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Can Publicity Clubs reinvent themselves?

But the publicity club movement is anything but. The associations all have a wealth of history, with some having originated as far back as the roaring ‘20s. Their purpose was to bring together the regional media to network and raise money for local charities and causes such as NABS.

Many of the industry’s most influential figures across the UK have appeared on a committee at some stage over the years – inspired by a common purpose of ‘giving something back’.

But it seems this tradition is now on the wane. Perhaps its pressure of work. But for some reason people these days do not seem to have as much time to network with their peers and the publicity clubs seem the main casualty of this more puritanical age.

Once publicity associations could be found in every major city. But they have disappeared in many places such as Bristol and Aberdeen. And they are under pressure where they do exist in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newscastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

But they are fighting back, according to Terri Smart the new chairman of the Publicity Association of Central England (PACE).

Strategy in Place

“We have had to refocus, which is why we have put a strategy in place to bring in relevant people who will make a difference,”

Top of her list is to develop new events, boost the profile of the organisation and target new groups such as the creative community – they recently arranged for Trevor Beattie to do a talk in Manchester as part of this campaign.

Her thoughts are shared by her counterpart at the Manchester Publicity Association Terry Savage.

“It may well be that we do have an image problem. But the primary challenge is attendance. First there’s membership. If you haven’t got the membership then you can’t publicise yourself as easily as you might and therefore it’s always awkward trying to keep people involved.

“The second issue is that without good membership figures and being able to publicise well to non members, the cost of putting on events and revenue derived from them becomes a bigger problem. There’s no point in running an event that makes a loss and cannibalises from your revenues in other areas.”

Savage is very much the voice of experience as this is his second stint as chairman of what is the UK’s largest publicity association. He last did the job 10 years ago but returns now as the MPA had “difficulty” in finding someone who was “sufficiently experienced” enough for the role.

Another experienced player is Alan Kelly, formerly chairman of Barkers in Glasgow who is new devoting his retirement time to reinvigorating the Publicity Club of Glasgow. He says that all of the associations must review what they represent and look to create a relevant offering to the media industry as a whole.

The Questions We’re Asking

“The reasons to get involved with the club have been diluted,” says Kelly. “What the clubs have to do is to redefine where they are, what their purpose in life is, why people should be interested and why sponsors should financially back it. That’s the questions that we’re asking in Glasgow and looking to address. We’ve really got to do a bit of navel gazing and step back from it all and look at why people should be interested in what we’re doing? Why should people come to our events? We’ve got to get involved in some aggressive marketing.”

John Cavani, chairman of the Publicity Club in Edinburgh is also pragmatic about the club’s current state, but believes that there is a strong future if it can once again become a body that means something to the media industry other than just being the “organisers of great parties.”
“What’s important is that we make sure that it connects with people and be more proactive in terms of telling people what we do rather than doing it by osmosis, we have to make an effort and be professional in how we can make it as relevant to what we do.

Not Been a Focus

“There’s maybe just not been a focus there and we need to be clear about what we’re about and targeting certain events for certain groups of people.

“The all day Christmas party appeals to one group, while for others a more refined evening event is much more of their scene. Again, you have to choose, we can’t be all things for all people and throughout the year we have to get a programme that is an executive track that is targeted at senior people in the industry where they can network and learn. Things like business lunches with interesting and important speakers where there can be client entertainment.”

Terri Smart agrees that in order to attract new members or attention within the industry, it is key that the clubs are able to present an attractive offering to both younger members of the media and the senior stalwarts and learn to move with the times.

“If the association stays as it was 60 years ago or even five years ago then it probably wouldn’t have much relevance, it would literally be a party forum. But we can do a lot more now in terms of issues facing the industry such as lobbying, working collaboratively with other organisations and bringing high profile events to the city.

“What we should really be is a voice for the business. To do this we have had to refocus, which is why we have put a strategy in place to bring in relevant people who will make a difference.”

This process has seen PACE, in common with other clubs promote their training schemes and business seminars beyond their immediate membership. It is seen as a way of ensuring potential members see the value that the club offers them..

Another common theme amongst the clubs is an effort to bring younger media professionals onto the committees in order to give a voice to sectors that have been previously under-represented by the organisation.

But this too is easier said than done – as pressure of work means the best equipped people for the task do not necessarily have the time.

“We believe that part of our marketing has got to be to get the younger generation involved and I think that will be tough if I’m honest. That’s where our challenge lies, in converting people who are perhaps a little bit cynical. The kids of today have got such a wide interest base that we have to find a niche to capture their interest. I personally believe that all of the clubs have their challenges with this,” says Alan Kelly.

Networking Opportunities

The point is demonstrated by the likes of Graeme McGowan, who recently launched his own digital networking group, dotdotdot in Glasgow. He says that he did so because organisations such as the Publicity Clubs did not offer the “vibrancy and networking opportunities” that he was looking for at the early stages of his career.

“Younger people within the industry are looking to make their mark and meet like-minded people. Some of the established networking initiatives are filled with people who have seen and done it all. I think that younger, and young minded people, are looking to inspire each other to take things forward in a new direction and combine and share their talents, skills and contacts” says McGowan.

So while each of the associations are looking to make changes and become “more relevant” to the industry, it would seem that there is widespread recognition that some hard work is still to be done to persuade the wider market that they are worth joining.

Terry Savage aims to give the process added momentum by setting up a UK pub club summit to discuss these issues to which all his counterparts will be invited.

Before then though, at least they will each get to enjoy another Christmas lunch.

Featured by The Drum

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