A study of the renewal rate of PR Society exhibitors shows that 21 of the 47 exhibitors in 2011 did not return to exhibit at the Oct. 14-16, 2012 conference at the Marriott Marquis in San Francisco, a renewal rate of 55%.

Fifteen of the 43 exhibitors in 2010 did not return in either 2011 or 2012.

The low renewal rate points to a lot of dissatisfaction among the exhibitors. Service firms this year were offered a combination "sponsor" designation and standard exhibit booth for $10,000. This was one reason for the 32% jump in "sponsor" income to $747,430. Some exhibitors told this website the price was too high for them.

The 36 exhibitors who were present in 2010 or 2011 and decided not to come back had paid thousands of dollars in exhibit fees, plus the costs of staff time, food and lodging, and shipping and setting up displays in order to reach a live audience of PR people.

San Francisco Marriott
San Francisco Marriott Marquis

PRS, which regularly checks on how satisfied members are, should find out why the exhibitor renewal rate is only 55%. A membership renewal rate of 55% would soon put PRS out of business.

Non-Returnees Listed

Exhibitors in 2011 that did not return in 2012 were

Booz|Allen|Hamilton, Charet and Assocs., ClickSquared, Coverago, Dow Jones & Co., Education Partnerships, George Washington University, Kelton Research, Magnify Digital, MyMediaInfo/Red Egg, National Black PR Society, News USA, New York Times, On the Record…Online, PitchEngine, Queue Associates, Rutgers School of Communications, Solodev, TEK Group, TRAACKR, and VeraQuest.

The 43 exhibitors in 2012 included 26 repeats from 2011 and 17 firms that were not present last year.

Repeats were American Pop, BurrellesLuce, BusinessWire, Cision, EurekAlert, Family Features, Give the Kids the World, Int’l Visitor’s Center, iPressroom, Leadership Directories, Marketwire, MediaVantage, Meltwater Group, Moreover, NAPS, NYU, PIER Systems, PR Newswire, Quinnipiac University, Synergy Events, Syracuse University, Thomson Reuters, Tufts University, TVEyes, Vocus and West Virginia University.

Exhibitors not present in 2011 were Airfoil PR, Bowling Green State University, Golden Gate University, GolinHarris, Google, Kaiser Permanente, KRM Information Services, Media Skills Academy, MEDIAmobz, NASDAQ, NettResults Int’l PR, News Data Service, Onstream Media, Reputation.com, The Clorox Co. and University of Florida.

Exhibitors in 2010 that did not return in either 2011 or 2012 included AP Images, Berkman PR, Best Buy/Geek Squad, Blue Sky Factory, Editor Showcase, eNR, Evolve24, Financial Times, Gonzaga University, History Associates, Infoition, IZEA, MyPRGenie, ROI Communication, TopRank Online Marketing, University of Denver, University of Waikato, and Visible Technologies.

Exhibiting in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were BurrellesLuce, Business Wire, Cision, EurekAlert, Family Features, George Washington University, Marketwire, Moreover Technologies, New York University, PR Newswire, Synergy Events and Syracuse University.

Who Attends the Conference?

A key issue for exhibitors is whether they are reaching people who will buy their products. Are attendees in high enough posts to make buying decisions? Are the costly displays for four days followed by a bump in sales or even traffic? Just who are the people who pass by their exhibits?

An examination of the 1,650 names on the registration list gives some answers to the above questions.

The PR services should have possession of this list but we suspect many don’t. It used to be given out in hard copy to all attendees but for the past few years registrants have had to find it among the registration materials and print out the 26 pages themselves.

If they study the first four pages, they will find 256 names but only nine blue chips—General Motors, Amway, Genentech, State Farm Insurance, Eli Lilly and Wells Fargo, Kaiser Permanente, ConocoPhillips, and Comcast.

There are no VPs among the nine. Bryan Byrd is director of communications at Comcast and Jenie Altruda is “head of PR” at Amway. There are 41 directors and 37 managers among the 256.

Burson-Marsteller until the mid-1970s hosted a giant party at each PRS conference. It stopped doing that, explaining that there were not enough senior PR people in attendance to justify the expense.

If the exhibitors put some of their research people to work (and most are in one form of research or another), they will examine all 26 pages like we have done.

They will find 102 PR professors listed and 71 directors of PR of educational institutions. How good a market are PR professors and PR heads of colleges, the latter mostly having promotional and fund-raising duties? The professors who come get a reduced rate but are not allowed to have meals at functions. They are usually on very tight budgets.

Exhibitors will find 51 staffers of service firms. How often does one service firm buy the products of another?

They will find 26 PR Society staffers including some whose names are unknown to members because all but about 10 names were removed from the PRS website years ago.

PRS staffers listed are Thomas Albi, Candice Bellitera, Michael Benoit, Don Bill, Phil Bonaventura, John Bomier, Ann Caggiano, Stephanie Cegielski, Albert Chau, Robert Denbe, Christina Darnowski, John Elsasser, Wendy Gallo, John Gumbinger, Amy Jacques, Donna Jonas, Rosanne Mottola, Bill Murray, John Robinson, Colleen Seaver, Richard Spector, Judith Voss, Karla Voth, Art Yann and Nicole Zerillo.

Withholding staff names makes it impossible to track staff turnover. Complete lists of staff members and their contact points were provided in the printed Society directory that was discontinued in 2006.

PRS in the 1970s typically sent about a dozen or so staffers to national conferences that were nearly as big, relying heavily on local volunteers.

These included COO Rea Smith and staffers Bryan Williams, Chris Teahan, Donald Scott, Donald Bates, the PR Journal editor and PR director, and two or three membership staffers.

The 2012 cost of coast-to-coast airfare, food and lodging for 26 staffers for up to ten days (not including advance trips) is a considerable one.

Next largest contingent from a single organization are the 18 staffers listed for Kaiser Permanente, the “Premiere Sponsor” of the conference: Catherine Brozena, Jeffrey Bliss, Shannon Disney, Laura Dunn, David Hanford, Diana Halper, Steve Krizman, Diane Gage-Lofgren, Sara Lee, Laura Lott, Albert Martinez, Victoria Meas, Che Parker, Jaime Reyes, Elizabeth Risberg, Michael Striffler and Amy Wang.

Another big contingent on the registration list was the 22 ex-chairs and presidents of PRS, many of them retired. They get free conference passes for life worth $1,025 yearly at current rates. Volunteer leaders of a group are not supposed to get any sort of “inurements” (rake-offs) but PRS disregards that.

Listed were Judith Bogart, Reed Byrum, Mike Cherenson, Mary Cusick, Jerry Dalton, Joe Epley, John Felton, Rosanna Fiske, Del Galloway, Barbara Hunter, Jeff Julin, Joann Killeen, Kathy Lewton, James Little, Debra Miller, John Paluszek, Judith Phair, Rosalee Roberts, Cheryl Procter-Rogers, Joe Vecchione, Sam Waltz and Rhoda Weiss. A past presidents/chairs function is held each Saturday night at the conference.

Geo Politics Played to Hilt

PRS geographical politics and a tradition of members looking down their noses at “suppliers,” who are regarded as not quite “professional,” are factors in the low exhibitor renewal rate.

PRS believes that it is a “national organization” and that the conference must be moved around the country to give that appearance.

This ignores the fact that there are at least 20 times as many PR, communications, advertising, marketing and journalists in New York as any other city. PRS’s largest conference took place in New York in 2004 when 4,000 attended. Many groups only meet in New York and do that more than once a year.

Javits Center
New York's Javits Center

Fifty-three groups meet yearly in Javits Center alone and nine of them meet more than once a year. Certain fashion and food groups wouldn’t dream of meeting any other place.

PRS Closed Exhibit Hall 1995-99

About 50 New York exhibitors who were dissatisfied with the conference location in distant cities, exhibit halls that were not in the line of attendee traffic, and the lack of interchange with PRS members, organized the “PR Services Council” in the early 1990s. They were successful in getting PRS to set up “classrooms” in the middle of the exhibit hall where service firms could explain their complicated products.

The Society did not like this “revolt” of the exhibitors.

COO Ray Gaulke himself delivered the ax to the Council at its meeting Jan. 19, 1995. He stunned the service firms by telling them that the exhibit hall was being closed. He said PRS lost money on the hall and he would seek one or two overall sponsors such as IBM or Intel.

The service firms were flabbergasted, saying there is no such thing as an industry conference without an exhibit hall. An immediate result was that the Council disbanded, having lost its purpose. PRS did not open an exhibit hall again until 2000. Attempts to sign one or two conference-wide sponsors failed.

Also closed was the “free literature table” where publications and suppliers who couldn’t afford a booth were able to distribute copies of their publications and flyers. Fees were hiked from $100 to $450, eliminating many of the users. Not satisfied, PRS then closed the table.

Blockage of Reporters Hurts Service Firms

PRS, in blocking O’Dwyer reporters from visiting the exhibit hall in 2011 and 2012, continues to confirm that it is not a true friend of the exhibitors.

There is a profusion of service firms (more than 50) that have complicated products they are marketing to a PR audience. Such products need extensive explanations in an editorial format and continuous coverage of their new features. Ads can bring the attention of PR people to the products but numerous questions need to be answered.

Since Google and other search engines can quickly pull up almost anything on a subject, what is the role of these firms, many of them specializing in combing the web for information?

PRS blocked the exhibitors from personally meeting with O’Dwyer editors who are now working on the 2013 O’Dwyer’s PR Buyer’s Guide listing nearly 1,000 PR products and services in 60 categories.

This interference with news coverage is a sad day for the Society and contradicts its Code promise to “advance the flow of information” and give “fair” treatment to media.

Attempts to block our coverage of the 2012 Assembly failed since senior members wrote a 641-word description of what they called “the most useless Assembly ever.”

Attempts to block coverage of the nine-month financial report failed because members provided us with the figures showing PRS continued to lose money in spite of a $30 dues increase.

It lost at least $357,498 on an operating basis and probably more because receivables shot up 49% to $663,443.