Serving the membership: is it time for the CIPR and PRCA to merge?

Richard Houghton

It’s nearly 50 years since the PRCA split away from the IPR to better serve the interests of agencies. Our sector has changed beyond recognition in the last five decades and it’s time that we are represented by a single, unified trade body better able to address the needs of a sophisticated, professional and growing sector.

You’ll learn:
•    Why a single trade body will better represent the interests of a rapidly changing PR sector
•    How the PR industry has evolved over the last fifty years
•    How the new trade body would work and the benefits that members would derive from a single, united and more influential association

Very few of today’s PRs are overly interested in what was happening in the sector back in the late 1960s. We’ve all got plenty to do and the rapid pace of change means it has never been a more challenging - or engaging - time to be in PR, whether in house, public sector, consultancy or freelancer. 

But it was in the late 1960s - nearly 50 years ago - that the PRCA was spun out of what was then the Institute of Public Relations (now CIPR). The PRCA was created by a group of consultancy owners who felt their businesses would benefit from a dedicated association. 

Today, despite the huge growth of PR’s influence and the size of the sector, some £12.3 billion according to the 2016 PRCA/PR Week Census, we still have two separate associations, with sometimes disparate agendas. 


My grandfather was one of the group of agency owners who created the PRCA. At that time his B2B consultancy Infomedia, based a stone’s throw from London’s Oval cricket ground, used typewriters, carbon paper and Post Office messengers to get the news out to newspapers on Fleet Street, where ‘hot metal’ was used to print newspapers, with readerships in the millions. 

So not many similarities to the world we all operate in today. 

PR is now a core management discipline and there are few CEOs and board directors who are not aware of the importance of their organisation’s reputation or their own. The sector is a significant employer in the UK and continues to grow, and is focused on addressing pay inequality and diversity. We are no longer a cottage industry.


Combined with the size and value of the sector, the changes that digital and social media have wrought are not just limited to the way we operate, the skills we need and the channels we utilise. For me, the stand out change is the incredible increase in direct access to consumers, communities, influencers, policy makers and voters that it gives us. Along with this comes responsibility to ensure that we use this newly acquired access professionally and transparently. 

We know that the traditional media companies are struggling commercially to find new revenue models and strategies for attracting, retaining and monetising readers, listeners and viewers. The slow but constant decline in the number and seniority of UK journalists that this battle has created has resulted in fewer journalists producing more copy for publications with rolling deadlines. 

The result? 

PR has even more influence than ever in the mainstream media both in print and online.

We are getting our act together on evaluation, demonstrating the results that we deliver and in turn improving our reputation and making the case for higher budgets both in-house or consultancy. Although we should be honest and say that there is still work to be done on this!


We are a global industry, running programmes and campaigns across time zones and cultures. These campaigns are not limited to the multi-national corporates and agencies, with technology allowing organisations of all sizes to plan and deliver campaigns internationally.


Inevitably, as our sector grows and increases its influence and reach, we attract considerably more interest and attention from legislators, big business and sections of the commercial and political world that are keen to have us niched as spin doctors and masters of the black arts.

On a personal level we are having to re-skill, handle communications channels that pay no attention to office working hours and continue to find the much needed talent that appears to be in short supply, especially at middle management level.

One association

So it has been a tumultuous 50 years that finds us as an established sector with considerable influence but one that is fundamentally different from the cottage industry that the CIPR and the newly formed PRCA represented in the late 1960s.

Because of these changes and the challenges that the sector is facing, it is clear to me that the time has come for the PRCA to rejoin the CIPR and for a single industry body to provide support, guidance and representation for us all.


The second thing that is crystal clear to me is that we should not consider abandoning the CIPR’s drive to have the sector recognised as a profession. The hard earned Royal Charter status should be maintained and a focus on continuous professional development expanded and provided to the widest possible range of professionals.

When I consider what a CIPR and PRCA combined training and professional development programme could offer, both face to face and online, I see the opportunity to deliver services that would truly be world leading. No matter what point you are in your career you would be able to turn to the combined body to aid you in your personal development and so support your career ambitions. The topics that could be addressed would expand and the relevance of the content, and quality of trainers, could all be improved as we draw on the widest pool of talent.


When I started in PR in the mid-80s there seemed to be almost physical divide between the consultancy and client community. This is something that I have been pleased to see erode over the last 25 years or so and this has been reflected in the membership of the PRCA with in-house teams and individuals being welcomed into membership in recent years. As a result the membership and services of the two associations align, making a merger simpler and the delivery of enhanced membership benefits speedier.


A combined association would also be better placed to represent us with Government and industry at a time when UK’s status as part of the European Union is in flux and the resulting uncertainty has created a tough trading environment for large and small organisations and freelancers alike. Talking with one voice will make us stronger and give us more influence.

Commercial revenue

Effective and growing trade associations are underpinned by solid commercial income. While not for profits, both the PRCA and CIPR rely on awards, training and sponsorship income to deliver quality membership benefits and services. A combined association would have much greater negotiating power and be able to deliver economies of scale to the considerable benefit of its members.

One association, one voice, greater benefits

The world, our sector and the demands of our jobs have changed beyond recognition since the CIPR and PRCA split nearly 50 years ago, so it is time for the associations to come back together to ensure that the widest possible number of us are represented by one organisation speaking with one voice, with the widest possible influence and providing the very best services to its members.

Richard Houghton is a former Chairman of the PRCA, and past President of ICCO. During his 25 year PR career he worked across network and independent agencies in the UK and Europe. He currently provides agency growth services under the Agency Doctor brand.

Twitter: @agencydoctor