Communicate discusses with Sabrina De Palma, Executive Director at MEPRA, the importance of industry bodies in times of crisis.
This quarter, the Middle East PR Association (MEPRA) saw its most significant surge in membership ever. How do you explain it?
In the first quarter of 2021, MEPRA welcomed nine new corporate members, including TAQA, Mastercard, DP World, and Dubai Holding. For the first time ever, corporations now make up half of all MEPRA organizational memberships, following initiatives to widen the association’s base beyond its traditional agency partners. MEPRA now boasts more than 50 corporate organization members from a variety of sectors, including energy, finance, travel, retail, hospitality, and media.
MEPRA has worked hard to develop programs that support all communication professionals, no matter which side of the fence you sit on. In fact, there are significant benefits for in-house members who don’t necessarily have the backing of larger teams and networks that communication agencies tend to have. This year, we have also launched a number of new initiatives, including free workshops for members delivered every two weeks, the Arabic MEPRA Awards, Cultural Awareness Workshops, and the continuation of our Workplace Wellness Program, Mentoring Program and Student-Connect Program, which continues to draw interest from new members plus keep existing members on board. 2021 also marks MEPRA’s 20th anniversary in the region and many industry professionals want to be part of an established and locally recognized association.
Why are industry bodies gaining traction at this specific point in time, in your opinion?
Industry bodies like MEPRA exist to serve their members and since 2020, businesses have never been in more need of the sort of services we provide - support such as connections to industry professionals, access to market insights, free training, free mental health and wellness support, and business resources. Through the pandemic, MEPRA quickly adapted many of its programs and events so we could continue to deliver value to our members and keep them connected and informed at the time they needed it most.
One of the many things we learned from 2020 is that we are stronger together and MEPRA played a central role in uniting the industry. The unparalleled support we provided last year and continue to offer in 2021 has not only meant we have been successful in keeping members but also growing our membership base too.
How can organizations like MEPRA support the industry in rough times specifically?
We need to remain agile and continue dialogue with members to ensure we are meeting their evolving needs and delivering value. We regularly reach out to members to seek feedback so we can ensure our strategy is in line with what the wider industry requires; plus, we also have 50+ board members who assist in shaping MEPRA’s strategy. Last year, following the Covid-19 lockdown measures, MEPRA conducted a Covid-19 Mental Health Impact Survey amongst its members, which revealed that more than a third of our industry’s professionals felt they were not well supported by companies with regards to their health and wellbeing. Almost half of respondents revealed that challenges regarding their mental health had often interfered with their ability to complete work-related tasks and a third asked for direct support in training for management and leadership to better equip them to handle employee issues. In response, MEPRA developed the MEPRA Workplace Wellness Program to help support organizations and individuals so they have the tools to prioritize mental wellbeing in the workplace. The program provides a holistic approach to supporting our industry professionals, including general wellness and training webinars, a support hotline to access mental health professionals, access to MEPRA’s Employee Assistance Portal - and it’s free for all MEPRA members.
Most recently, we conducted a survey for small independent agencies and freelancers to assess their biggest pain points and support needs so we can ensure we are providing tailored value for this member group. Additionally, we held focus groups with various industry leaders and member groups to review MEPRA’s brand and vision to better understand our strengths, weaknesses, recognition, and perceptions so we can better plan for the future and remain relevant and forward-thinking in representing our industry.
Have you seen a change in members' interests and concerns and if so, what are they and how can you help?
In the past, members would join MEPRA or renew memberships largely to support the industry or for community-based reasons; but now, they are more motivated by the bottom line and the ROI or value we bring. As internal training budgets dwindle, the demand for free or cost-effective workshops has never been so high, which is why we have worked with several members and partners to provide free training at least twice per month for members. The importance of mental wellbeing amongst our members has rightly risen to the top of agendas over recent years and since the launch of the MEPRA Workplace Wellness Program in May last year, we have seen more than 200 members participate in wellness webinars and more than 20% of members utilize MEPRA’s mental health support hotline and Employee Assistance Program.
Do you see changes in the breakdown of your members and how do you explain it?
Our membership portfolio tends to mirror how the industry evolves. We are seeing more small independent agencies enter the market and therefore, we also see a spike in these members. Often, the perception is that MEPRA is tailored to network agencies; however, our Executive Board is solely made up of in-house professionals and small to mid-sized agency leaders, so there has definitely been a shift. The biggest change to our membership is the surge in corporate members. For the first time ever, corporations make up 50% of all MEPRA members, which is primarily driven by the value we provide through training, networking, and industry insights.