Adding to the perennial complaints from PR practitioners about wanting independence from their marketing colleagues and a seat at the boardroom, are newer questions about who has responsibility for social media. I’ve decided that I don’t care about such debates.
Short version for the snackers: PR has too often squandered the opportunity to be taken seriously by focusing on the glitzy, fluffy stuff or spinning rather than gaining business competencies. If we can’t get serious about the challenges facing our organisations, we should just shut up moaning about our lowly role!
One of my 4th year dissertation students at Bournemouth University is looking at the factors influencing PR’s impact at the higher echelons of an organisation. Her literature review highlights plenty of evidence of lost opportunities over the years.
PR practitioners have largely ignored the power of evaluation by not getting involved with organisations’ research functions. These tend to focus on product, market or customer research – why isn’t it the publics research or reputation research department? That would give an organisation a much wider understanding of the external context impacting its success.
When we consider reputation (which the CIPR definition puts at the centre stage of our role), can we really lay claim to its management? When you look at ongoing crisis such as the Mattel toy recalls, all the fancy communications about its commitments – “nothing is more important than the safety of children, etc, etc”, won’t protect the corporate reputation if management doesn’t prove it can reliably make toys fit for their purpose.
Then there’s issues and crisis management, which again has been said to be the key to the boardroom (C Suite) door. I see all sorts of experts from other disciplines laying claim to this competency. When it comes to risk management, for example, PR seems to stand back rather than championing behavioural change in response to emerging risks (or opportunities).
Are we even qualified to counsel on risks affecting businesses? Are we capable of spotting trends that could offer up business opportunities or act as early warnings of the need to change behaviour? Will anyone listen if we are? Do you see the hand of PR behind risk assessment reports – or only if required to “spin” some rhetoric so the contents highlight the positive and minimise the negative?
But, beyond the ability to build relationships with journalists – and we can question whether such capabilities are widely evident today – are PR practitioners taken the opportunity to become experts in enabling their organisations to manage strategic, or operational, relationships?
Maybe the secret is in corporate social responsibility? I used to believe it was, but then the PR luvvies focused on initiatives or “greenwash” rather than understanding the strategic elements of being a sustainable corporate citizen. So cynicism about PR became cynicism about CSR (or vice versa).
I notice that Avis has appointed a corporate social responsibility manager – his background is in quality and environmental certification, not public relations. This area of management may also be increasingly taken up by those with the credibility of understanding the business and ensuring organisations comply with their responsibilities. Shouldn’t PR be able to do that, and have wider vision for businesses too?
I know that in some of these areas, many PR practitioners have proven capable and gained the respect of their senior colleagues. But this seems to be on an individual basis, rather than for the profession of PR as a whole.
I fear that too often though, the wider PR world has let such strategic opportunities go by in preference for focusing on the glitzy end of publicity and media relations. We’re seen more often as emergency fixers or party organisers than serious management material.
When we complain about being lumped in with marketing – maybe we’ve only ourselves to blame. Do we deserve to be considered the function responsible for social media – or doesn’t current evidence indicate that the spinners have ensured PR’s bad side has got in the way of credibility there too?
If we can’t take advantage of the business management opportunities that cry out for our expert hands, then maybe we should shut up moaning about the lowly plight of public relations.