they are all new (probably not!) but they certainly struck me as something I’ve not heard about in my nearly two years on CIPR Council, so I’m going to value them as if they are new.

So – whoever wins this election (and once again – Rachel would be great if members prefer her vision) – I hope these ideas won’t be lost.

As a start though, let me say that (in principle), I adopt them all:

  • Electoral quotas are built into our constitution on CIPR Council from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, the English Regions, and from the various sectoral groups.  If quotas are good enough to enshrine in our rules to ensure broad representation there, and though we are yet badly under-represented in newer-entrants/younger members, and in BAME members, why aren’t we considering separate sections of our electoral college there too?  Clear problem, existing solution sitting there waiting – let’s start discussing it and move on from warm words to action.  (Obvs there’s a lot more that needs sorting on diversity than this  -but it’s still an interesting idea to have emerged.)
  • Specialist Chartership assessment days for Public Affairs practitioners – I’ve been through the Chartership assessment day – and to say that it is thorough and challenging would be an understatement.  One central element is a discussion of a case study you’re provided with beforehand.  A suggestion came up in this campaign that some of those Chartership assessment days are run based on Public Affairs case studies, so that our Public Affairs colleagues can be better served.  Sounds like a simple but great idea to me.  Whilst we’re at it, are there any other sectors of our profession that might benefit from a similar bespoke approach – internal communications, maybe?
  • Student committee – in online discussions about new entrants to the profession, one of the topics of conversation turned in particular to the offer to students, and how to get more to join.  Beyond that though, the chat moved on to not just what CIPR can do for students, but what CIPR student members can do for themselves, taking ownership of their own place in the broader profession.  So – a student committee was suggested.  Sounds like an idea worth seriously exploring to me, especially considering the level of energy shown by some of the newer entrants to the profession in this campaign.

Do keep the ideas coming – and the discussion.  There isn’t a consensus on everything, but the discussion has been overwhelmingly positive and creative – showing off our Institute at its collegiate best.

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