PRSA’s “he said/she said” controversy has me looking for answers

Color me troubled over a conflicting story emerging from the Public Relations Society of America in this holiday season. I’m not ready to take sides in this battle, but I’m also not sure whom to believe.

It started with this story from Joe Ciarallo at PRNewser, a story announcing PRSA’s decision to shut down its Multicultural Communications Section (MCS) and make it part of the society’s standing Diversity Committee.

PRSA’s side of the story: MCS’s low membership (73) is well below the minimum 200 set forth two years ago in a business model for professionals sections. From the statement in PRNewser: “Those sections that fail to meet the stated criteria are subject to being sunset.”*

I read it this way: It was a business decision. MCS didn’t make numbers.

Co-chair of the MCS Executive Committee, Kerri Allen, says the decision to shut down MCS came as a surprise. From her statement published in PRNewser:

The section executive committee leaders received only written communications on December 17 from the PRSA staff that effective January 1, the Section would be dismantled. No prior discussion had taken place, including at the organization’s International Conference in October.

When I asked Arthur Yann, VP of PR for the society, to clarify, he told me (via email) that discussions had been ongoing for 2 years. It was a business decision; all parties knew it was coming.

It is worth noting that Ms. Allen is a relative newcomer to the leadership post. In an email to me, she said she joined the committee in January, 2009, and stepped in as co-chair only this past July. I’m not sure that has any bearing on the issue.

During a Twitter discussion on Dec. 23, I asked PRSA Membership VP Melissa Yahre for her take:

@myahre But were section leaders invited to discussions before the “sunset” decision? Section chairs are expressing surprise. #prsa

Her response: @BillSledzik we consulted them.

About 15 minutes later, Yahre added: @BillSledzik – also invited leaders to participate in a next steps call to ensure we address all of the needs. All, but one declined.

Kerri Allen’s co-chair in MCS, Dora Tovar, also chimed into the Twitter conversation. Scroll down the @tovarpr page and you’ll see a perspective similar to Allen’s.

I wish I knew what to make of this mess. And I really wish I could ignore it. But that’s not how membership organizations work. Discussions should be open an candid, especially when the parties disagree so strongly about both facts and outcomes of a case.

So there you have it.

On the one hand, PRSA’s elected leadership has a right hold its sub-units financially accountable, and it has done that after what it claims was 2 years of discussions.

On the other hand, the two leaders of MSC hold a different perspective on events, and it’s created plenty of ill will. Can we ignore the message this decision may send to the multicultural audiences?

To be fair, PRSA has done a solid job with diversity initiatives over the years. In my 27 years of membership, I’ve seen women, gays and people of color ascend to the top office of the society, and I’ve seen plenty of PRSA leaders encourage them. While I don’t believe minorities are represented on the current board of directors, that doesn’t mean a conspiracy to disenfranchise them is afoot. PRSA’s membership wouldn’t stand for it.

Maybe there’s a lesson in this case for PRSA and other membership organizations like it. But you’ll have to tell me what that lesson is. As I said in the headline, I’m still looking for answers.

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* I was probably the last person on earth to learn that “sunset” had been declared a verb. I gotta get out more!  :-)

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2 Responses to PRSA’s “he said/she said” controversy has me looking for answers

  1. Bill Sledzik says:

    Journalist and PRSA critic Jack O’Dwyer has weighed in on the controversy over the “sunsetting” of MCS. His newsletter is subscription only, but I don’t think he’ll mind if I share with you the lead to his story.

    From odwyers.com, Dec. 29, 2009.

    PRSA CRITIC BLASTED ON TWITTER

    Arthur Yann, VP-PR of the PR Society, replied sharply to member R.D. Waters when Waters posted on Dec. 22, “Wow, the Society is taking voting away from minorities/multicultural members…sounds just like the 1800s!”

    Replied Yann: “Wow…sounds like the most irresponsible, ignorant comment I’ve heard today. Congrats!”

    Waters, assistant communications professor at North Carolina State University, then replied: “It’ll be interesting to see how the PR diversity scholars side on this, not enough $ = no vote, not a decision I’d want on my hands.”

    Yann replied: “Guess it depends on whether they’re interested hearing the facts or perpetuating half truths.”

    As I said early on, I don’t want to take sides in this one until I know the facts. I know and respect both of the folks in this Twitter exchange. But as a PRSA member in good standing, seems to me that Professor Waters deserves better treatment.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    To be fair about the Twitter discourse on this topic, PRSA’s Associate VP of Membership did a good job listening to member concerns and responding while still standing her ground. Start at Dec. 23 and scroll back.

    Link: http://twitter.com/myahre

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