A big year for CIPR – time for some more long-termism in our structures?

Maybe every year is a key year for an organisation you care about, but 2020 certainly qualifies in this regard for CIPR, my professional body.

I’ve written before both about how much good CIPR does for the profession, which is why I’ve been an active volunteer member for a majority of my getting on for twenty years of membership.  I’ve also shared though some criticisms of a range of specific CIPR policies and practices, and how CIPR has lost its way a bit, so in 2020 I’ll redouble my efforts campaigning for change.

I am excited for what lies ahead this year too though.  I think that the newly-installed CIPR President’s plans are genuinely exciting.  You can read more of Jenni Field’s thoughts here – and I make it a point of rarely arguing with anyone who so liberally quotes Aaron Sorkin to illustrate their writing.

Jenni’s inaugural Volunteer Conference is a great idea, and that she is holding that in Manchester, with the CIPR AGM in Scotland both speak to one of my central complaints: that CIPR is too London-centric.  If we could just see that embraced in CIPR’s working generally, rather than token signal events, we’d be cooking on gas (as precisely no-one under the age of 50 says any more).

So I’ll carry on as a member of CIPR’s Council (an advisory body – the key decisions get taken at Board) and as a member of the Board’s Finance Committee to press on a range of specific issues, from making monthly direct debits available to new members to sticking to the Institute’s prudent financial reserves policy; from embracing more openness and accountability to our members to doing a more focused job of marketing membership to students; and from making the shift from operating as a predominantly commercial body to one where providing direct member benefits are the largest element of our activities.

A lot of these changes I’m campaigning for aren’t sexy – but each one should make a pretty immediate and positive impact on our membership.

I’ll be spending more of the time I have available as a CIPR volunteer in the first half of 2020 though leading on this exciting project developing a report and best practice toolkit to support professional communicators in handling safeguarding issues.  We’re now taking evidence for this project, so do get in touch.

I also welcome that there is new blood on the CIPR’s Board – six new members I think out of something like eleven in total – details here.  I interviewed one of the new Board members recently – you can read that here.

But hold on – why am I thinking just about whether any individual year is more momentous than another?  Obviously because of our annual switch of Presidency.

Although there is some continuity on the Board, with each CIPR President serving on it for three years in a row (first as President-elect, then for their year as President, then for a third year as Immediate-past-President), six of the other eight Board members serving two year terms, with the last two serving just one year.   Personally, I am used in governance terms to there being longer-term planning, and with membership of the key governing bodies serving longer terms.  I have sat on charity boards, for example, with a four year term, and a term limit of two terms (ie eight years).  This allows for a greater retention of knowledge, and focus on more effectively longer-term planning, and allowing for succession planning over a longer-period, with fewer cliff edges in terms of people leaving at the same time.

Combine this average two years of Board membership with the secrecy surrounding the Board operations (not even elected Council members like me are allowed to see papers or minutes from Board meetings) and we have an institutionalised short-termism that in my opinion represents a substantial governance risk.

I strongly suspect that some staff members are also tired of having to revisit the same kind of issues with a distressing frequency because of this fast turnover and lack of organisational memory that comes with it.

To be fair, we have just adopted a 2020-2024 strategy, but the problem with this is that the closer we get to 2024, the fewer people we will have left on our key decision making body that were personally involved in developing that strategy (quite possibly none at al for its last year or two), and therefore the decision makers of the time will be less familiar with and feel inevitably less ownership of a strategy they simply inherited.

I don’t have a simple or instant recipe for addressing this short-termism, as it would require both a series rule changes and a much harder shift in mind-set, but I do think it is something that we should at least begin a debate on if we are determined to flourish as a membership body, where our challenges are rarely as simple as can be sorted in the short term.  Maybe we need an elected administration with a four or five year term, with or without an annually-changing President?

Who knows – maybe this all got discussed just two or three years ago, and I’m just raking over old ground – though that would rather prove the point, no?  Comments are open below – what do you reckon?

Making membership of your professional body a ‘no brainer’ – Q and A with leading PR industry figure Mike Browne

Q. Tell us please a bit about you, your career, and your membership in CIPR, as well as the membership body you now work in, and your role there?

A. I’ve been in communications for nearly 30 years. My early career was leading comms for local authorities including two London Boroughs. Consultancy interim and work then took me to other authorities, regulators, an Ombudsman and even a Pension Authority. For the last five years I have been Director of Brand and Communications for the Law Society. I arrived as an interim, but love the issues rich brief and the breadth of our work, so agreed to stay.  I joined CIPR early doors in my career.

Q. What would you say are the most obvious similarities between CIPR and your body, and what are the biggest differences?

A. The biggest similarities are those shared by all membership bodies, the struggle for share of mind and demonstrating value to time poor members. A clearly expressed and delivered offer based on insight into what members need is the best way to achieve this. The biggest difference between CIPR and The Law Society (TLS) is that Solicitors have to be a member of the Law Society at the moment, but we want to get to the point where if membership became voluntary, it would be a “no brainer”. We are doing this by focusing on tackling five core member needs and consistently demonstrating our impact. Member satisfaction has risen by 8% in two years as a result.

Mike Browne

A. Like CIPR our member research has shown us that we are perceived to be London centric, despite the fact that there are large concentrations of members in many other parts of the country. We now run a number of key events such as our anti money laundering conference in multiple centres and are doing more to make event content available through webinars and podcasts so that they can be accessed anywhere and at times to fit members’ busy lives.

Q. What’s your experience of the CIPR’s membership offer in comparison to what your organisation has for its members?

A. Our member research tells us that the more different types of our activity our members engage with, the more satisfied they are, the better their value for money perception and the more likely they are to speak favourably about us. It also tells us that engagement and satisfaction vary at different career stages. Thinking about different stages in my career I have expected different things of CIPR. In early career it was primarily networking and practice sharing through my sector group which I went on the chair, later on I engaged by lecturing on the CIPR diploma, now it is mainly through CPD. At some stages it has simply been through the letters on my CV. At the Law Society we have developed research based personas for different types of member to help focus our offer and our communications, this is helping to clarify where we put our effort and how we spend members’ money.

Q. Has your membership body had any successes in promoting diversity that you think might translate well to CIPR?

A. The solicitor profession is increasingly diverse with more than 50% now being female, but a significantly smaller percentage of women at board level, so there is a way to go. Similarly, BAME solicitors are less well represented at senior levels in large firms. We run two schemes, our Diversity Access Scheme helps fund and mentor 10 candidates per year from under represented backgrounds as they train to enter the profession. Our Social Mobility Ambassadors Scheme features the stories of ten people per year who have overcome challenges to enter the profession from non traditional backgrounds so that people considering a career in the law can seeand learn from role models.

Q. What’s your one favourite thing about CIPR membership, and what one thing (if any) would you most like to see change in CIPR?

A. My favourite thing has to be simply the sense of belonging to a wider community. In terms of change, I think wider and deeper membership. I spoke to one of my press team, who is early in his career the other day and he was not aware of the existence of CIPR. Naturally encouraged him to join, but I would like membership to be a “no brainer” and to bring obvious value to members so that we all advocate for it.

Q. Can you pass one please one piece of wisdom or learning from your career to people starting off in PR?

A. As the great philosopher Chumbawumba said many, many times, “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down. Any career setback is an opportunity to learn and grow. When you look back on difficult times, these are the things that have made you a better, more rounded professional.

Localism, diversity and braveness – what could CIPR maybe learn from other professional bodies?

I think we have potentially a lot to learn from the experience of other membership bodies, as well as a lot to offer, so to help jump-start that debate, here is the first in an occasional series of interviews with long-standing CIPR members who have leading jobs in other such associations.

First up, a few questions to Rob Yeldham.

Q. Tell me please a bit about you, your career, and your membership in CIPR, as well as the membership body you now work in, and your role there? 

A. I am a chartered PR and have worked in different areas of PR (public affairs, campaigns, press relations and strat Comms) since 1989. I work as Director of Strategy, Policy & Engagement for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.  

Q. What would you say are the most obvious similarities between CIPR and your body, and what are the biggest differences? 

A. Both the CSP and CIPR as Chartered bodies offering charter status to qualified members. Both are voluntary to join.  Unlike the CIPR the CSP is also a trade union and we don’t have any competitor bodies speaking for the profession. We have a much higher density of membership than the CIPR. The CSP with 58,000 members is also larger.

Q. What practical steps does your membership body take to handle the challenges of serving members based all over the country?

A. The CSP is embarking on a “localism” programme to make members feel we are alongside them wherever they live, work or learn. I am the director leading this. Key elements include supporting regional and local groups and refocusing our staffing to provide regional virtual teams to work with active members locally.

Q. What’s your experience of the CIPR’s membership offer in comparison to what your organisation has for its members?

A. The two organisations are quite different. Apart from being a union as well as a professional body, the CSP also offers professional liability insurance as part of the basic membership package. We do a lot more to be the voice of the profession with policy and decision makers, but as a much bigger organisation we are better resourced to do that. Where CIPR scores in comparison to CSP is the accreditation of third party CPD providers.

Q. Has your membership body had any successes in promoting diversity that you think might translate well to CIPR?

A. For the CSP the diversity of the profession and diversity of our members are directly related. But within the “pool” we can recruit from we’ve found targeted events and opportunities for overseas qualified physios useful in addressing their under representation. But we have a way to go.

Q. What’s your one favourite thing about CIPR membership, and what one thing (if any) would you most like to see change in CIPR?

A. CIPR provides me with a professional  identity. For the first part of my career I couldn’t fit what I was doing into a label. Being a chartered PR practitioner now gives me a status with other qualified professionals. I would most like to see CIPR being a braver voice for the profession challenging those who see it as an overhead or nice to have, not a core strategic function. 

Q. Can you pass one please one piece of wisdom or learning from your career to people starting off in PR?

A. Perfection is the enemy of good – don’t angst about getting everything 100% theoretically correct.

Catch them early, keep ‘em for a lifetime?

I’ve carried out some desk research to compare what my own professional body offers in terms of attracting university students to join whilst on campus.  It figures – catch someone at this early stage, give them a great experience, and they’re more likely to join up to a full membership grade post-graduation, and then stick with you throughout their career?
I wouldn’t want to overstate this – it’s not the route through which I entered the profession – but it still seems to make an obvious sense.
Let me stress: my comparative research is desk-based only – I cruised the websites of ten professional bodies.  I didn’t go on campus to see what students are being offered first hand in terms of promotional material, and I didn’t interview or survey any students.  I’d suggest that my analysis does though suggest that at face value there is an issue worthy of further, more in-depth research, and some lessons that my Institute could learn from others.
This comparative group includes the same nine I used in another recent comparative exercise – including the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), which work in similar fields to CIPR.  The other seven, I previously (randomly) selected from amongst the range of other U.K. membership bodies with Royal Charters.
I developed a five point scale against which to score the offer
1 point for a heavily-reduced student-level membership fee (offering a discount of 50% or more on full membership fee); 1 further point for free membership at that grade to students on an accredited course; 1 point for relevant discounts offered to student-level members e.g. on course books

1 point for other benefits, like student networks and events, or mentoring scheme; 1 point for a compelling and thorough marketing and promotional job (e.g. including student testimonial videos)

If I’ve made any subjective judgments in my scoring with which you disagree – or if you don’t value my scoring scale – well, fair enough.  I’m just trying to do a quick bit of comparative research.  I care about improving my own professional body; I think we have a lot to gain by looking at the experience and approach of other membership bodies; and I like an evidence-based approach.  Correct me (please!), but don’t be challenging my honest motivation and good intentions.

So here’s what I found:

CIPR – £35 per year student membership for anyone studying for an undergraduate or post graduate degree of at least 12 months, but ‘free student membership for those on CIPR recognised courses is now closed’.  I’ve looked throughout the CIPR website to find a positive selling job promoting the benefits of student membership, but I’m afraid the detail is pretty paltry.  Here’s what it says on the ‘membership benefits’ page:

I tried clicking through on the hyperlink on the ‘student’ column to see if that offered more, but it only took me to the ‘Charter, regulations and code of conduct’ page, which was slightly weird.

Here’s what it says in the ‘Why you should join’ tab – lots of useful info, but this is generic, with nothing targeted at students.
Just this in the ‘student’ section of the ‘membership grades’ page (and with just a click through to the application form if you click the ‘student’ hyperlink on that page, with no additional info.
There may be better promotional materials targeted at students to join, but in twenty minutes by searching the CIPR website search engine or google generally (in case there is a micro site somewhere) I honestly couldn’t find any.
I am therefore scoring CIPR at just 1/5 on my comparative measure – 1 for heavily reduced membership fee, but zero for free membership on accredited courses (which seemingly used to be offered, but has now been withdrawn), zero for student/course-specific discount benefits (e.g. on books), zero for student-specific marketing materials, and zero for additional student-specific resources (like networks or bespoke student-specific online resources).
CIPD – £98 per year, plus £40 joining fee.  A comprehensive, targeted brochure https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/cipd_student-membership-brochure-sept-2019_tcm18-63282.pdf and testimonial videos, as well as all sorts of student-specific resources like a student hub, discounts on textbooks, and online communities.  Score: 4/5
CMI – £67.  Video and copy explaining benefits clearly.  Seems to offer free membership on its future leaders programme for students on an accredited course, and some half-decent online marketing collateral.  4/5 (as I couldn’t immediately see any student-specific discounts)
CII – 1/5 – does offer a student discount, but can’t find that it offers anything specific for students other than this discount
CSP – £115.68 compared to £371.40 – 4/5 scores in all regards, except free membership on accredited courses
CIH – 5/5
CIM – £65 student fee compared to £230 full member.  1/5
CIPFA – £161, half standard membership fee of £332.  They do though offer student-specific benefits, such as a CIPFA Student Network, which has a representative role in CIPFA governance.  4/5
CIEH – Offers an affiliate membership rate of £54 compared to full membership of £185.  There is a mention of ‘specialist support for students’ but no readily available detail thereof, so am only scoring this 1/5.
PRCA – scored 4/5, as does include either reduced membership rate of £15 per year, or else free membership if studying on an accredited university course.  Only score of zero was because I couldn’t see any student-specific discounts.
Overall conclusion: two tiers amongst the 11 I looked at.  CIPR and three others scored just 1/5 on my rough-and-ready scoring matrix.  The other six scored 4/5 or 5/5.
The other noteworthy factor was that some of the student membership fees felt pretty high to me.  This is massively subjective, as it doesn’t address value for money – but £161 a year (CIPFA) felt steep, where CIPR’s £35 felt much more affordable.
Beyond that – I offer no real conclusions beyond noting that CIPR’s online marketing and clarity of offer to its student grade members on the face of it looks like it needs some work, esp. when compared to six of the other nine I looked at.

How affordable is it to join a professional body for someone just starting out in their career?

Short answer: a huge variation, with my own professional body, the CIPR, being far and away the most expensive in the month-one, up-front payment required of a newly-joining full member, when  compared to ten others I randomly selected for this study.

up front month one payments required to join eleven UK professional bodies

Just to be clear what I am comparing here: not the annual fee for full membership (which varies a good amount, and on which the CIPR is far from the highest), but how much is actually required in the very first payment to join.  Some are higher because (like the CIPR) they include a one-off joining fee in the order of £55.  Most are lower,  because they allow you to spread the year’s membership fee (including for new members in their first year) over 4 quarters, or 10-12 months in direct debits or standing orders.  Although the CIPR does offer a monthly direct debit option, it does not offer that to new members joining in their first year, and instead requires them to pay the full year’s fee plus one off joining/admin fee all in the first payment.

It costs a new member of CIPR £270 to join, all required up front – made up of £215 membership fee, plus £55 one-off joining fee.  Actually, the basic cost is £290, made up of £235 membership fee plus the £55, but a £20 discount is offered if the new member signs up by annual direct-debit on day one.  I’ve shown £270 in the graph, to give the benefit of the doubt.  Occasionally there is a special offer code to waive the £55 joining fee, but I can’t find one at present, so have quoted the full price as advertised on the CIPR website membership page.

There are hundreds of different professional membership bodies in the UK, and they each operate in their own ways, albeit with many common characteristics, and fewer substantial differences.  Those like my own – the Chartered Institute of Public Relations – enjoy a Royal Charter, awarded by the Privy Council – that have further layers of formality and legality built-in.

One thing that nearly all seem to have in common (unsurprisingly!) is that they like to catch people early in their careers – most having student-level grades.  They then like their members to progress through various grades throughout their career, with full-membership grades and often a fellow-level grade for the most advanced practitioners.  Many also have retired-practitioner memberships (with fewer benefits, but much lower fees).

Some of these bodies have (by definition) 100% membership of those eligible, where membership is a recognised requirement to be able to practice in that profession – like solicitors practicing in England needing to be members of the Law Society.  Others, like my own, have only a share of those working in the field, as professional membership is neither required by law nor by commonly accepted industry practice.

It’s even more important therefore that professional bodies who have to work hard to get practitioners to join get their members in early, and quickly show them the value of membership so that they consciously choose to stay.  I think that compared to the ONS census of how many people work in PR, CIPR has maybe one member out of five working in the field.

One factor – amongst many others – in persuading someone to join as a full member at the start of their career, once they’ve landed their entry-level job, is surely to make it affordable.  If you earn £20-25k as a first jobber, you might have how much left after tax and deductions: £1,000-1,500 a month to pay your rent, travel, food etc.?  £270 is an awful lot to find out of that in a single month.

In a spare weekend hour, I looked at the websites of 10 UK professional bodies to compare the up-front affordability of joining with that of my own, the CIPR.  I chose nine other Chartered Institutes, and the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) as it operates in the same field as the CIPR, and to some degree is therefore a direct competitor where the others generally are not.

My research was only drawing from what was written on the websites; I did not follow this up with phonecalls to membership departments to double-check.  So although I accept that my findings may contain error, please accept that these are innocent errors, and are errors based by me taking the copy on their various websites at face value (including availability of spreading payments by direct debit or standing order).

In the recent CIPR Presidential election, the issue of membership fees became a bit of an issue.  The winning candidate, Mandy Pearse, argued for the one-off joining fee (currently £55) to be removed.  There’s currently a Strategy Review underway within CIPR looking at 2020-2024, so I for one am hopeful that we might see this situation changed fairly soon.  At the very least, I would hope for a change in policy so that the monthly direct debit option can be extended to new members in their first year, thus slashing the up-front payment required of someone joining afresh.

I think it’s fair to expect a professional person in our industry to make sacrifices and pay for the membership of a professional body, on the principle that people need to give in, not just take out.  CIPR membership – active CIPR membership – has helped my career, and contributed substantially I am sure to me earning a really good living.

But why my professional body would make it so expensive up front for new members to join at the start of their career makes no sense to me.

Fingers crossed this will soon be changed.  If and when that happens, let me be the first to welcome it and applaud those responsible.

Oh – and to anyone who wants to have a pop at me because a post like this might embarrass our Institute, then I say that any such embarrassment has been earned by the fee charging policy in question, and the lived experience of our membership, and not by me shining a light on it, when all the facts are in the public domain anyway.  And anyone who thinks it somehow ungenteel of me to want to discuss these things with our wider membership – in public, being the only way I can do that – rather than in the closed circles of CIPR Council (of which I am an elected member) or CIPR Board (of which I am not), then I say that I’d rather be ungenteel in generating a front-line member debate and reaction than just trust to the closed circles who would have had the power to introduce this policy in the first place, and the power to remove it at any time since.  #changeCIPR

Does PR *really* have an age problem?

So this PR Moment article drops into my inbox with the title, ‘Does PR have an age problem?’

Saved that for a weekend read, after my first impression was that it’d be telling a story of how hard it is for young people to get into the profession, with too many chasing far too few entry-level jobs.

The weekend has come and gone; I’ve read Daney Parker’s article leading off with Darryl Sparey’s analysis, and boy, was my assumption wide of the mark!  Quoting from the 2017 IPA census, the article’s opening premise is that “PR is a profession that has far more than it’s fair share of younger workers.”

Darryl’s quote drawing from that survey is pretty stark, sharing that “….only 7.7% of creative and non-media agency staff are aged over 50, and just 0.8% are over 60.”

So – I’ve been reflecting on this and doing a bit of desk-based background reading.

I am left wondering if the headline matches the article, to be honest.  The survey from which the statistics come is the IPA census of its member agencies, and the IPA is the industry body for the advertising sector, not PR.  I haven’t downloaded the full survey results, as they are £25 to non-IPA members like me, to see if it really does address PR rather than advertising, but it would seem not from the open source excerpts.

I had a quick look instead at the 2019 CIPR State of the Profession survey results, in which 23% of respondents were in the 45-54 age bracket, with a further 10% aged 55-64, and another 1% 65+.   So – even though the age brackets don’t match between CIPR and IPA surveys, the CIPR data suggests 2 or quite possibly 3 times the proportion of over 50s working in PR than the advertising sector – and that is interesting in and of itself for sister professions.

I’d be intrigued to see if anyone else has any research or analysis on this situation, as I know my reading round the subject has only scratched the surface.

It did though make me reflect that the leadership (in the wider sense) of my professional body is pretty unrepresentative of the wider profession in age terms.  I’m a member of CIPR’s Council, and just thinking back to our last meeting, I hesitate to try to age profile us as a group, beyond pondering that there weren’t many younger faces.

Now this is almost certainly inevitable, and not even intrinsically wrong.  The leaderships of professional membership bodies are going to tend to be more established practitioners – we are more settled, perhaps feel we have gathered more experience we have a duty to share, and are more likely to be more senior and therefore more able to spend the day in London at a meeting.  Without beating ourselves up over any under-representation in this particular regard, it has started me wondering whether to properly lead the body, we don’t need to find some other way of better hearing the voice and understanding the lived experience of our younger members.

The under-representation of BME members of the wider profession is another stark issue, and its great that the Taylor Bennett Foundation is doing such great work in helping address this, though this shouldn’t allow us in CIPR to sub-contract that responsibility.

There’s also a really interesting debate to be had about the over-representation in PR in relation to class.  Whatever proxy measure you care to use to measure it – whether you went to a fee paying school or not, how much your parents earned when you were 14, or how you self-define now as an adult, class is another of those tricky issues that we probably all know is a factor in inequality of opportunity – even if that is just down to the obvious who has parents rich enough to support them in entering the profession through unpaid internships.

In a roundabout way therefore this article has helped me begin to focus on the challenge of how the industry body I give a big chunk of my time to as a volunteer – the CIPR – needs to change so as to better represent the industry.

Plus it’s reminded me that as a 51 year old high-earning white bloke who as a kid went (albeit on a scholarship) to a fee paying school founded in 1407, it’s never not a good time to reflect on my own privilege.

Is CIPR making its training offer less London-centric for next year?

In August of this year (2019) there was a healthy bit of online debate about whether my professional body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, was too London-centric.  This even became a topic of debate in the CIPR Presidential election.

One aspect of this perception was how few of the courses run by the CIPR were offered outside London, so I sat down one wet Sunday in August, looked at the CIPR’s website, went through all the courses advertised for the rest of 2019, and did a count.

The results were depressing:

7 insert

Anyway – we’re a couple of months on now, and I’ve just seen the list of ‘regional workshops’ planned for next year, 2020.  [Yes – I know – Scotland is *not* a region of the UK – it is a Nation.]

2020 regional workshops

So – it is a good looking list of workshops, with a real variety, and as usual I presume delivered by CIPR’s top notch trainers.  I think they are priced at £360 (inc VAT) for members, as opposed to £540 for non-members – a discount of 33% well worth having – which nearly covers the membership fee all on its own just for a single course booked.


20 courses offered outside London for the whole of 2020?  None in Wales.  None in Northern Ireland.  None in the South West.  None in East Anglia.  None in the North West.  None in Wessex.  None in Home Counties South.  None in Thames and Chiltern.  None in the Channel Islands.  None internationally.

I can’t tell you what proportion these 20 courses is of the wider range of workshops already arranged for 2020, as that information isn’t published yet.  To make anything of a comparison, I’ve just gone back to the CIPR website and counted all the courses offered during 2019, and there were I believe 261 in total.  20 (outside London for 2020) compared to 261 in total (for 2019) is not something I think we as members should be comfortable with.

Running courses that make a profit – that in turn contributes to supporting other CIPR activities – does of course mean factoring in demand.  I’m not looking for some regional/National parity or quota of courses – but how things are, I think the London-centric perception is a genuine and wider problem for us as an Institute, so we really do need to see some substantial movement in the right direction.

We could have seen a sign of that today.

Maybe more than these 20 courses outside London will yet materialise.  I know that the CIPR’s volunteer-led regional, National and sectoral groups will be laying on loads of events, including training courses, outside London again next year, so overall that 20 will go up substantially – but why, once again, does it look like the heavy-lifting is being left to CIPR volunteers when it comes to serving the rest of the UK (and world) whose professional life doesn’t revolve around London?

It’s been said that CIPR is like an oil tanker – it can’t change direction in a hurry.  It’d be nice to have seen a sign in today’s release that the tiller was being turned – but if it has, I can’t see sign of it yet.  #changeCIPR


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.

Finally some clear blue water in the 2019 CIPR Presidential Election?

I think a clear dividing line has emerged in the current 2019 #ciprelection, over as one candidate @rachroyall accurately describes it the “lots of debate about our PR community – the regions, nations, and the membership offer”.

Like Rachel, I’ve seen a lot of people saying how unhappy they are at what membership offers people outside London compared to those inside it.  People shocked to learn that all the regional, national and sectoral groups combined got less than 1% of CIPR spend last year in HQ grants.  People just not feeling that the membership subs offers value for money.

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The two candidates can speak for themselves – and they have, so please read around rather than take my word – I don’t want to misrepresent anyone, as I am one of Mandy’s nominators in this election.  I don’t want to disparage anyone, either a candidate, CIPR staff member, or a fellow volunteer like me (having been a sectoral committee member on-and-off for over ten years, a former chair, annual conference host, speaker, writer, tea-maker and general dogsbody).  I do just want a campaign in which we are confident enough of the Institute of which I am proud to be a member is able to look at itself, admit weaknesses, and be willing to change.

I’ve read @MandyPearse respond with thoughtful responses like this one and comments drawing on evidence-based analysis from the 2019 State of the Profession survey like:

“Time for a debate on subs.  Drop joining fees & give incentives for those on lower incomes to help #diversity.  There is a huge gap between top earners on over £80k, avge salary at just over £51k, the median at £30k.”  Mandy Pearse, Twitter, September 2019.

I’ve read Rachel set out an honourably different policy response to this debate she recognises, calling for ‘a new commercial strategy’.  There is one quote from Rachel that I don’t think I could possibly be accused of taking out of context though, and that is from here, so you can read the whole article (please do!) where she says: 

“Don’t vote for me if you think the CIPR membership rate should be reduced because I don’t agree.”  Rachel Royall, 13th September 2019, PRmoment.com 

I’d always wanted an election campaign of ideas, where the choice boiled down to different policy positions, and who had the better-developed, more credible, nuanced and evidence-based set of solutions.  I think we finally have a set of issues on which the difference in policy prescriptions is crystal clear.

That, funnily enough, is why I’m so pleased to have voted #mandyforpresident.  Find out more about Mandy’s campaign here.

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