Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, colleagues, friends

Let me be honest and confess that the day that I have been fearing has arrived. To be entrusted to follow in the footsteps of giants in our industry and lead PRISA is – apart from being a humbling and unprecedented honour – not a trivial assignment. While the list of industry stalwarts that served PRISA as President goes back as far as the establishment of this professional body, I have had the honour to serve on the Board during Prof. Rene Benecke’s and Tebogo Ditshego’s tenure. Before continuing, I just want to take a moment to sincerely thank and recognise them for their contribution, which I know we will be able to bank on going into the future as well.

To start with Prof. Benecke, who took over the reins at PRISA at a very difficult time, with the Institute carefully balancing on the verge of total collapse and implosion. Having been privy to what went down at the time, I can only say that PRISA owes her for its continued existence. Prof., you have always been a pillar of strength and a voice of compassionate reason. Thanks for that – words cannot describe my respect and gratitude for your immeasurable contribution.

Then came “the young man with the old head on his shoulders”, Tebogo Ditshego. Tebogo, thanks for building on the foundation laid by Prof. Benecke and sowing the seeds for re-establishing PRISA as the leading voice and professional institution for PR in the region. Thanks also for the many hours that you selflessly sacrificed to provide leadership and guidance to the office and the staff, all of which have made an indispensable contribution to putting PRISA back on track, and future-proof it for an era that will undoubtedly be very different from what we traditionally were used to.

This brings me to the current reality. The outgoing President has, in his report, briefly outlined what the programmes and progress were during the past year. Being acutely aware of how low the base was from which we started out, the improvement was truly remarkable.

However – based on the comments of our members, and notably those professionals that do not see any value in becoming members of PRISA, it is clear that PRISA is still far from fulfilling its mandate as outlined in its Constitution and which gives substance to its reason for being. This will have to be  structured and focused effort, and I wish to touch on the main components that I regard as critical in ensuring that we transform the Institute into one that serves its purpose.

First and foremost, PRISA is a member-based organisation. PRISA is not a Board that meets once a quarter, and then an Office of five people in Rosebank that does its best to keep things together. PRISA is its members, who are quite diverse in many ways and are scattered across South and Southern Africa. Our only value lies in what value we add to our members’ lives and careers – without that, the Institute has no reason to exist. A major focus going forward, therefore, must be the democratisation of PRISA – taking it to the members as regional, and even – where required to sub-regional or district level. The Constitution of PRISA makes full provision for this by stipulating that a National Council, on which the regions are to be represented, is a mandatory part of the structure. This has not been in existence for some time and will be reconstituted as soon as practically possible.

There is a second tier to this, which is the enablement and empowerment of members at the regional level to network, engage, run their own activities, and provide feedback to the Board via the National Council (which might require a renaming, given that we now have regions outside of the borders of South Africa). This requires a rethink of the business model and favours decentralisation above (Gauteng-dominated – sorry, shoot me later) centralisation. This extends to all spheres of PRISA’s operations, not least of which is the PRISM awards.

Secondly, albeit diverse, all PRISA’s members and potential members are part of the PR and Communication Management community, whether in an agency, corporate, government, or any other entity. This presumes a common understanding of what the industry or profession (which some argue it is not) is all about. Sadly, however, and despite the PRISA Constitution being very clear about its definition of Public Relations, we are working in an industry with an identity crisis. The pure old definition of PR, as in the Constitution, which echoes what is contained in the Melbourne Mandate and other guiding compacts, provides PR with mind-blowing power and potential to make a real and lasting contribution to society by cultivating understanding, common vision and purpose that can drive social transformation and development. The “other”, and probably financially more lucrative, definition that is all about image and influencing, prevails however and lies at the core of many a scandal, including Bell Pottinger, to name one.

I always wonder how we expect others to know what we do and to take us seriously if we do not do so ourselves. As self-professed experts in stakeholder relations, we are exceptionally poor at it ourselves, probably as a result of this identity crisis. A conversation about this is urgently needed and will have to take place if we want to position ourselves strategically to business and within structures such as the MAC Charter Council.

Still dwelling on the issue of stakeholder relations, we need to rethink and revitalise our strategic alliances. This is a topic that could cover a conference, and I will therefore just mention a few, and leave you to ponder the details and the linkages into what PRISA offers and could potentially offer:

  • Academic institutions
  • Other professional bodies and sectoral industry organisations – Minerals Council, NAAMSA, Ethics Institute, Institute of Directors, and national business chambers, to name but a few
  • Corporates and parastatals
  • Media institutions
  • Government departments and authorities – to mention GCIS by name
  • The NGO sector
  • Potential sponsors, including the National Lottery Commission, industry service providers, and others
  • The list goes on.

Although much of this networking will be the responsibility of the General Manager to be appointed, as well as of Board members like myself, we need to capitalise on the relationships that our members already have with such entities to build relationships that will position PRISA as the voice of the PR industry, and a value-adding partner, across the full socio-economic spectrum. It also provides us with an opportunity to open the discussion about the thousands of qualified PR graduates who are despondently waiting for an opportunity to gain the experience that will allow them entry into the job market.

Although making money is not the primary objective, we cannot grow the Institute and profession without generating a sufficient surplus to invest in initiatives to do so, and in such relationships lie the potential to make huge strides in both areas that contribute most to our income, i.e. membership and training.

In my view, an important component of this value addition to other sectors and industries lies in expanding what we are already doing. Here I am referring to the provision of training in what comes naturally to us but are non-core competencies in their world of work. For this reason, significant focus will be placed on enhancing our training courses by ensuring relevancy of topics and content, as well as expanding the provision thereof over a wider front. In this, we will have to gain the insights and inputs of members and academics alike (another good reason for rekindling our relationships with tertiary institutions).

Several recent occurrences where the PR industry – rightly or wrongly – was implicated in unethical conduct, sometimes boiling down to unashamed propaganda, have placed the focus on both the power and the ethics of communication. We cannot afford to be regarded as an unethical industry, as is the perception that so many have. While PRISA (and other bodies such as Global Alliance and IPRA) have clear Codes of Ethics, these are not worth the energy used to display them on screen (hopefully they are not getting printed too often) if they are not enforceable. This is a multi-faceted issue, which we cannot exhaust in one discussion, but one that – together with other governance-related aspects – will have to receive urgent attention going forward in the interest of the integrity and credibility of our industry or profession.

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, friends – I am not deluded to think all the above can be put to bed in a single year; it will remain an ongoing quest. I am however excited about the year to come, knowing the strengths and potential of our members, our staff and our Board. Thank you for entrusting the venerable organisation to me for a year – I am looking forward to working with you all.