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Interview with William Murray, President, Public Relations Society of America

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Profiles in Partnership

A series on best practices and sound advice for developing and maintaining successful cross-sector partnershipspartnerships between two or more from the nonprofit, for-profit, education or government sectors.

Having spent the better part of 35 years in the public relations industry, this interview with William Murray was particularly enjoyable and enlightening. My goal in this interview series is to look not only at the PR profession from Bill’s national organizational perspective, but importantly to see how the practice of public relations can be a positive influence on local partnerships between nonprofit and for-profit organizations. PRSA is a 32,000 member international organization.

Part 1

BB: From an organizational standpoint, as president of PRSA, what are you looking for in partnerships with other organizations?

WM: When they look at partnerships a lot of people up get carried away by the reputation of a company or they think about a short-term thing. And in every case we look for some way to better accomplish our strategic objectives. So when we look at a partnership, we may look for a number of things. We may say to ourselves: Is there an opportunity here for some sort of financial gain? We’re a membership organization, member dues pay for about 50% of our operating overhead. So the other 50% has to come from some place and sometimes it comes from our partners. But there are more opportunities here as well. Sometimes a partnership with another organization brings in-kind resources into PRSA, sometimes it enhances our reputation by being associated with another organization or sometimes we simply get a third-party endorsement of something that we’re doing.

BB: How do you differentiate between a sponsorship, like a sponsorship of your international conference versus organizational partnerships? Do you see those as separate entities?

WM: Well, they can be separate but they can also be intertwined. For example, we have an initiative that we launched last year called PR Serving America. We have local chapters across the country of PRSA and we wanted to encourage our local chapters to do pro bono work, PR-type work in their communities. And we wanted to give them a reason to do this, why it enhances the profession and their chapter as well. We connected with HGTV. HGTV had a built-in relationship with an organization called Rebuilding Together. HGTV was willing to help sponsor this initiative by putting up prize money and helping to offset our overhead, but they were really more than just a sponsor. They were a partner. The director at HGTV came to some of our events. They connected to this effort very deeply as they wanted to be good members of their communities and connect back to the idea of refurbishing your home.

So on one hand there’s a sponsorship relationship, money is changing hands and we’re passing most of that through to our members, our chapters. But it’s deeper than that, it’s a multiyear relationship. It’s an initiative wrapped around who we want to be as public relations practitioners in communities across the country and I think it reflects on who HGTV is in terms of a good corporate citizen. So I think there are purely sponsorship transactions; money changes hands, the company name goes up, they get something back and it’s over, but sometimes there are these deeper relationships and the lines are blurring in between sponsorships and partnerships.

BB: Did you go looking for such partnerships or do they find you?

WM: We were very fortunate in that particular situation. I developed the initiative and I brought it to our PRSA Board of Directors and said: PR people are responsible for CSR programs across the country, so we should develop our own CSR program to give back through our organization. If the board agrees with this concept, we’ll go out and we’ll find a sponsor/partner and we’ll make this happen. The board said yes, we love the idea. Fortunately, we had a member of our Board of Directors, Gary McCormick, who worked at HGTV and he felt his company would be willing to step up and be the partner to help make this work.

BB: Was this the first PRSA CSR initiative?

WM: To tell you the truth, yes. PRSA is a national organization but we have local chapters across the country. A number of our local chapters were independently doing good work like this in their communities. I’d been out visiting our chapters and I heard about these projects, they were happening spontaneously. When I came back I thought about the nature of a national organization with local chapters. It’s an interesting relationship because we don’t really want to dictate to our local chapters what they should be doing but we do want to support them.

The best idea seemed to be to publicize the good work that they’re doing, and see where we can add value as a national organization, giving them some independence to operate locally and encouraging what they’re doing. So that was the genesis of this, how it came about.

Up Next: Part 2 in Series, National and local chapters working together

For more information on developing highly successful partnerships please visit: www.bruceburtch.com

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