The Strategic Value of Public Relations

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Have you ever wondered what does it take for Public Relations to be recognised as a strategic management function, and for its practitioners to be considered trusted business advisors?

What it takes is a rather different skillset than the one we are accustomed to, and plenty of techniques, not “tools”. In strategic management (if we consider PR having a clear role here), tools or technical tasks are merely supportive of the technique, not the other way round.

When you discuss – or try to constructively and politely argue your point – with a C-suite member, a Board Director, a Government Minister or a potential investor, it’s highly unlikely that they will ask you about outputs and outtakes, the PESO model or social media engagement rates. These are important to us, not to them.

They are going to ask you this very simple question: “why should we do this?”

Your ability to answer the question above becomes paramount in positioning yourself as a strategic management advisor or, as someone recently said to me, as the “Chief of Staff”. Your answer to “why should we do this?” will need to be only related to business outcomes, competition positioning, regulators buy-in, corporate goals, social purpose or reputation building.

Your “outside” language needs to be business-speak, and your “inside” language needs to be PR, External Affairs, Communication, Diplomacy etc.

As we don’t, perhaps, understand the language of many specialised disciplines, the business world doesn’t understand ours. Our role is to speak theirs or translate ours, not to expect them to have an inkling of what we are talking about “just because they should”.

When we discuss about PR as a strategic management function, we need to also address a point of contention for many PR practitioners: qualifications. Years ago, when I was arguing a very important point with a group of private investors, the first question I was asked was: “and how are you qualified to discuss  this point? What’s your background?”

I realised that just a BSc in Communication and Public Relations wasn’t going to cut it – I felt cornered by their question and uncomfortable. That was the moment when I promised myself that I’d never let that happen again (and I didn’t).

No matter what I would have said, the fact that I had no business qualifications nor a postgraduate degree, was going to get me nowhere in terms of my credibility with them. It was a lesson I learned, thankfully, when I was in my mid-twenties – and had plenty of time since to address that “qualification” void.

Today, for those of us who want to work in International Affairs/Relations/Development or in anything that reads multinational, publicly traded, multi-million-pound businesses, the requirement for a Masters degree is as common as a walk in the park. Just give a search for Communication/PR jobs with major banks, international institutions (United Nations, World Bank, large multinationals) and in 9 cases out of 10 there will likely be a requirement for a postgraduate degree and a professional qualification.

But degrees (postgraduate or not) can never replace a very good grasp of your sector, corroborated with robust knowledge of your client’s/employer’s business, market forces, external environment, internal redundancies and efficiencies, competitor analysis, and market positioning.

Strategy, not just in PR but in any discipline, is about long term. Strategy is not about today or tomorrow, it’s about “if A happens, then what does B look like?”

For PR to earn its recognition as a strategic management function, we need to be able to anticipate all the moves on the chess board – if the chess board is the organisation and its environment, then we need to be able to advise and recognise the impact (and fall out) of any business/organisational strategy during every move that our chess pieces make on the board.

A simpler analogy would be that of the pebble and the lake (my favourite one, and the image I chose for this post) – PR is largely tactical, and generally focused on the first ripple (and splash) made by the pebble when thrown into the lake.

Strategic PR analyses all the ripples, from the largest to the smallest, made by that pebble; some call this horizon scanning, others call it scenario analysis.

What we call it is less important – being able to do it is what will gain us recognition as a strategic management function.

 

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