Has CIPR lost its way a bit?

As a long-standing, active and yes *proud* member of the CIPR, I believe that our Institution is imperfect, and has things that need fixing.

Now – September 2019 – is as good a time as any to have this conversation, however uncomfortable it might be.  CIPR has published a draft strategy to us members, and is consulting us on it, closing 30th September.  You can find this on the CIPR website, but both the draft strategy and the consultation portal are behind the members-only firewall.  If you’re a member – please have your say on the CIPR strategy for 2020-2024.

I recognise and celebrate the CIPR’s achievements of recent years – introducing Chartership, campaigning to see PR recognised as a core board-level function, building links with the IoD, recognising and beginning to get to grips with mental health issues in the profession, and many more.  But alongside and notwithstanding all the good bits, I think we’ve gone astray.  We’re a membership organisation, here for the direct benefit of our members, not shareholder returns, and I think that needs reasserting.

If there’s one thing that Alcoholics Anonymous has taught us, it’s that the first step towards sobriety is admitting you have a drink problem.

The first step to substantially improving CIPR is to recognise that it needs substantial improvement, not marginal tinkering round the edges.

I wouldn’t imagine it should need saying, but I’m not accusing anyone of anything nefarious, nor criticising any individual or group.  Actually I’m volunteering my own share of personal responsibility – I’m a member of the CIPR Council, I’m a CIPR Fellow.  Things have gone astray in my time, and I’m sorry, and I’d like to be a part of fixing them.

We should be learning from other membership organisations who face a lot of the same issues as us.

One of our own much-respected CIPR members, Rob Yeldham, now Director of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.  In a recent Twitter discussion on this topic as part of the CIPR Presidential election, Rob observed:

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I think this is a helpful model, and that we should be out having more such discussions with other membership organisations.  Adopting Rob’s headings, I think our current balance in CIPR between these three aspects is badly skewed.

We seem in my view to have drifted far too far towards acting like a commercial services organisation, driven by profit margin, with a tiny fraction of turnover left to fund direct member benefits.

I am prohibited from sharing with you the information provided at the last CIPR Finance Committee showing quite the proportion of CIPR expenditure that goes on direct member benefits.  I was genuinely shocked at how low it is, and I can only imagine you would be too.  I can though give hard evidence in support of my coded assertions here by sharing one figure drawn from info that was previously provided to Finance Committee members before the confidentiality rule was imposed on those papers, and which I had already put into the public domain, namely that

less than 1% (actually a lot less than 1%!) of CIPR expenditure in the last full financial year (2018) went in HQ grants to all of the sectoral, regional and National groups put together.

I think there is a lot of great stuff going on in CIPR, delivered by its volunteer members and staff alike.  I *loved* the recently-published resource on terrorism-related comms.  I think it’s great that the Institute of which I am a proud member is trying to address the scourge of mental ill health in our profession.  I think the drive to get PR recognised as a Board-level skill is spot on (and I thought Koray’s videos were wonderful).  I think the range of courses on offer on the CIPR website really captures the range of skills we need, and looks to be delivered by a roster of trainers second-to-none.  And the work on Artificial Intelligence in PR is both massively necessary and hugely impressive.

So now I’ve acknowledged five examples (amongst many more) may I speak from the heart about three things in particular which I believe are wrong with our Institute?  I wasn’t brought up by my mother to just whine, without pitching in something positive in terms of a solution, so I’ll say a few words there too.

Firstly, support for our volunteers active in the regional, National, and sectoral groups and committees.

I love the CIPR regional, National and sectoral groups, all 23 of them.  Since being a member I’ve worked in London, Northern Ireland, the North East, the South West, Wessex, Scotland, Thames and Chiltern and now Midlands group areas and have benefitted first hand from the work of those regional and National groups.  I’ve also been a long-standing committee member and former chair of the Local Public Services group, including hosting its annual conference in Bristol.

It’s not these groups that are broken, quite the opposite – it is the system that supports them that is letting them down.

My own experience over 15+ years an active CIPR member is that 80%+ of the tangible benefit I’ve got from CIPR membership has been from the volunteer-delivered work of these groups, even though they are only supported by crumbs from the table in budgetary terms.  Other people have their own experiences, that honestly is mine.

Or as John Wilkinson commented:

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This needs fixing.

Secondly, the perception that CIPR is too London-centric.  I don’t know how widespread the perception is, as there hasn’t as far as I know been any objective research.  But just look at the straw poll Dan Slee recently carried out. 

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It might be uncomfortable to admit it, but there is a real issue here.

I carried out my own ten minute analysis of the 53 training courses advertised in August 2019 on the CIPR website for the next few months, and my results – hard facts here, not just opinion – give one concrete example of why this London-centric perception is perhaps so widespread and understandable.

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And here’s another objective reality: in 2019, both the CIPR AGM and the (separate, months later) Annual Conference were both arranged to be held in London.  Is the optics of this really lost on people of our profession, because it’s not lost on a lot of our members outside London?

This heartfelt Tweet from a Scottish former member:

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Services and value can’t be spread in a uniformly even layer like jam.  There are economies of scale to factor in, transport links, and that some people like the opportunity to visit London too.  There isn’t an easy solution, but please, *please* don’t tell me this isn’t an issue we mustn’t be mature enough to first recognise, and then to tackle.

And ‘no’ – I’m not anti-London, nor anti-Londoners.  I’ve spent half my adult life living and working in the capital.  I’ve never felt short-changed in professional choices – as a Londoner I also used to like getting out and about to other places for events.

And last of the three ways in which I believe CIPR needs to be fixed: the value for money of our membership fee.

Being a long-standing, loyal and proud CIPR member doesn’t make it any easier justifying the value for money of the membership fee to colleagues thinking of joining (or thinking of not renewing, who by then have formed their own experience).  Whether it is paying an annual sub, paying for training, or giving your time to muck in as a volunteer, I think that paying in is an investment in my career.  But lofty rhetoric aside, what do a lot of members actually experience in return for their subscription? 

Training courses they maybe can’t afford at venues they can’t reach.  A CPD system that’s on its last legs.  (Hooray that it is being replaced – I have such high hopes for the new system). Conferences and seminars and AGMs mainly in London, this year at least.  But then there’s all that fabulous work, value, events, networking and so on offered by the 23 regional, National, and sectoral committees – but that doesn’t really work justifying the membership fee when less than 1% of 2018 CIPR funding went in HQ grants to all 23 of those groups put together.

There are other member benefits too – there is the quarterly Influence Magazine, for example, and its associated website.  There is the HQ support for the Pride award events held round the UK.  There are the resources available on the website – and again, I cannot welcome enough the upcoming website reform that should make finding things on the site rather less chaotic.

I joined the CIPR’s finance committee this year, so I have some privileged information about how the CIPR’s money is spent, which is being kept confidential because of commercial sensitivity.  I will respect this restriction, and just comment that all of the sentiments I’ve expressed here are backed by solid, hard, financial evidence.  There are some things that any commercial competitors can work out by examining our published annual accounts however, so I have been cleared to comment on those without giving any competitors any advantage they don’t already have. 

Did you know, for instance, that overall, all the CIPR training courses in the last financial year ran at a profit margin of over 50%?  That is, as an illustration, a course costing under £200 a head to put on is being sold to our members at £400?

This surplus goes to subsidise CIPR budgets overall, so I don’t pretend that a way forward would be as simple as slashing the costs of training courses, so more of our members could afford them, but the fact remains that many of our members buy fewer of the training course places than they would like because of what they perceive to be the unaffordable or uncompetitive prices.  I would like us to have this debate in the Institute – openly – and to rebalance our approach so we can get back to what I consider our core overriding purpose: supporting our members.  I also happen to believe that a course costing less than £300 per head would have an awful lot more attendees if it were sold for £350 or £400 instead of the current £600 – rebalancing the profit motive with the direct member benefit of having more members going on training.  As Polly Cziok said

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The ‘membership offer’ on our website doesn’t do a convincing sales job either.  The sexiest sounding element of the offer in my view is £150 off training courses.  Click through on that though, and it turns out that you get this £150 max value only if you book 3 courses at the same time totalling £1,500 or more to get 10% off, ie £150. 

Suddenly the £150 Top Man voucher my gran gave me has turned out to be some dodgy 10% off voucher she found in the bottom of a shopping bag printed on the back of a till receipt, and for something I’d never be able to afford in the first place.  Overpromising and underdelivering is never a good look.

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But click through on the ‘Save up to £150 link’ and all you get is

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The ‘member offer’ – the value for money story of our Institute just doesn’t hit the mark – needs a pretty major and urgent fix in my opinion – and the starting point here is not a marginal change, but a refocusing of our Institute onto delivering member benefit first, and operating commercially second.  If that ultimately means having to reduce our overheads as an Institute so that more of our money goes on direct member benefits, then that is a good thing in my view, not bad.

There’s a debate to be had within the Institute as to whether we’d be better off increasing membership numbers or instead focus on making sure that our membership was better qualified and committed, even if that meant numbers decreasing.  Personally, I’d like to move forward in both directions – retain our current membership, against a backdrop of many leaving, by addressing why they are leaving; attract new members, by having a dynamic offer; and substantially increase the proportion of members completing CPD as a milestone towards a fully-Chartered profession by making that CPD more relevant, affordable and reachable for the majority outside London.

I’m sorry I can’t share more actual figures from the Finance Committee to give you further hard evidence to back up my points, but I will respect the commercial confidentiality imposed on papers since the last committee meeting.  If you’d seen the figures I have, contrasting how much is raised through membership income and how much is spent on CIPR overheads, compared to how little is spent on direct member benefits, I imagine you too would have questions and be more likely to support a more fundamental rebalancing of the Institute going forwards.  I shall be pressing for more such figures to be added to our next published Annual Statement of Accounts, so there can be more transparency to our membership, but will accept the limitations imposed around commercial sensitivity in the meantime.

So talking of strong women in my family, back to my mum.  She’s 81 now, so instead of clipping my ear, she’s pretty handy with her walking stick.  ‘Don’t just complain’ I can hear her say ‘what’s your bright idea, and when are you turning up to help improve things?’.  In that spirit then, I offer four ideas below.  Outlines, starters for ten, whatever – I don’t pretend they are the finished deal, but they are the kind of conversations I’d like to be a part of.  I’ll try and illustrate in each how I’m not just spending the harvest from a magic money tree – although I’ll happily accept that in a reordering or priorities to refocus onto member benefits, some lower priority things will need to go, or live more tightly within their means.

First idea then: a rolling 3 year programme of AGMs and conferences – getting us out of London most of the time.

Invite bids well ahead of times from Nations and regions to host, each one paired with (at least) one sectoral group, and preferably co-organised with a third party group to give each event an appropriate and topical theme of relevance to our members.  For example: maybe Belfast 2021, jointly with Local Public Services Group and the Society of Emergency Planning Officers, themed around crisis communications?  How about Norwich 2022, jointly with CAPSIG and the RICS around property, growth and planning?  London 2023, jointly with Health Group and MIND around mental health?  You get the idea – no intrinsic additional cost that I can see, but a visible shift away from any perception of London-centricity and better celebrating the volunteers of our groups, whilst still appearing in London a roughly proportionate amount of the time.

Second idea:  seriously consider heavily reducing the cost of CIPR training courses.

I’d consider it a success to have to readjust our finances on the back of a doubling the attendance of training courses that suddenly became more affordable.  Our annual accounts (publicly available!) seem to me to show that training costs were less than half of the income those events brought in, so there is scope to shift this balance, charge closer to cost, and see the benefit in terms of increased member training rather than a profit to be used elsewhere.

And yes, you guessed it, a whole lot more courses available outside London.

Third idea: time-limited targeted development support for groups (regional, National or sectoral).

A not hugely developed idea this, just the germ of one.  Start with evidence of under-representation of membership – which regions, Nation or sector has the lowest estimated proportion of profession who have joined CIPR.  Work with that group committee, probably buddied up with a more active one, and first do some quality market research – what would make the difference in getting more members and in growing their capabilities to self-support going forwards?  Then build an action plan and resource it – maybe appoint a full-time/half-time development worker, as well as assigning existing HQ staff to give extra support.  Do all the stuff that the market research told you might help – e.g. lay on loads more events.  Spending £50k (from a CIPR overall spend of over £4million remember!) for 6 -18 months would only need to generate 50 new members (or avoiding lost members) to pay back the investment in less than 5 years.  (Am not suggesting it is an actual loan – just showing overall RoI).  Pilot this; if it works, roll it out; if it doesn’t then rethink – but we need something bigger and different to shift the relationship where the groups get paltry grants of £500 here and £2,000 there – and the less developed/less stable ones are in the worst position to work that way.  To be clear, I am talking about developing a model of centrally support negotiated and delivered to requesting groups, not CIPR HQ imposing anything on any group.

Fourth idea – the radical one this, but potentially ticking loads of boxes at once: free CPD – for the best quality and most relevant CPD, that is.

Yes – get all 60 points at no additional cost to the individual – but beyond the current rather limited range of collecting 5 CPD points here and there by reading online short publications.  No devaluing of the standards, and no simple loosening of the maximum points that can be awarded from the 5 pointer quick reads, but a real change so that the top quality and most relevant CPD is free.  First off, have a debate about training priorities for the year(s) ahead and then lay on free sessions that address those priorities – around the country of course.

To make this work, here there’s a call-to-action for Chartered Practitioners and CIPR Fellows.

I’d be prepared – without charge – to collaborate and produce course materials on an agreed top development priority, and I bet others would too.  I’d be prepared to give up time without charge and lay on a few breakfast briefings a year, delivering these materials – 5 CPD points a time to attendees, and give the volunteer organisers/course developers CPD points too.  This is basically how the 23 CIPR Groups have operated for years, and it strikes me that CIPR overall needs to start learning from us.  If more of us do that, fairly soon there is a seriously good offer for members, on their doorstep.  Of course there should be a better online learning offer too.  And shared sub-regional libraries of resources too.  End of the day – every member has had a quality 60 point CPD offer, in their area, at little/no cost – now that is good value for your £235 membership!

Why stop there though – why not up membership £250 but drop it to £200 if you successfully completed last year’s CPD (with normal reasonable exceptions for illness etc.).  I’ve got mates who don’t log their CPD because of the hassle, but would do if it saved them £50!

I think the current draft strategy targets of increasing CPD completion (500 more a year) are far too timid.

And the initial one-off, non-refundable extra joining fee of £55?!?  Can we just drop that, please – the last thing I think we want to do is make it even harder for those at the start of the career, at their lowest paid, to be able to join us.  Why aren’t we actually doing the opposite – reducing the rate for lower paid members – not least in recognition of the fact that there will likely be a disproportionate number of women part-timers?

And another innovation: stop calling it a membership subscription and call it an annual CPD package, and chuck in membership as a fringe benefit – here’s an example of why just from the sector I know best.  There are nearly 400 councils across the UK, all of whom have comms people, but of which only a minority pay individual professional subscriptions like CIPR as a matter of HR policy that cannot be varied at head of comms discretion (not least because most HR colleagues now have to pay their own CIPD subscriptions).  Rename the deal ‘Annual CPD development package’ and most of those council heads of comms could suddenly be allowed to spend £200-250 a year per head on it, and feel they were getting good value too – with individual membership thrown in for free!  I bet it’s not only councils that are like this – but I honestly believe that an approach like this could deliver us 500 brand new members, maybe 1,000, just from that one sector.  Make sure that enough of these events are themed, and budget holders can lever in funds from other departments – I’ve always found it easy to lever in development funding from emergency planning budget holders if the course I am sending my comms team member on will give them more skills in that area.  Small changes like this that show CIPR actually understands the reality of life for our members can make a big and even immediate difference.  The current corporate membership scheme is a nod in this direction – but it is unimaginative, inflexible and frankly isn’t making the kind of big difference that needs to be made.

That’s my honest perception of things that should change in our institute, and a few early positive ideas to go with them.

In my view the current draft strategy is both way too vague and way too timid, and overall fails to address where we are now – warts and all – let alone where we need to be, all without a credible route map to get us there.

To note: I have screen-grabbed Tweets from various current and former CIPR members above, from open source comments made on Twitter.  I do not pretend to speak on their behalf – they can all speak for themselves perfectly well – and hope I have not used them out of a context with which they would be content.  These are my views, and no-one should assume that anyone I’ve quoted agrees with me – I’ve just been inspired by their public comments as shown.

I’d urge everyone to make their own contributions directly to the current consultation on the CIPR’s four year strategy, though I’d also love to hear your views on what I’ve written, either in comments below, or on Twitter @peterholt99 or by email to peterholt99@yahoo.co.uk as I believe it is time to #changeCIPR.

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