The PRCA and the issue of governance

The 35-person board of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) regularly counsel clients on how to manage crises, but it is advice that they should now be following themselves. The trade body is effectively in crisis mode but, until yesterday evening, had yet to offer any information or update to its members.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s a brief recap. Last week, John Brown, the founder of brand activism agency Don’t Cry Wolf, lived up to its name. In April, he formally raised concerns about the ‘increasingly erratic’ behaviour and actions of the PRCA’s director general Francis Ingham, as well as some ill-conceived comments he made regarding the conflict in Ukraine, which had ‘genuinely impacted’ the personal lives and businesses of several individuals.

Brown assumed his formal complaint, along with others he believed had also been submitted, would be put to the board, absent Ingham, and investigated. It was not. Disillusioned with the situation, and after giving due warning, Brown has cancelled Don’t Cry Wolf’s membership, withdrawn all its shortlisted entries from the PRCA’s award schemes and resigned his position as the chair of the Misinformation in the Climate Crisis group, a subject on which he is passionate, as well as his fellowship.

Brown announced his decision, and reasoning, in a blog on the agency’s website, which he also posted on LinkedIn, prompting others to raise various concerns, including a female agency boss, who said that, after declining PRCA membership at an event, she was told that they’d return after she’d had a few drinks. (The PR Network has also resigned, while Ketchum has suspended its membership pending the results of the review.)

For most board members, the post was a revelation. They had been unaware of any formal complaints. But it has also brought into sharp focus the issue of governance. For a trade body which effectively presents itself as the arbiter of ethics in the industry, and champions and *enforces* professional standards around the world, who arbitrates its behaviour?

An organisation’s most powerful asset is its reputation

Where is the governance structure that allows formal complaints to be escalated for appropriate investigation and resolution? Where is the transparency or accountability? What is the mechanism that allows the PRCA’s own employees to raise concerns? What sanctions can the chairman apply? Or, more importantly, what power does the chairman wield? Is it merely a figurehead position that looks good on a LinkedIn profile?

Indeed, for an industry that is currently obsessed with ESG, surprisingly little attention is given to the governance aspect. For many, it’s viewed as the dull cousin of the ‘exciting’ environmental and social issues, which are often easy to PR. Yet most crises arise from poor governance, which is why investors afford it equal weighting in their decision making.

Sarah Scholefield, PRCA’s recently appointed chairman, last night announced a ‘comprehensive governance review’, to be carried out by an independent, third party. It will likely lead to a raft of formal changes to the structure of the trade body, which now represents more than 35,000 PR professionals across 82 countries.

(It is believed that Scholefield initiated the process last month, when she was personally surprised to discover that there was no official mechanism to put formal complaints before the board.)

Like many fast-growing organisations, in some ways the PRCA has been a victim of its own success. Over his 15-year tenure, Ingham has transformed it from a sleepy, widely derided national body into a global association. Its original governance structure, such as it was, has failed to keep pace, and appears no longer fit for purpose.

Ingham has come out fighting, declaring that he should be judged on his record (while also erratically declaring that he’s now living with type two diabetes). Some members of the board agree, likening the current situation to a ‘witch hunt’. Others believe radical change is needed, citing the perils of ‘celebrity’ CEOs. But for now, the personality aspect of the complaint is an HR issue and, as such, is being given the appropriate attention, away from the governance review.

How this all plays out is anybody’s guess, but the PRCA needs to be viewed as having got this one right because, as Ingham himself has so often said, ‘an organisation’s most powerful asset is its reputation’.