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The Predictable Unpredictability of Association PR

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If you are considering a public relations career at an association, your research will quickly reveal that there are probably more associations out there than you ever thought and that they vary greatly in size, reach and level of sophistication.

What's Unique About Associations?

The common element in all associations is their nonprofit nature (though whatever their level of sophistication, nonprofit associations are still businesses, with the payrolls, revenue generating arms and stratification inherent to any corporation). The lack of the profit motive common to all corporate settings means association public relations is a less tangible but no less important function.

The Importance of The Membership

Keep in mind, that associations have a volunteer membership; these members the heart and pocketbook of any association are not a static, captive audience. Naturally, they expect to see some tangible results for their money.

Associations from the American Dietetic Association to the International Banana Association; and the American Society of Magazine Editors exist to serve their membership, the public and the media. Indeed, public opinion, most clearly shaped by media exposure, becomes one of the most important barometers of the success and impact of any association. Therefore, the PR arm is highly visible and influential.

Because everyone is "pulling at the same oar" and (hopefully) heading in the same direction, most associations possess a more interactive atmosphere than the typical corporation, where such comradely behavior may be impossible (because of in house politicking, an overtly competitive environment, the amount of money at stake, etc.). Given the similarity of mission, salaries, duties, etc. from association to association, you'll also find a considerable amount of networking between them, as well.

Values Change With The Leadership

At the top of any association are the appointed or elected officers, which include the president. These officers typically serve for one year, although many remain from year to year, merely switching from office to office. The arrival of each new president signals a new philosophy and set of values that must be absorbed into the day to day functioning of the association whether you or anyone else agrees with them or not. And each new president and slate of officers may have different perspectives on public relations, which may mean relative autonomy or, at the other end of the spectrum, constant input from the top.

While the PR or communications arm of the association may not completely understand some of the motivations or actions taken by its officials, their job is to communicate these mandates in a positive and effective manner. Though one must be an ambassador for the direction the administration has chosen, there is considerable creative latitude in the way that message is positioned and the methods utilized to achieve the greatest positive impact. It is a challenge that, when met, is extremely satisfying.

Moving Into The PR Mainstream

John Bailey, formerly chief elected officer for the American Society of Association Executives and the author of an article on associations for a previous edition of this Career Directory has aptly noted that association public relations has, for the most part, left the so called backwaters of the "good old days" and begun to move into the PR mainstream. There certainly is a movement chat is blurring the differences between "mainstream PR" and the traditionally less sophisticated f R operations at associations, though fundamental differences, particularly the less tangible nature of the PR work and the resulting need to communicate the "product" to a membership, remain. As Bailey points out, that function is necessary simply for an association to survive.

There are other examples I have experienced. The entire communications division at the ADA was recently computerized after everyone agreed that this was necessary to simply continue to provide the high level of service our members, the public and the media expected.

Another example of this blurring effect is the fact that the former head of the division had long tenures at two of the three largest public relations firms in the world. The skills he brought to the association from the "PR mainstream" fit seamlessly into the public relations direction of the association.

The People We Need

Altruistic as it may sound, there is an advantage in working directly for the public good. Associations have become major disseminators of public information and are looked to as authorities in their fields most associations' public relations efforts are divided primarily between public information and education.

The size of an association will, to a great extent, define its functions and the kinds of projects it can afford to undertake. Larger associations, for example, are increasingly realizing the importance of joint projects aimed at the public. Since these projects are typically concerned with public education, they will force you to learn many skills quickly. At larger, national organizations, satellite teleconferences beamed to several major cities simultaneously and large promotions that involve national tours are not unusual.

Smaller associations with budgets to match may have to stick with very basic efforts out of financial necessity. Their reach (and the number of projects you get to work on), therefore, will be relatively limited.

Because the public expects associations to be highly service oriented, an association PR person needs to get a good grip on a mind boggling array of accurate information. Associations are expected to be on the cutting edge of developments in their fields, so their PR persons must act as gatekeepers and monitors they may be (and frequently are) called upon to act as a spokesperson on nearly any topic at any time. For that reason, be ready for total immersion in your association's reason for existence and some long hours in the library.

The PR person at an association may be just as busy communicating to members what he or she has communicated to everyone else. This is affectionately called "justifying your existence/' it will be an integral part of your working day. This activity brings into play a separate set of skills than those typically associated with PR work.

Associations need people who can write well. They need people with an understanding of the various audiences members, the public and the media. Today, an understanding of all media print and broadcast and the differences between them is essential. Progressive associations need conceptualizer and proactive thinkers maintaining the status quo is no longer enough. Finally, associations want someone who can turn the intangible into the tangible you must be able to assess how much "bang for the buck" you received for each project undertaken.

Moving Up, Moving Out, Moving On

If you start at a small association, you will do everything, much as a journalist at a small weekly does everything but deliver the paper. The skills you develop in such a situation will eventually be invaluable, though they may not strike you as such at the time. Hang in there, and you will soon be able to move up or out to a bigger association.

Associations are also proving grounds for public relations firms. The knowledge you will gain in the specialized field or industry your association represents is a very marketable commodity in the increasingly specialized world of public relations firms I have seen many people move directly from a brief association stint to some of the largest PR firms (and, in some cases, right back again!).

There will be no dearth of stimulating projects. Every day is different, and the unexpected is the only thing predictable about the job.

RICHARD W. ASA, former manager of media relations with the American Dental Association, is now an education and feature writer for Pioneer Press (circulation 160,000) in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Prior to his position with the ADA, Mr. Asa was a feature writer for a Chicago daily newspaper. During his eight years in journalism, he covered the Chicago police and fire departments, the Board of Education and City Hall. He continues to contribute freelance articles to World Book, various national health magazines and ADA.
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