Transparency and PRSA

Jack O'Dwyer

Jack O'Dwyer

Journalist Jack O’Dwyer loves to criticize the Public Relations Society of America. In fact, he’s been so tough on them in recent times that PRSA forbids staff and national officers from talking with him. A letter to members (pdf) presents PRSA’s position on this media relations nightmare.

The standoff with O’Dwyer means little to the average PR person, but it’s important because Jack is the only high-profile critic PRSA has. Sometimes he gets it right, and yesterday’s editorial is one of those times.

The latest bruhaha

Point: O’Dwyer’s opinion piece of 11/18 (see complete text, bottom of this post) calls out PRSA for withholding the picture-1transcripts of its National Assembly meeting held last month in Detroit. O’Dwyer believes the document should be posted for review by PRSA members and made available to news media. Since the Assembly serves as official governing body of PRSA, publishing the proceedings would seem the “transparent” thing to do, and as it turns out, the laws of New York state appear to call for it as well. (Details in the editorial)

Counterpoint: Why produce a transcript and not post it? PRSA says the document ensures accurate minutes of the annual meeting and that it’s not intended for public consumption. But that wasn’t always the case, as the society released transcripts from 2002-04 as a matter of course. I’m told the society stopped posting transcripts to protect its delegates from unfair attacks by O’Dwyer. Delegates’ fear of being ostracized, PRSA says, might inhibit discussion and debate.

Who will read the Assembly transcript? Hell, I’d rather watch nuns recite the rosary on EWTN. But what about PRSA members who aspire to leadership in the society? Might they learn from the transcripts? Could students use the transcripts to research issues in public relations?

It matters not, since posting the transcripts is the right thing to do. Period.

Since PRSA spent membership dues to produce the transcripts, it should share the contents with all 22,000+ members. Sharing the information with news media is also the right thing to do — unless we have something to hide, and I doubt that.

So let’s rise above suspicion. Let’s open the door, and let the sun shine in already.

As for PRSA’s concern about protecting its members from criticism, sorry, I don’t buy it. Delegates (and I’ve been one 4 or 5 times) should know that the business of the Assembly is the business of all members. If you can’t handle a little criticism, then you shouldn’t run for a leadership position.

WWJD? What will Jack do with the transcript when he eventually gets his hands on it? Most likely, he’ll dissect each paragraph and find a dozen additional reasons to question PRSA’s judgment and policies. Journalists do that when you piss them off; we all know that. Some of Jack’s criticism will strike PRSA leaders as unfair. But Jack will also raise legitimate issues that PRSA should address, as he so often does.

PRSA’s relationship with O’Dwyer may be too far gone to salvage. Both sides have dug in for a long fight, and it’s a safe bet that Jack won’t run out of ammo any time soon. PRSA is seeing to that.

Are PRSA’s leaders so sensitive to criticism from one journalist that they close the door to everyone? That’s the way it looks from where I sit.

Disclosure: Regular readers know I’ve been critical of PRSA at times (here and here). But you should also know that PRSA was vital to my career growth as a practitioner and it remains an important network for my graduates. Despite what I said here, I intend to renew my membership for a 27th year. I am an accredited member of the society and was elected to the College of Fellows in 1996. I have way too much invested to just walk away and shut up.


O’Dwyer’s Editorial

Here is Jack O’Dwyer’s editorial published published yesterday. He have given me permission to repost it here. In case you’re wondering, Jack refers to PRSA as simply “PRS,” saying the society too frequently violates American democratic values. Like I said, these two don’t like each other much.

PRS Members Have Right to Books/Records

PR Society members have the right to see its “complete books and records” and can petition NYC Supreme Court if denied this right, says Section 621, NYS corporate law. PRS thus far is refusing to provide the transcript of the 2008 Assembly.

Tues., Nov. 18

New York State not-for-profit corporation law (Article 6, Section 621) says members have the right to see the “correct and complete books and records of account and minutes of the proceedings of its members, board and executive committee.”

PRS members who have been denied the right to see the 136-page transcript of the 2008 Assembly Oct. 25 in Detroit researched the law after PRS VP-PR Arthur Yann said earlier this month that the 2008 transcript would not be released to the press or members.

Transcripts of the 2002, 2003 and 2004 Assemblies were given to this website and presumably to any member who asked for it.

Lawyers who were consulted on this issue said it is conceivable that the verbatim transcript of the 2008 Assembly could be construed as complying with the “complete” reference in Section 621.They also said the Society itself set a precedent for providing the transcripts when they gave them out for the 2002, 2003 and 2004 Assemblies.

May Petition NYC Supreme Court
Says Section 621:
“(d) Upon refusal by the corporation or by an officer or agent of the corporation to permit an inspection of the minutes of the proceedings of its members or of the list or record of members, as herein provided, the person making the demand for inspection may apply to the Supreme Court in the Judicial District where the office of the corporation is located, upon such notice as the court may direct, for an order directing the corporation, its officer or agent to show cause why an order should not be granted permitting such inspection by the applicant.

”Upon the return day of the order to show cause, the court shall hear the parties summarily, by affidavit or otherwise, and if it appears that the applicant is qualified and entitled to such inspection, the court shall grant an order compelling such inspection and awarding such further relief as to the court may seem just and proper.”

Lawyers said an individual may petition to obtain the transcript without hiring a lawyer. A corporation would be required to hire a lawyer.
The New York City Supreme Court is at 60 Centre St., New York, NY 10007.

Yann Opposes “Rehashing”

Yann, in an e-mail to earlier this month, said the transcript is used to “prepare accurate minutes” and is not to be used “to track or to rehash what was said by whom, which may be taken or reported out of context.”

Delegates had complained at the 2008 Assembly that minutes of the 2007 Assembly were not given to them until the day of the 2008 Assembly.

A resolution was passed in the final minutes of the Assembly ordering the board to produce the minutes of the 2008 Assembly within 30 days after the meeting.
Another resolution asked that a complete agenda be sent to delegates at least three weeks before the Assembly. The final agenda was not given to delegates until the day of the Assembly.

A delegate also asked that the financial report be given as many days as possible in advance of the Assembly and not on the day of the Assembly, as happened this year.

The delegate was told that the Assembly could not see the financial report this year until the finance committee had approved it.

30 Responses to Transparency and PRSA

  1. Ike says:

    Hey, don’t go knocking on EWTN.

    I’m not Catholic, but I know several people who’ve worked there. The worldwide headquarters and studios are on my way to work. Apparently, Irondale, Alabama is more famous in Latin America than it is in the US!

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    Now hold on. That wasn’t a knock. I said I’d far rather watch the rosary on EWTN than read a PRSA Assembly transcript. But I learn something every day in the blogosphere. I had no idea there were Catholics in Alabama. I thought you all worshiped some sort of Red Tide down there.

  3. Shelley Prisco says:

    The PRSA leaders should release the Assembly transcripts to the membership. It’s only fair to the members because they pay the dues to be more “in-the-know” than PR professionals who aren’t members. What happened to the concept of two-way communication here??? Having the transcripts open to members gives them opportunities to bounce ideas (without stealing or plagarizing ideas, of course) off what occurs. They can mold those ideas into their own and come up with concepts to discuss at local chapter meetings.

    The media can even see the transcripts to develop stories that could put PRSA in a positive light. Keeping the door locked and shut tight is only going to raise suspicions.

  4. Ike says:

    The founder of EWTN was called a nutjob when she proposed building a worldwide 24-hour cable channel in suburban Birmingham. It simply wasn’t done. Then it was in fact done.

    Yes, we do have plenty of Catholics here — and there is no conflict, as midnight Mass would only be threatened by a late kickoff that went into several overtimes. Not likely this year. Can I get a Roll Tide from you, Bill? (Class of ’92)

  5. Although I have not been a member for a few years (I think I left in 2002 or so), I am a full time observer of the marketing and PR world. I don’t know about the specific issue you cite here, but I can say that in my personal experience, the PRSA acts like the worst sort of command-and-control corporation. In my experience, they do not engage when people are discussing them and they do not acknowledge other opinions. They have a “message” and they deliver that in a one-way fashion.

    As a result of a command and control mentality (rather than an open and transparent one), I think the PRSA gives its members a very poor (and in my opinion wrong) idea of how to communicate in the always on open world of social media.

    It may be an unfair comparison, but I see the PRSA as advocating the way that John McCain communicated while other organizations such as the Social Media Club advocate the way that Barack Obama communicated. Of course there are a lot of reasons why McCain lost, but I would say poor communications with those who consume information online was certainly a factor.

    The PRSA definition of public relations states: “Public relations helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It serves to bring private and public policies into harmony.”

    Question: Is the PRSA itself, and its own PR style, practicing what it says in this definition?

    David Meerman Scott
    Bestselling author of “The New Rules of Marketing & PR”

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    To David: I promised myself I wouldn’t beat up on PRSA in my responses, but you present a criticism that’s quite valid. Given that PRSA uses “mutual understanding” to define this business, it does little to promote dialogue within its own ranks. Granted, the last conference was loaded with SM speakers and programs. But why does the largest organization of public relations professionals in the world not have a proprietary network in which members could present ideas and concerns?

    While I’m not optimistic that the new board of directors will change much, I plan to hang in and contribute what I can to the discussion. What the hell, I don’t retire for another 13 years!

    To Ike: I’m happy to see the nuns are gainfully employed down there. As for a “Roll Tide,” I’ll have to pass. Still haven’t gotten over the ’79 Sugar Bowl. My alma mater’s football team sucks, so I’ve adopted Penn State. JoePa vs. Bear. It was one for the ages.

  7. Ann Subervi says:

    How often do we counsel our clients that the media (in this case Jack) cannot be controlled by withholding information? Bottom line is this, Jack will write what he will, and anyone who knows this business knows what his biases are, and take them into account. I was a proud assembly delegate for my state, and I don’t feel there was anything said that cannot be repeated. We now live in a world where transparency is expected of leadership organizations. Criticism is necessary for growth…and PR is all about two-way communications.

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ann. It does seem like a no-brainer to many of us on the outside looking in.

    Let me suggest that you or another member of the Assembly request the transcript from PRSA headquarters. If O’Dwyer is correct about New York statute, they should be happy to send it your way. A delegate who receives this file could then post it to his or her chapter website and turn this into a non-issue, which is precisely what it should become. BTW, if PRSA sends the file to me, I’m only too happy to post it on this site.

  9. Jeff Davis says:

    Although I’m a regular reader of ToughSledding, I (@contactjeff) was directed to this post via Twitter, so thought I’d lend a Twitter-oriented response…a heads up that we can all follow PRSA’s VP of PR Arthur Yann (@arthury) as well as Jack O’Dwyer (@271jaxlucy) whenever they take this “conversation” to Twitter.

    That’s where, at least in Yann’s case, the 140-character maximum gets us quickly to the point, as in the following tweet from Nov. 12:

    “Laughing at the befuddled, misanthropic ramblings of a confused, yellow journalist who produces a PR “Opinionletter.” ‘

  10. Arthur Yann says:

    Thoughtful post, Bill. I hope you and your readers will indulge a few points on PRSA’s behalf.

    PRSA staff is not “forbidden” to speak with Mr. O’Dwyer. When I joined PRSA in August, one of my first orders of business was to engage Mr. O’Dwyer and attempt to lay aside old prejudices on both sides. Given the Board’s stated policy of “limiting contact” with him, this was not without risk for the new guy on staff.

    I was rewarded for my effort by having Mr. O’Dwyer misrepresent what I said to him in print; publish portions of my emails to him when he said he would not (shame on me); lie about me in emails to Board members; attack my credibility and professional reputation; question my value to the organization; and intimate at blackmail, saying “there can be peace, it doesn’t have to be this way.”

    There’s more, but I doth not want to protest too much. Still, it’s important context for your readers. PRSA cannot make its case fairly in the pages of Mr. O’Dwyer’s publication, so we simply choose not to try. This is not a media embargo, nor is it “closing the door to everyone.” We accept, support and even appreciate tough but fair reporting; we cannot accept, nor will facilitate, the production of borderline slanderous stories about PRSA and its representatives this distort and misrepresent this organization’s operations, policies and performance.

    With regard to the “transcript in a teapot,” the Society’s Bylaws, which the Assembly has the power to amend, state that the rules contained in the current edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised govern Assembly proceedings. According to Robert’s, the record of the Assembly proceedings are the Minutes, and there is “no object in reporting the debates,” e.g., no reason to produce a transcript.

    Section 621 of the New York Not-for Profit Corporation Law (“N-CPL”), which Mr. O’Dwyer incorrectly cites in support of his position, states that any member (who has been a member for at least 6 months immediately prior to the demand) may make a written demand to examine the minutes of membership proceedings. Based on the requirements of the N-CPL, PRSA is not required to provide transcripts to its members.

    So, now we’ve established two things (1) Mr. O’Dwyer is not advocating publication of the transcript in an effort to promote transparency, but to report comments out of context and in a way that could embarrass the Society and its Board members and Delegates and (2) PRSA is operating in accordance with both its Assembly-approved by-laws and the applicable New York statutes.

    PRSA, however, goes far beyond these basic requirements in an effort to be more completely transparent. As we have in the past, we permitted Mr. O’Dwyer to attend the Assembly (which he recorded, in addition to taking copious notes). We also prepared an extensive Assembly re-cap, which is available online, and made copies of Assembly presentations and documents available to members. In short order, we will publish the Assembly minutes and the results of our post-Assembly Delegate survey. The Assembly aside, we also post our financial results online and send our Form 990 (which includes William Murray’s compensation) to anyone who requests it.

    PRSA membership is growing year over year, and our member satisfaction is extremely high. To all but the most casual observer, the assertion that PRSA is hiding something by not producing an Assembly transcript is laughable.

    Arthur Yann is VP of Public Relations for PRSA.

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for your thorough response, Art. In fairness, I should tell the readers that you and I have had several in-depth discussions — on the phone and via email — about some of my concerns. You were as forthcoming with PRSA’s position then as you are in this comment. (In fact, I recognize some of the talking points.)

    I appreciate your candid response, even though I believe your management’s position regarding the transcripts is wrongheaded and obstinate. That aside, it’s a welcome change to see PRSA engaging in the social-media dialogue. That was not the case before you arrived.

    I’ve followed PRSA’s relationship (or lack of it) with Jack O’Dwyer for a good long time. I stand corrected about the policy that staffers and national officers are forbidden to speak with Jack. But we all know they do not, so some directive must be in place — spoken or unspoken. PRSA blames O’Dwyer for the rift; O’Dwyer blames PRSA. Either way, it’s a standoff, and a classic “lose-lose” situation. Too bad — for all of us.

    I won’t try to parse the legal arguments you make, as I am certain PRSA is operating on advice of very fine counsel. And I can’t make heads nor tails of Roberts Rules of Order.

    But even if we assume PRSA is operating within legal and organizational guidelines, the perception remains that the society may be hiding something. I don’t believe that, and I said so in my post. I remain puzzled over what PRSA can possibly gain from keeping the transcript a secret, especially since PRSA released that transcript in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

    More importantly, I wonder why the most influential PR organization in the world is so fearful of how one journalist might interpret that information. I wonder why my society isn’t showing a little more courage.

    PRSA National Delegate Ann Subervi said it best in her comment above:

    Bottom line is this, Jack will write what he will, and anyone who knows this business knows what his biases are, and take them into account…We now live in a world where transparency is expected of leadership organizations. Criticism is necessary for growth…and PR is all about two-way communications.

    Update: Forgot to mention that Ann, who blogs at The Ethical Optimist, is a huge PRSA supporter. Check her post following the Detroit Conference.

  12. Rob Jewell says:

    Arthur, about your last sentence. Then why not just release the transcript? Then members — if they are at all interested — would have access to the same information that O’Dwyer had. Ann Subervi is correct in her comment. O’Dwyer will write what he wants. I guess that’s the nature of journalism. Yet if he misrepresents something or is just flat out wrong, call him out on it. That’s the great thing about public relations these days. No one (and no organization) has to accept as fact anything a reporter writes or says.

  13. Jack O'Dwyer says:

    Hello Bill: Thanks for having this dialog. The “war” between the Society and me (and it is a war) partly springs from the fact that it owes me at least $100,000 for selling at least 50,000 copies of O’Dwyer articles.

    This dates back to the mid-1990s but it still owes us the money. Here’s the link to the four-page article describing this 15-year practice of the Society of selling authors’ articles without their permission. It immediately stopped it and closed the information packet business when I reported this gross violation of copyright.

    The link:

    So, the Society was only too happy to make money from O’Dwyer articles, which covered the specialties such as healthcare, tech, financial, etc. It refused to pay me or any of the authors anything and thinks it has gotten away with it. But it hasn’t. There’s no time limit on this ethical violation. It loved selling my articles but now hates me!

    So it tries to keep me on the defensive by stonewalling me and attacking me whenever it can. But the real issue remains.

    PRS owes the O’Dwyer Co. and the other authors money but it can start paying us back by giving us free ads in Tactics and Strategist.

    As for the stonewalling about the transcript, it belongs to the entire membership. PRS is not afraid I’m going to take something out of context.

    I want it to show that two hours was wasted on a dialogue about licensing, certification and accreditation when the real issues are chapter-only membership, direct student membership in the Student Society (students from only 300 of the 4,000 colleges can join the Student Society), again printing the beloved members’ directory, removing APR from throughout the bylaws, removing the three-year limit on Assembly service, moving the charter to Delaware to allow electronic meetings, etc.

    Another hour was wasted on speeches by Jeff Julin, Bill Murray, Rosanna Fiske and Mike Cherenson despite repeated Assembly requests that such presentations be made in writing a week or two before the Assembly.

    Members during the Assembly brought up topics only to be told to wait until the “town hall.” There was no town hall for the second year in a row because of all the wasted time. Totally unforgivable is the 2007 minutes not being available until the day of the 2008 meeting; the 3Q financials not being available until the day of the meeting, and the complete list of Assembly delegates never being available to the delegates. How’s that for democracy.

    No wonder I almost choke when someone uses A for America in the title of this organization. It also shouldn’t use the world “public” as its first name since it’s always claiming how “private” it is. PRS has a huge debt to the public since it’s tax-free. We all support the Society. It is in violation of the IRS code since it’s supposed to act like a Chamber of Commerce and be a friend to all and in competition with nothing that a private business could do.

    Yann says the law is on the side of PRS and it doesn’t have to cough up the transcript. We’ll let the New York City Supreme Court decide what is right or wrong here. That’s what courts are for. Members of groups are invited to take their quests for information to that court (since PRS is h.q. in New York City).

    Unless something is done, the 2009 Assembly will be a repeat of 2008. In 2007, leaders promised a complete set of new bylaws. The only one it came up with was a minor change for the international delegate. It lied to the members. What other word is there for it?

    Jack O’Dwyer

  14. Great discussion. PRSA’s stance that it will disclose the minimum necessary is an outdated mindset that seems to suggest great distrust in its members. The emerging best practice in stakeholder communication is to operate with as much transparency as possible — not to disclose as little as possible. Roberts Rules does not prevent the disclosure of a blow-by-blow recording or transcript of the discussion; it simply does not require it. Such a disclosure is completely at the discretion of the organization’s leadership. I remain hopeful that under the pending leadership of Michael Cherenson, APR, PRSA will adopt an updated mindset and show members that they are trusted and respected.

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    To Jack O’Dwyer: Thanks for your reasoned comments to balance the discussion. I can’t speak to how the assemblies have been run, since I’ve not been to one in 7 or 8 years. But when I did serve in the Assembly, there was always pressure to rubber stamp the board agendas. But that’s just lobbying, and pretty standard stuff. I had been warned about it, and I dutifully ignored it.

    I was proud to be part of the Assembly that bucked the Nominating Committee slate and nominated Deborah Miller to president elect. We saw some democracy that day. It was messy and raucous, but it worked like it’s supposed to, and the society was richer for it.

    On the copyright issue, I can tell you that copies of articles from O’Dwyer’s were almost always a part of those wonderful little info packs I ordered from PRSA over the years. And I have to confess, when I got the packets, I copied every article in them before mailing them back. So I probably owe you a few bucks as well, Jack. I’ll buy you a couple of beers in San Diego. How’s that?

    I don’t recall the cost of those packets, btw, but there was a charge. At the same time, I am not a copyright expert and don’t have a good grasp of where “fair use” ends and rights of the author pick up. Seems to me PRSA considered it a “lending library,” and it shipped copies of articles as a means of protecting the originals. I happen to be friends with a copyright expert, Professor Tim Smith of Kent State, and I plan to ask him about it.

    To Dan: I’m with you, my friend. Maybe Mr. Cherenson will decide to chime in on this discussion. Anybody wanna send him a tweet @mcherenson? I should probably stay outta this.

  16. Jack O'Dwyer says:

    Hi Bill: The cost of those packets was $18 for members and $55 for non-members. Mostly they were 60-70 pages of copied materials, including entire 30-40 page copies of entire articles of copyrighted textbooks.

    A user could just run these through his or her own copying machine and ship the copies that PRS had sent back to PRS. The Society’s own financial reports (which were much more complete in those days) indicated yearly profits of $50,000 to $60,000 for the Information Center, about the only dept. that was making a profit. Silver Anvils was also profitable.

    The doctrine of “Fair Use” means a few words excerpted from an article for purposes of news or criticism. Wholesale copying and sale of articles is anything but “Fair Use.”

    The Authors’ Guild branded the PRS defense (that it was a library “lending” copies) as “absurd.” PRS said it was not selling the articles but was charging a “loan fee.” Did you ever hear of a library that charged you $55 to borrow 50-60 pages of copied articles? What library even charges you $18 to borrow a book for three weeks? This was a money-making proposition.

    The copied authors (12 of us hired a law firm) were advised a lawsuit would cost at least $100,000 and PRS would no doubt sue us in return. Three of the copied authors were PR professors and this price was far beyond them.

    If there was anything legal or fair about what PRS was doing, it would have continued it. But it stopped the practice almost immediately and closed the Information Center. O’Dwyer articles were the most copied. We found O’Dwyer 52 articles in 11 packets or about five per packet and the volume of packets was 3,800 in one year.

    Five times 3,800 packets is 19,000 articles a year. So in just three years the number of O’Dwyer articles copied and sold was at least 50,000.

    PRS thought it struck gold. It had a heavy stock, 11X18″ flyer promoting the nearly 1,000 info packets it had on every conceivable subject. Rapid 24-hour delivery was promised and packets were supposed to be returned in three weeks. So how could one copied packet be in circulation?!

    We purposely didn’t return any of the packets and purposely didn’t pay for one of them. That was the only packet that PRS asked us to return.

  17. Mark O. Benner says:

    Early on a boss cautioned me about trying to win some kind of a contest with a skunk. Today I apply the strikeout rule in discussions with polecats and mocking birds. Then I urge my bosses to ignore the strident, single-issue voices of misrepresentation and get on with building relationships with people who are willing to communicate with us. Sharing thoughts and point of view is demanding in such situations—more so for an elected body. The pursuit of open, transparent communications is a commitment to which all public relations professionals must aspire. And we owe our support to all those who rise to this challenge. marko

  18. Stefanie Schroeder says:

    Hi Bill,

    Wow – loved your post. What a way to cause a stir; I see that you’ve ignited the interest of PRSA staff, professionals and alumni alike.

    I had been a member of PRSA ever since I graduated, but I must admit that when we went through budget cuts last month I put my membership on the chopping block. Was I sad to see it go? Not really, but only because I haven’t gotten a lot out of it lately. Hopefully when the economy jumps back I can give them another chance.

    After working for a membership association for almost three years now, the issues mentioned above are very relevant to me. Where I work, the staff is constantly evaluating the member benefits we provide, in order to retain current members and grow our membership. These benefits range from continuing education and networking opportunities to how-to guides and an annual meeting; in that sense, we’re not very different from PRSA. We can only hope that members find value in everything we do for them and have never held back. We find ourselves asking “what if we…” while still using the resources at our disposal – pushing the envelope in order to help our members grow. With that in mind, why then is PRSA keeping me from something that can help me learn and advance my career? Goodness knows that no industry is ever finite; there are new ways to learn all the time. There is a good chance that someone would have found great value in the transcripts.

    I cannot imagine what would happen if we kept our membership out of the loop when it came to delegate activities. Just because PRSA hasn’t shared its transcripts for a number of years doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to do so now. As so many others said, PRSA should embrace and demonstrate the principles it is attempting to teach its members!

    Hope all’s well in Kent.

  19. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Stefanie. In the interest of disclosure, I must tell readers that Stefanie, a former student of mine, first voiced these thoughts in an email to me. I encouraged her to post a comment, since she brings the perspective of a PR professional at a large professional association.

  20. Bill, as usual, you have your finger on a really important issue. I’m PRSSA advisor at USF and have been a PRSA member for probably around a decade. I think PRSSA is incredibly valuable for our students. However, I have to admit that it has not provided the same level of value for me or other professionals I have discussed membership with.

    The primary issue I have with PRSA is the high cost of membership and the money the organization wastes. For example, I am required to pay full membership dues to remain academic advisor, even though I am providing a service basically for free. Many academics I know can’t afford the dues, they are simply too high. I won’t even go into discussing the national conference, which is out of this world expensive. USF always sends a large group of students to the national PRSSA conference, ranging from 12-20 students. But, their registration is high too and necessitates a ton of fundraising, extra shifts of their jobs, and more asking parents for money.

    At the same time, I get boxes (I think UPS) of PRSA and PRSSA materials, usually Tactics and the PRSSA version, I wonder how much money the organization is spending by sending out all these copies all over the country by courier. I think one could make a compelling argument that the cost of these publications could be reduced significantly by taking them online. And, I get tons of spam from PRSA for any number of seminars, teleconferences, and the like, which are also super expensive.

    Like many PRSA members, I wonder where all this money is going. So, I thank you again for questioning the organization and shedding some light on its practices.

  21. michal cherenson says:


    Certainly, this level of engagement is healthy, and I encourage it. Arthur did a great job presenting PRSA’s perspective and concerns. We can agree to disagree, but transparency is not the issue.

    First, most members, especially today, are simply focused on their careers and look to PRSA to provide them with tools to survive and succeed in the today’s marketplace. For a huge majority of our members Assembly transcripts are simply not an issue.

    For the small handfuls who are interested in these types of issues, I often hear the comparison between PRSA and government and voting and transparency. The truth is, PRSA is a not-for profit corporation and as such our annual business meeting — our Assembly — is framed not by the rules of congress, but by the not-for profit laws, our articles of incorporation, bylaws and Robert’s Rules. All of these governance structures tell us — instruct us – that the minutes shall be the official record of the meeting.

    As Arthur noted, the transcripts are simply a tool for the Secretary and minutes committee. Frankly, as a past PRSA secretary, I can tell you that historically the transcripts are not completely accurate. Both the 2008 Secretary and Secretary-elect were also taking notes at the meeting and used all three sources to draft the minutes (which were actually distributed today To widely distribute the transcripts — which might include inaccuracies — would create confusion and not clarity. I hope you’ll agree that as communicators we should always strive for clarity and facts.

    In the past few months I’ve visited chapters, districts and sections, met with thousands of members, students, members of the media and the leading voices in our industry. I can tell you that they are not concerned with Assembly transcripts, but their jobs.

    Certainly we can improve communication, — and we will — but even more important is that we focus our collective energies and resources on empowering our members through education, professional development and community interaction and that we ALL continue to advocate for the profession.

    Bill, thanks for the providing the forum and thank you for your work with the students.

    ~ Michael Cherenson, APR
    Chair-Elect, PRSA

    To contact the leadership:

  22. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thank you Michael, and my apologies that your comment didn’t get up last Friday. Because it has 3 links, the Askimet filter read it as spam, and I only check that file when a commenter lets me know something didn’t show up. You did that, and I fixed it.

    Indeed, we will have to agree to disagree on this issue of transparency. I have read your argument, but I don’t see a solid reason to withhold a document that may — for the few odd ducks among us — provide additional insight to the Assembly. And yes, it may provide some ammunition to those who would criticize the society. So be it. I don’t see where withholding it protects anyone.

    Maybe I’m reading into things here, but what I see from my outpost here in Northeast Ohio is a collective fear that has lived in PRSA for many, many years. It is the fear of one rogue journalist named O’Dwyer. I will admit to you, I just don’t get it.

    I’m going to assume this means that my request for a copy of the transcripts isn’t going anywhere. Thanks for dropping in.

  23. Tom Williams, APR says:


    Thanks for initiating this dialogue. Let me start by saying that I am a long-time supporter of PRSA. I am engaged both at the chapter level (board member) and nation level (committee member). I represented my chapter at the 2008 Assembly (for the third time). Some of the Assembly content was excellent, but I share a view with some others that to promise a “Town Hall” and not deliver is completely unacceptable. A number of delegates were asked to hold questions until that period at the end of the day, and the Universal Accreditation Board representative was told she could offer a five-minute update during the Town Hall. We heard none of it. I agree that if other reports and comments were kept brief (or eliminated) there would have been ample time for the Town Hall segment. I expressed my views about this in the recent Assembly Delegate survey. I would be interested if others expressed similar sentiments. Will we ever know?–that is the question!

    P.S.–You and I were colleagues for a short time in Buffalo, N.Y. during the 1980s. It’s good to reconnect with you!

  24. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Tom. Not having been involved with PRSA national for some time, I’m in no position to forecast how the new leadership will react to criticism. I will stay this is the first time PRSA has acknowledged my concerns (which I know many others share), and for that I’m grateful. The board simply has to put their ears on and do a little grassroots research. With a new leaders come new opportunities. Let’s see how it goes.

    Nice to hear from you after all these years, Tom. Hope you’ll drop by the blog now and again. Still miss Buffalo, even after 17 years away. Nice place to live, and you could always count on good snow for cross-country skiing. Not so in Ohio. And because you’re from Buffalo, you know the problem with finding good chicken wings anywhere but Buffalo. It just doesn’t happen.

  25. […] and the Meatballs Mantra. It appears that my campaign to access to the PRSA National Assembly transcripts has failed. File it under the “Meatballs […]

  26. Alan Stamm says:

    Hello from ‘up north’ in Michigan, Bill:

    I enjoyed this thread as a lurker last month and am jumping in now because it’s freshly relevant, regrettably, now that we PRSA members see the tone of new leadership — if that’s the right word — from Chairman/CEO Michael Cherenson.

    His introductory Q&A in the January issue of PR Tactics ( embarrasses this Detroit chapter member. And I have more than a hunch that I’m not alone.

    Consider these cliched observations from an executive representing professionals whose skills supposedly include innovative thinking, clear language, memorable messages and originality:

    * “Ultimately, the most important thing we can do is focus on the needs of our members. Right now, our members are concerned about their jobs, their paychecks, careers, promotions. We have to create the environment where our members feel as if they can thrive.”

    [ What will be your top challenges personally as a PR leader in 2009? ]

    * “Focusing all of our volunteer leaders on the task at hand . . . advancing the careers of our members. That is job number one. Now more than ever we have to stay relevant, we have to stay focused. . . .”.

    * “I do feel an obligation to give back to a profession that’s given so much to me.
    I’m also of the school of thought that you either lead, follow or get out of the way. . . .”

    True, those are just excerpts from replies to 11 soft ‘questions’ . . . but read the whole puffball and you’ll see why I’m dismayed. Just one brief mention about “our value as trust-builders . . . trust-keepers” amid a string of inward-focused messages about why PR pros should join or renew PRSA membership.

    That’s part of his role, clearly, but this debut presentation hardly reflects the type of soft-sell, value-added approach we develop for clients. And let’s lose “job number one” and “lead, follow or get out of the way,” shall we?

    Jack Dwyer hardly needs extra kindling.

  27. Alan Stamm says:

    P.S. from Detroit, in the spirit of balance and openness:

    A brief version of my comments is posted at PR Tactics Online as a response to Michael’s interview (shortened by me, not them).

    I also received a cordial email from VP Art Yann, who says (in part):

    “In fairness to Mike, you should know that his comments were taken verbatim from a one-hour discussion with John Elsasser; we could have edited out some of the more commonly used phrases, but we chose not to.

    “Additionally, while it might seem “safe to stipulate that it’s important to ‘give back to a profession that’s given so much to me,’ I would argue that this, sadly, is not a sentiment that’s widely shared within our profession, and it’s also particularly germane in the case of Mike, a second generation public relations practitioner.”

    His same-day note reflects responsiveness and engagement that is welcome. Dialogue is good.

  28. Bill Sledzik says:

    Glad to have you adding to the thread, Alan. While I’ve not been impressed with PRSA’s elected leadership over the past few years, I’m willing to give Mr. Cherenson a chance to right the ship. As for Art Yann, I have found him responsive and straightforward. It pleases me to see the society’s PR function in the hands of a professional. It’s been a while.

  29. John Kerezy, APR says:

    Bill — Amazing and insightful posts. THANKS for delving into this issue.

    SUGGESTION; Michael and Art — You are outstanding professionals who understand the needs of PRSA’s members and business conditions in 2009. Make “settling up” with Jack O’Dwyer a high priority, and move from an adversarial strategy to one of a cooperative strategy with O’Dwyer. No one who’s at PRSA today made the decision to include those O’Dwyer artciles in the information packets that the Society mailed out. Resolve the dispute and go forward from there.

    We all make mistakes. God knows I have. Transparency should include having the individual or corporate humility to admit and “fess up” to a mistake, make it right, and move forward from there.

    I know Jack O’Dwyer. I’ve talked with Jack in years past, and discussed issues with him at various conferences. Jack understands that without a strong PRSA, his own interests would suffer. Let’s get the “root issue” of divisiveness between PRSA and O’Dwyer resolved. That will be better for all parties in the long run.

    Thanks again Bill for addressing this important issue. Happy New Year!

  30. […] you stop here regularly, you know that I’ve criticized PRSA now and again (here, here, here, here, here and here). So I understand if you see PRSA’s invitation as an olive branch. But […]

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