Benita Steyn on Strategy and Public Relations


A previous post dwelt on the abuse of the term strategy by public relators and raised a number of interesting concepts. Benita Steyn is one of the commenters and here it is, as a post in itself

I agree with Toni that most people misuse and abuse the term ‘strategy’, and also with Jean Valin that many (especially in the field of public relations) do not ‘have a clue’ what strategy means. Educators should probably take most of the blame for this, since there are hardly any guidelines for the development of public relations strategy and pitifully little research on the concept of ‘public relations/ corporate communication strategy’ amongst academics on any continent. Hopefully this situation will receive attention now that Tom Watson’s study has indicated the Nr 1 priority for public relations research to be “public relations’ role in contributing to strategic decision-making, strategy development and realisation, and organisational functioning”.

In searching for reasons why there is a problem with understanding ‘strategy’ in a public relations (PR) context and also why there hasn’t been more research on the topic in the past, it might be that PR people (practitioners and academics alike) think they understand ‘strategy.’ This illusion might have come about because of the appearance of the term ‘strategy’ as a step in the model for developing a communication plan. Looking back over the last 50 years, there are various versions of the steps/stages in the development of a communication plan, but most refer to Research (problem/ opportunity statement and situation analysis), Planning (communication goals/ objectives), Programming (target publics, messages, strategy, activities, scheduling, budget), and Evaluation.

Based on strategic management theory of the previous century, the term ‘strategy’ as it appears in the communication plan, refers to implementation or operational strategy (see b-steyn-bled-2002-paper.pdf Bled 2002 conference paper). This is the organisational level where most PR practitioners are stuck — developing communication plans, programmes and campaigns in support of corporate or business unit or other functions’ goals and strategies. I find it useful to call it ‘communication’ strategy at this level (rather than PR or corporate communication strategy) since the decisions to be taken in formulating implementation strategy here have to do with which communication channels are to be used to get the messages across, followed by decisions on which activities to use. For example, if the implementation strategy (approach) to reach employees is a print campaign, then the activities could entail using the organisation’s newsletter; or a special series of letters from the CEO, or the monthly in-house journal. If an interpersonal approach (strategy) is decided upon, then a meeting between manager and employee might be a more appropriate activity.

Implementation strategy, as referred to above, is the very lowest level of strategy formulation. There is also functional strategy (e.g. marketing or HR strategy), business unit strategy, corporate strategy, and some even acknowledge enterprise or institutional strategy at the very highest organisational levels. Viewed from this perspective, it can come as no surprise that public relations/ corporate communication is not involved in strategy development at higher organisational levels. Taking decisions on whether to use interpersonal or print or electronic channels is not going to earn senior PR people a seat at the boardroom table. Clearly, they will have to get involved in strategy formulation at higher organisational levels. (I am aware of other more modern views on organisational structure such as matrix organisations functioning in project teams. However, I still maintain that decisions on communication channels will not be seen as a strategic contribution by top management).

If implementation strategy in a PR context refers to decisions on channels, then what is the meaning of ‘public relations or corporate communication strategy’ as a functional strategy? And even more important, what is “public relations’ role in contributing to strategic decision-making and strategy development” at levels higher than the functional PR strategy? In my master’s degree and a few early conference papers/ articles, I started searching for answers to these questions. The research on which my first model for the development of public relations strategy (as a functional strategy) is based, is now almost 10 years old and in need of updating. I have however since reconceptualised ‘public relations/ corporate communication strategy’ and present a summary below.

Based on Mintzberg’s (1987) views on deliberate strategy formulation and emergent strategy formation, PR strategy is conceptualised as consisting of both deliberate and emergent components:
1. PR strategy as ‘deliberate strategy’ is a pattern of decisions for using communication as a strategic opportunity in organizational goal achievement (e.g., building relationships with strategic stakeholders, portraying the organization as a good corporate citizen, maintaining a good reputation, or communicating change initiatives).
Deliberate PR strategy is formulated in the context of the organization’s vision, mission, corporate strategies, policies and strategic goals. It can therefore be considered a mid-term strategy (two years or more). The organization´s key strategic priorities are reviewed to select strategic organizational positions and goals to be communicated to internal and external stakeholders (Digital Management, 2005). A key focus is therefore the organization’s strategies that have already been formulated as part of the regular cycle of strategy development or budgeting process.
2. PR strategy as ‘emergent strategy’’ is a pattern in important decisions on using communication to solve organizational or communication problems in unstructured situations, or to capitalize on opportunities presented. In emergent PR strategy, the final objective is unclear and elements are still developing as the strategy proceeds, continuously adapting to events and people (i.e. external and internal stakeholders, societal issues, and the interest/activist groups that emerge around issues). Emergent PR strategy thus outlines the communication needed to address constantly emerging societal and stakeholder issues, and crisis situations. In this sense, emergent strategy is a shorter-term strategy (i.e. less than two years). The rationale is that should an issue continue for a longer period, it will become part of deliberate strategy.
Emergent PR strategy is in accordance with Grunig and Repper’s view (cited in Grunig, 1992) that managing communication strategically entails analyzing the environment to make an organization or institution aware of stakeholders, publics and issues as they evolve, and developing communication programs that can help resolve such issues. Stakeholder and issues management thus form a core focus of emerging PR strategy.
Deliberate and emergent PR strategy produce a profile that can be used to determine which stakeholders or issues should receive more or less emphasis (within the PR strategy’s Triple Bottom Line focus of “people” and “planet”, rather than “profit”).

For those who might be interested in starting a conversation, more detail on the conceptualisation of ‘public relations/ corporate communication strategy’ can be obtained in the excerpt-excellence-book.pdf.


  1. Most interesting, Benita.
    Particularly I am intrigued by the distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy.
    It is not easy to escape the thought that the concept of an emergent strategy could in itself be an oxymoron… and a similar doubt might also apply to what you define as implementational strategy.
    I find it difficult to conceive a strategy which is not deliberate and which does not clearly lead to a tactical implementation phase. Of course, in defining and deciding such strategy one needs to leave ample room for adjustments, emerging risks and unexpected opportunities,as you correctly say.
    But this is precisely one of the truly strategic (yes! in this case!) roles of pr, inasmuch as listening carefully to stakeholders allows the organization to improve its decision making processes.
    How would you react if we used the term strategic only when referring to the institutional/corporate/organizational level. And this, irrespective of communication activities?
    Then the whole communicative aspect becomes inevitably tactical, in the noblest sense of the word.
    And the terms ‘public relations strategy’ or ‘communication strategy’ or ‘relationship strategy’ or ‘media strategy’ and ‘you-name-it strategy’ would leave way simply to ‘program’ (definitely not…campaign..).
    I know many dissent from this pickering about terms…but you know how difficult it is to use ‘convince’ rather than ‘persuade’, ‘public’ or ‘stakeholder’ rather than ‘target’, ‘content’ rather than ‘message’…….

  2. Toni, I realise that my post was very sketchy, presenting only an excerpt of my conceptualisation of the two kinds of PR strategy, and not the strategic management literature upon which it was based (resulting in raising more questions rather than providing answers)!

    It must be noted that terms such as ‘implementation strategy’ and ‘emergent strategy’ are not my creations, but very much part of strategic management theory. However, it is I who applied it to PR and therefore I appreciate comments on the way it was done or better still, the way it should be done. Because of the importance of the topic and the depth of your observations/ comments/ questions, I don’t want to comment with one-liners. Therefore I am going to reply to different parts of your comments at different times.

    Starting with your last comment: As a researcher, I am also fanatical about defining terms so as not to compare apples and pears. I consider the lack of standardised terms to be one of the biggest problems in our field. Will you please provide YOUR definition of PR ‘programme’ so that I know what you mean by it. I differentiate between PR ‘programmes’ and ‘campaigns’ as follows:

    · A PR campaign is a collection of communication plans, consisting of specific messages to specific audiences, and usually addresses a particular situation. Its distinguishing characteristic is that it is ‘TIME-LIMITED’ (e.g. a week or month), and has a clear beginning and end (but there can be a cycle of campaigns e.g. annually).
    · A PR programme differs in that it is CONTINUOUS communication with certain strategic stakeholders (often structured in the PR dept as ‘media relations’ or ‘employee relations’ or ‘community relations’, etc.) or around a certain topic (e.g. ‘sponsorships’ or ‘change management’ or ‘corporate id’). It will therefore be possible to have a campaign within the employee relations programme, but not the other way round.
    · To summarise: I see a PR campaign and PR programme as ways to order/structure communication plans around certain stakeholders or topics, differing in periods of duration.

    However, I realise that there are other definitions of PR ‘program’. (This is the confusion we all talk about). I just looked in the Encyclopedia of PR, where ‘program’ is equated to ‘action plan’ and seen as a ‘tactical roadmap’, listing a series of tactics for operationalising campaign strategies. (Maybe this is the way you see it?) Let’s then consider ‘tactical roadmap’ to mean ‘IMPLEMENTATION strategy’ and stretch it to mean ‘PR programme’.

    Your comment above was that we should do away with terms such as ‘public relations strategy’ or ‘communication strategy’ (or ‘relationship strategy’ or ‘media strategy’ and ‘you-name-it strategy’) and simply call it ‘program.’ Of course we COULD call it ‘programme’. But SHOULD we do that? I definitely don’t think so, because this is the road we (PR) have travelled for many years before–and look at the confusion it has created. It has resulted in a management function (PR) with very little understanding of strategy, with practitioners expending most of their energy on creating PR ‘programmes’ that are not linked to corporate goals/priorities or the mission. I think the reason for that is either that PR students/ practitioners have never been exposed to the real meaning of the term ‘strategy’ in their education and therefore have no clue what it really means; or they encountered it as (implementation) strategy in the communication plan and think that this is its only meaning in public relations; or they have never had any education because there is no licensing enforcing standards!

    This situation will be perpetuated if educators stick only to the term PR ‘program’ and not link it to ‘implementation strategy’ so that students/ practitioners can learn about the hierarchy of strategies and how they can make a contribution to each. (PR educators simply have to build bridges to strategic management theory, linking PR theory to strategy, rather than ignoring it and going their own way. However, I agree with you wholeheartedly that we should not abuse the word ‘strategy’ by calling anything a strategy. It should be used only when it truly refers to ‘strategy’–the same goes for ‘strategic’).

    PR practitioners of course have always known about strategy at higher levels (such as corporate or business unit strategy), but the problem is they think that it has nothing to do with them. And they will continue thinking this if we don’t teach them right from the start that:

    · PR ‘strategists’ should be involved in strategic decision making at the very top levels, resulting mostly in the formulation of ‘enterprise strategy.’
    · PR ‘managers’ should focus on/take decisions of which the outcome is ‘public relations/corporate communication’ strategy (i.e. higher-level strategies that provides direction to the whole PR function as to what they should be communicating about) and
    · PR ‘technicians’ take tactical communication programming decisions of which the outcome is ‘implementation (communication) strategy’ and tactics.

    This process is what I consider to be the strategic management of public relations. Of course PR also has a support role in supporting other strategies (corporate and business unit and other functional strategies). But if it doesn’t formulate its own functional strategy, it will forever be locked into supporting other strategies. This is what has happened in the past and this is what is still happening. In continuing in this fashion, PR will never become a (strategic) management function with a seat in the boardroom because they won’t deserve it.

    I will reply to your other comments on ‘deliberate’ and ‘emergent’ strategy later, when time permits.

  3. Toni, Here I am back with the rest of the epistle.

    With regards to your comment above on the distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy, I know what you mean when you say that emergent strategy as well as implementation strategy might be seen as a contradiction in terms when one first looks at the terms. However, as I said above, implementation strategy is a well-known, often-used concept in strategic management theory. And Henry Mintzberg was quite adamant about the fact that not all strategies are deliberate, i.e. all strategies are not the outcome of a formal strategy formulation/ strategic planning exercise by senior managers (a top-down approach) but many strategies emerge in an ‘unplanned’ fashion as harrowed managers (and others) try to deal with problems/opportunities facing them every day. (This is seen as more of a bottom-up approach to strategy formulation). Actually, the word ‘formulation’ is not used with emergent strategy. Rather, emergent strategies are ‘formed’, so the process is strategy ‘formation’. In the end, most organisations probably use a combination of both. Likewise, in my view the process of PR/Communication strategy formulation/formation in most organizations also consist of both deliberate and emergent components.

    I see the concepts of deliberate and emergent strategy as fitting to describe the dual role of the public relations/ corporate communication function in organisational strategy formulation/formation:

    (1). The historic view is that the PR function assists (only) in the implementation of strategy, namely by communicating it. (This is not only the view of many PR and most marketing people, but according to strategic management literature, also the way in which senior managers view PR’s contribution to strategy). This view is called ‘strategy communication’ by Moss & Warnaby (1998), referring to the role of communication in facilitating the strategy process, communicating the organisation’s strategic direction to both internal and external stakeholders — ensuring a wide understanding and acceptance of the leadership’s strategic vision. The strategy making process inevitably relies on effective communication to help ensure a consensus within the organisation as to problems faced, and to facilitate understanding and co-ordination between the separate functional hierarchies. A major role for PR here is to communicate organizational values; facilitate the implementation of cultural change; and help to build a climate of mutual trust and understanding between managers and employees. Moss & Warnaby point out that communication has been treated mainly as an ‘ enabling function’ in the strategy literature, facilitating the successful implementation of strategic decisions. In itself, it has not been seen as a key element in the strategic decision making process.

    I regard the above as referring to ‘deliberate PR/ communi-cation strategy’, a pattern of decisions on which strategic priorities, organizational positions and goals are to be communicated to internal and external stakeholders. A key focus here is the organization’s strategies that have already been formulated as part of the regular cycle of strategy development or budgeting process. I see two scenarios for the PR function here:
    • The decisions on what need to be communicated in this regard are taken by top management or managers of other functions. PR people simply do as they are told and develop/ execute communication plans/ programmes. (I call this PR’s ‘support’ role: either providing support for another function or other higher-level strategies such as business unit or corporate strategy). If PR plays only this role, Toni, I am quite happy not to mention the word ‘ strategy’ with regards to the PR function, because there is pretty little strategy formulation involved (only implementation strategy, i.e. decisions on channels in the communication plan). In this instance, I am with you all the way that we simply stick to the term ‘ PR programmes’, as it has been done in the past).
    • However, senior PR practitioners CAN play a more strategic role in deliberate strategy formulation by firstly getting involved in decisions on what needs to be communicated about and secondly, pointing out the consequences of communicating certain strategic positions/ goals/ priorities and making suggestions on how it could be handled (communicated) more effectively. For instance, when top management wants to communicate a merger, PR can either blindly communicate the news (support role) or they can intervene by spelling out the consequences of such news on the employees (or the stock price) and ‘direct’ the communication to address/ counter the ‘ consequences’ of the news on the employees (rather than just communicate the news which normally creates havoc in an organization). This to me is a strategic role, where PR takes decisions on what exactly needs to be communicated with regards to the organizational position/priority/ goal. Here PR practitioners’ specialised knowledge and understanding of organizational stakeholders are put to good use (since top management doesn’t always understand/cannot foresee the problems that their decisions or strategies or behaviour will cause amongst stakeholders/ societal members).

    2). This brings us to the second and more recent view (underlined by the findings of the Excellence Study). The strategic role of public relations has been defined by various authors as building long-term relationships with an organisation’s strategic stakeholders/ constituencies — those groups that limit the autonomy of an organisation in pursuing and realising its strategic goals. If public relations is to fulfil this role, it must by implication participate in the organisation’s strategy formulation and strategic planning, and manage communication programmes strategically. Managing communication strategically, according to Grunig & Repper, is to diagnose the environment to make the organisation aware of stakeholders, publics, activists and issues as they evolve and to develop programmes that can help resolve such issues. In this sense, issues management forms the core focus of the strategic management of public relations. Moss & Warnaby (1998) use the term ‘communications strategy’ to refer to the PR function’s broader, more strategically significant role in diagnosing the environment and managing exchanges between environmental actors and forces. Their principal arguments focus on the ‘boundary-spanning’ capability of the PR function in terms of its environmental scanning and external representation roles.

    I regard decisions on what needs to be communicated with regards to emerging and current issues, stakeholder and societal concerns/expectations and crisis situations (that endanger corporate reputation and legitimacy, and stakeholder/ societal trust in the organisation) as emergent PR/Communication strategy. This is obviously not a support role, but part of the strategic role of PR (although these communication decisions are taken at the middle management level by a practitioner in the role of the PR manager, in consultation with the PR strategist at the top management level).

    To come back to your comment, Toni, that it is ‘difficult to conceive a strategy which is not deliberate and which does not clearly lead to a tactical implementation phase’. Emergent communication strategy DOES lead to a tactical implementation phase. The difference with deliberate strategy is that the latter originates with top management (or other senior managers) and they already know from the start what they want to communicate about, what the goals are (what they want to achieve). The PR manager might have to deliberate what to communicate to achieve these goals, but the desired end state is clear. Emergent communication strategy ‘originates’ with the stakeholders or other societal members/groups. The communication goal is unclear and elements are still developing as the strategy proceeds. E.g. the PR strategist might pick up a reputation risk or another strategic issue (or it might be identified ad hoc by PR practitioners or others.) In such a case, the communication goal is not clear from the start and the strategy still has to be ‘formed’ .

    How would I react if we used the term ‘ strategic’ only when referring to the institutional/ corporate/organizational level? Once again, I understand why you are saying this because you want to avoid erroneous use of the term. But for instance, just think of the term ‘strategic alignment.’ I understand this to mean horizontal as well as vertical alignment. With regards to the PR function, vertical alignment will refer to aligning even the smallest activity on the operational level to the mission/ strategic goals and priorities on the top management level. Also, top management theory acknowledges strategy on different organizational levels. Furthermore, strategic management literature is increasingly referring to middle management involvement in strategy formulation. While some middle managers’ operating responsibilities are withering because senior management is relying less and less on them in re-engineered organisations, the strategic contributions of other middle managers (often those in boundary spanning roles) are increasing. I see the communication manager as one of these (but only if they develop PR/Communication strategy and make a strategic contribution). Also, strategy and strategic thinking is no longer the domain of top management alone. The very concept of emergent strategy attests to that.

    I have tried very hard to provide a starting point for a discussion on PR strategy formulation and PR’s strategic role in the organization. If you see the holes in the above arguments (and there are many), please point them out. If you think this is all a lot of nonsense, say so but provide YOUR idea of PR/communication strategy. If you think the concept has no value, say so but please give your ideas on what might be the missing link in PR, or why there seems to be an inability to break through the strategy barrier.

  4. Benita,
    first of all…
    I have learned one hell of a lot from this stimulating exchange, and I am sure that the same is true for many others. Therefore, my sincere gratitude, highest and affection and respect for this huge effort to cover a wide spectrum of uses of the term strategy in current and past management and public relations literature, and for enriching us with your own views and current conceptualizations.
    I will not attempt to do anything similar, simply because I do not have the knowledge base nor sufficient conceptual resources. I will only reflect of my day-to-day professional experience and try to describe how things could be if approached differently. I must confess that I can recall not more than a handful of situations, in more than forty years of practice, where I found myself in situations similar to what I will describe, but in all those cases I can assure you that the satisfaction was well worth the daily frustrations encountered in all other instances.
    However, as time goes by (hence, some optimism..)I see more and more colleagues operating in similar organizational environments.
    Let me therefore add a different (?) perspective which might at the end only confuse the situation but, hopefully, also add food for further thought.
    Of course…. if we consider Princeton Review’s view of public relations as anything near reality (see the recent post on this blog)…then it is better to abandon the discussion and even this very blog…but, although not undermining its significant relevance… let us move forward (in writing this however, I also fear that we might be moving too far away from reality and that a hefty injection of onanism is possibly influencing what follows…).

    I begin from the perspective that, in my view, strategic public relations is active when the professional(s) have sufficient relevance in an organization to perform both the reflexive/reflective and educative roles by:

    a) assisting leadership in listening to, understanding and intepreting stakeholder expectations before leadership takes operational decisions to achieve an organization’s corporate (institutional?) strategy which, in turn, is the defined way the organization intends to transit, in a certain period of time and following specific behavioural guidelines, from its mission (what it is now)to its vision (what it wants to be);

    b) by assisting, counseling, stimulating and enabling other organizational functions in more effectively governing their relationship systems with their respective key stakeholders, in order to ensure that those same strategic objectives are as quickly as possible achieved by implementing those operational decisions.
    As you certainly notice I have not yet used the term communication nor have I mentioned the term reputation.
    If you take this perspective, public relations is basically strategic if and when it consciously helps to improve the quality of organizational decisions and to accelerate the time of their implementation, which each of the various functions will have trasformed in operational objectives.

    To be able to perform these two strategic roles, public relators -coherently aligned with organizational strategy-will conceive, create, manage and implement (monitoring and evaluating being a constant and inherent feature of any implementation) a specific operative communication program (yes, I agree,segmented in separate but coherent actions..I would leave the term campaigns to advertisers and the military…) for each of the operational objectives to be pursued by the organization, in order to accelerate the time of implementation of each strategic decision.
    I very much underline the time-variable because I am convinced, in todays global and local competitive environment, this is a (the?) crucial element to determine the effective value of public relations.

    In no way, Benita, do I imply that this arguably rather simplistic view of our profession contradicts the concepts you have so clearly illustrated. To the contrary,I instead argue that nothing is certain, that the situation changes every minute and that (also referring once more to the Princeton Review which really struck me and made me realize how much we talk with ourselves rather than with others..) we have one hell of a long way to go before we can even say we are satisfied.

  5. Hello: I have (unfortunately) come upon this website only this evening, and, of course, have been interested in the discussions. Rather than belabouring some of the excellent points made already herein, or writing scores of pages that I have already covered elsewhere, I will suggest referring to several articles that described research I did and published in the “strategic” PR/comms arena some years ago. I suspect it still holds much truth, although it often gets over-looked in our frequent desire to be or appear to be more current. I hope some of these help. It would be a shame to attempt to re-invent some ideas that have previously demonstrated at least a reasonable degree of validity and wide-ranging applicability as well.

    As someone who was trained in strategic management, and spent many years both practicing and advising organizations in the area, I’ll remain interested in the discussions to follow — and hope to be a more active participant going forward.

    Prof. Craig Fleisher, Windsor Research Leadership Chair, Odette Schol of Business, University of Windsor

    Try any or several of the following articles:

    Fleisher, C.S. “A systems-based synthesis of public affairs as a strategic communication function,” Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Relations, 1999, 1(1), 1-27.

    Fleisher, C.S.,”A benchmarked assessment of the strategic management of corporate communications,” Journal of Marketing Communications, 1998, 4(3), 163-176.

    Fleisher, C.S., “The global development of public affairs” Chapter 1 in Harris, P. and Fleisher, C. [eds.], Handbook of Public Affairs, 2005, London, UK: SAGE.

    Fleisher, C.S., “Strategy for public affairs decision makers,” Chapter 8 in Fleisher, C. [ed.], Assessing, Managing and Maximizing Public Affairs Performance, 1997, Washington, DC: The Public Affairs Council.

    Fleisher, C.S., “Are corporate public relations strategic?” National Report, May 1998, Sydney, NSW, Australia: Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA).

    Fleisher, C.S. “Public affairs as a strategic communication function: Key learning from an international perspective,” Proceedings of the Inaugural National Communication Conference, 1998, Sydney, NSW, Australia: Australian Institute of Professional Communicators, 16 pp.

  6. With regards to the Princeton Review article that has us all up in arms: Theirs is mostly a description of the role played by (some) PR practitioners in the past. As a PR academic, it is my contention that the author of the above career guidance article is doing prospective students a disservice by dwelling on the past in such a negative manner. I cannot for the life of me believe that the University of Pretoria (where I used to teach) or the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (where I teach now) would describe their curriculum as teaching public relations specialists to be an ‘ image shaper’; that their only job is to generate positive publicity for their client; that while advertisers lie about the product, public relations people lie about the company; that their job is to understand pop culture so as to understand what stories will get the publics’ attention; that they should try ‘ to put a warm ‘n fuzzy spin on the company’s latest oil-spill’ . Rather, writings on a university’s curriculum or in the career section of any publication should be looking into the future and describe the prospects of PR students in the ‘new organisation’ – an organisation that is going to look very different from one in the past.

    But let us not dwell on the past. I don’t see PRConversations as being about the past. It is about the changes taking place in our world right now and how public relations can adapt and play a meaningful role in the future — a role needed by any kind of organisation. As Prof Anne Gregory says in the newest post on this blog: “It’s a job for the brave and for those who are unafraid to challenge and change the stereo-types”.

    Toni, I do not see your views of our profession expressed above as being simplistic, nor contradicting to what I have described in this post. As a matter of fact, I agree with the role you describe under paragraph (a) above almost 100% (and I didn’t know this before!). Your view is a summary of my research findings on the role of the ‘PR strategist’. (I don’t think you were at the Lake Bled conference in Slovenia in 2003 when I described my study amongst CEOs in South Africa with regards to this role?) The latter indicated that we are not ‘moving too far away from reality’ in our musings in this post (as you suggested as a possibility). Yes, we might be far away from the way in which many PR practitioners perform currently. But your envisioned strategic role is not at all far away from the envisioned role of South African CEO’s with regards to stakeholder and issues management.

    I am tickled pink by the role you describe under (b) above because it corresponds with a view I expressed elsewhere on this blog (20 June this year, under ‘Ultimate purpose of PR’ ) on the strategic cooperation between PR and other organisational functions (rather than only the tactical support currently provided by PR)– cooperation that will improve, facilitate and accelerate the achievement of organizational goals.

    I think that we are in agreeance that both these strategic PR roles you described are not ultimately about the PR function. We are not talking here about pushing stakeholder and issues management higher up management’s agenda. We are talking here about connecting what the PR function already does and can do, to what is already high up on management’s agenda.

    And Craig, here I am looking forward to what you (being trained in strategic management, having conducted a lot of research in a related field) and Fraser (who also joined PRC recently and has a wealth of experience in the field) can provide with regard to ideas on the way forward. You have a huge contribution to make. But I hope that future comments will not be limited to you two distinguished gentlemen. The way forward concerns all of us—practitioners and academics alike–whether we work in a big or small organisation or consultancy or tertiary institution, on any continent. It is not often that Venus and Mars get the opportunity to take hands and contemplate the future together. Let us use this excellent medium and opportunity that Toni is providing us all, to the fullest!


  7. In my view, the following definition of PR/ communication substantiates the need to develop both ‘deliberate’ and ‘emergent’ PR/ communication strategy:

    Toth and Trujillo (1987:42) describe contemporary corporate communication as “a management function in the business organization which is responsible for presenting the organisation’s goals and character to many diverse publics. Contemporary corporate communications also refers to the corporation’s receiver role in obtaining and using information from the public environment. “

    1. I equate public relations to corporate communication. The definition above therefore also describes public relations, in my view.
    2. Although the above definition is focused on business organisations, I think that it applies equally to PR/ communication in public and non-profit organisations.
    3. The need to develop both deliberate and emergent PR/ communication strategy exists not only in business organisations, but also in public and non-profit organisations.


  8. But Benita,

    There seems to be a contradiction – between your number 3 and Toni’s previous a and b (to which you stated your agreement).

    I read Toni’s a and b in the same way he stated that “As you certainly notice I have not yet used the term communication … ”

    When agreeing with a and b, there’s corporate strategy, deliberate corporate strategy, business unit strategy, emergent corporate, whatever – but there is no such thing as “deliberate and emergent PR/ communication strategy.”

    We are not a separate being, we are within the same skin.

    (written with a smile on my face!)

  9. Hey, Fraser, you are not allowed to laugh at me!!…….
    (Only joking). But I am serious when I say that the smile on MY face is even bigger, and that is because you are visiting our blog and joining the conversation! We (academics and practitioners alike) desperately need to talk/ converse/ discuss/ argue about the strategic role of PR.

    I see Toni’s (a) and (b) exactly like you and him. Toni is referring to the strategic role of PR in both instances. This role is not about communication – simplistically, it is about ‘listening’ on behalf of the organization to stakeholders and societal members, making sense of what is heard, and contributing this strategic intelligence to the organisation’s strategy formulation process. In Susanne Holmstrom’s reflective PR paradigm, Toni’s (a) is the ‘reflective’ role. I call this the ‘mirror’ function of PR. It is the domain of a practitioner in the role of the ‘PR strategist’. I see this to be the ‘strategic thinking’ phase of PR. It is conceptually and theoretically different from my ‘window’ function (called the ‘expressive’ role of PR in the reflective paradigm), both having to do with communication. Simplistically, one could call this ‘talking’ or ‘speaking’ or ‘communicating’ on behalf of the organisation — performed by practitioners in the role of the PR manager (developing PR/communication strategy) and the PR technician (implementing the communication strategy). So Fraser, within this framework, I see no contradiction between my nr (3) and Toni’s (a) and (b). I do however realize that sketchy explanations scattered under different topics on a blog are not easy to follow.

    The role described by Toni under (a) is the same strategic role that Prof Anne Gregory described in her post ‘Relaunching the debate on ambiguity’ where she talks about PR performing environmental scanning and issues management (I would add stakeholder management to this). She describes practitioners performing this role as ‘constantly surveying the external and internal environment of an organisation in order to identify any issues, challenges and/or opportunities that it might face in the future and advise senior management on what they should do’. Furthermore, she said that PR practitioners can provide predictability by seeking out sources of ambiguity that may lead to conflict and help in their resolution.

    The role described by Toni under (b) is the role that I described under the ‘Ultimate purpose of PR’ as the strategic co-operation between PR and other functions in achieving organizational goals. This is not a support role (as so often happens in practice) but a strategic role.

    As Fraser says, the environment within which the strategic PR role is performed is the corporate strategy domain (both deliberate and emergent) and business unit strategy formulation. (I add to this the institutional/ enterprise strategy domain).

    With regards to ‘deliberate and emergent PR/ communication strategy,’ I agree with Fraser insofar as the terminology not existing in the PR literature (except for what I have written). However, I do not agree that the two types of PR/communication strategy do not exist in practice. It might not be called ‘deliberate PR strategy’ and it might not be developed in an orderly framework/ process, but I can cite many PR authors who state that PR communicates organisational direction, goals and priorities. For instance, Roger D’Aprix (1996) defines strategic communication as the deliberate design of a communication strategy to interpret an organisation’s vision, values, goals and intentions to its audiences. (In this view, the aim of communication strategy is to communicate an organisation’s vision, values, etc. to stakeholders). In the publication Strategic Communication Management (SCM 2002:16), the concept of strategic communication management is described as “having a communication strategy that is fully aligned and integrated with business strategy; involving business leaders as role models for communication; holding leaders, managers and employees accountable for communication; managing communication as a process” (SCM 2002:16). This is none other than what I term ‘deliberate communication strategy’. Moss and Warnaby call this ‘strategy communication’. So I maintain that many PR practitioners communicate organisational direction and strategies, although often in a most haphazard way. Fraser, I am sure that you have assisted organisations with this yourself.

    Moss and Warnaby (1997) regard Grunig and Repper’s (1992) strategic management model (the stakeholder, publics and issues stages) as a logical approach for identifying the fundamental problems or issues on which PR strategy will focus. In my opinion, the term strategy here refers to ‘emergent’ PR strategy. Anne Gregory and Toni have described the initial process above of which ‘emergent communication strategy’ is the outcome. Fraser, I am very sure that you have assisted many organisations in this process too. But of course you didn’t use the terms.

    I thus propose ‘deliberate’ and ‘emergent’ PR/communication strategy as a conceptual framework for something that many PR practitioners are already doing. The most important reason for doing so, is that when one is teaching students, it provides a way of making them understand how PR fits into the organisation’s strategy formulation process. Last but not the least, it ties PR strategy making to organisational strategy making in a way that top management and other functions can relate to and understand. Shouldn’t we start to speak the language of management in a more concerted way and, in the process, increase our own understanding (and theirs) of what we are about?

    A last remark to Fraser (gee, you are really making me work)—there is a thing such as marketing strategy, HR strategy, etc. I am sure they are ‘within the same (organisational) skin’. If they can exist as separate strategies and be called so, why can there not be something such as PR/ communication strategy? Isn’t the very fact that there is no such terminology and that our students are not taught about PR/communication strategy at the functional level, the very reason why the PR function is disjointed, out of sync with top management and other functions – and cannot rise above a mere technical (support) function?


  10. This has been an interesting thread to follow. I have always appreciated Benita’s views about strategic PR, and am so thankful that she has taken a leading position in trying to clarify what this concept means.

    “Deliberate” and “emergent” strategy has been a long-held distinction within the strategy field, going back to the late 50s and the LCAG (Harvard) group, but picked up most clearly by Mintzberg and his colleagues decades later. These were both so-called “process”-focused strategy school concepts (addressing the “how” and “when”), that really never addressed the content (the “what” and “why”) of strategy. Business professors and business schools, such as the ones I work in, are accused of cycling too much to one side or the other of the process/content continuum. For decades, we worried about strategy development and the process of strategy. After that, we concerned ourselves with the content of strategy. If we (those of us studying, teaching, practicing) do our jobs well, eventually the pendulum swings back to some mystical point whereby it is in the appropriate flow or zeitgeist of the times. You can see some of the same criticisms levied at swathes of Pr/CC research if you view it using longer-range lenses — in terms of decades or historiographically.

    I have long wondered about whether any function could be strategic — what I mean is that all functions are what we describe as vertical — in other words, a function has boundaries. It is only in the crossing of those boundaries where strategy genuinely takes place. Functions are components, and we can’t do without them any more than a human body can do without its legs, arms, etc. Having said that, arms or legs are not “strategic,” and the body could perform its tasks without the functions that these limbs provide. It may do so with more difficulty, but it could perform nevertheless. Could the body perform without the brain? The nervous system? I doubt it. These systems are strategic. It is interesting to me that PR always strives to be strategic, but as a function, it is rarely (or more precisely, uncommonly) practiced in a systemic manner or becomes an essential element underlying strategic planning, strategy development, or strategic decision-making.

    Most definitions of strategic have always had several common elements, those being associated with: 1) cross-functional processes that percuss throughout most of the rest of the organization, 2) longer-term temporality, 3) competitive enterprise positioning (vis-a-vis industry competitors, stakeholders, audiences, issues, etc.), 4) greater allocations of critical resources (e.g., human, financial, PP&E, reputation, etc.), and 5) some degree of irreversibility in decisions/actions.

    I’m not against, nor have I ever been against, PR/Corp Comms. functions, units, decision-makers, consultants, practitioners (etc.) acting in a more strategic manner. Indeed, I am a long-standing advocate for these folks pursuing that modus operandi. Whether PR could or should (two very different questions which are arguably addressed by very different answers) be a strategic function is a whole different animal.

    Last but not least, I have seen many more fantastic, real-world examples of non-strategic PR (i.e., tactical or operational actions or decisions)whereby its worth and value to achieving organizational objectives was unquestioned, easy to distinguish, measurable, and appreciated by key stakeholders. Sometimes, in our quest to be “strategic,” we overlook the clear value (in its myriad of forms) that effective PR/CC operations and tactics can deliver. This was a lesson that took many years to finally get drilled into my thinking, but I’m glad it did.

    I began my career in finance, then moved to HR, and then marketing, all before I eventually went back to academe and decided to become an academic in the field of strategic management. All of these functions have held similar discussion and self-reflection about being strategic just like PR/CC may be undertaking at present. Will we in the PR/CC field ever get to the point where we can eliminate the need to navel gaze about whether we are or should be strategic or not? Can you imagine a day where it is just known to be “strategic,” without need for the modifiers or the hyphenation?

  11. OK, my turn.

    There’s so much to comment on from the past half dozen of so posts by you Benita, Toni and Craig. I’ve taken the past two hours to try and compose my thoughts, based on the previous comments. Blogs have their advantages – but I’d rather have this exchange in front of a bunch of old fashioned flip charts, with excellent wine and beer to dribble down my chin and rich slurpy food to eat.

    I too am interested in organizational strategic management and a public relations/communication function role there within. I have a couple of SCM articles and two International Public Relations Research conference presentations. The focus of my research has been to examine PR/C’s role not from a planning premise but from both a structural and a Head leader role enactment premise. For the former, see my presentation at the World Festival in Trieste in 2004 and an article in SCM in June 2005. For the latter, see a paper on the IPRRC web site under the 2004 proceedings. I am not an academic, though I have been an adjunct at both the under and grad levels, and thus what I write is geared to a practitioner audience (if there is one!).

    My views come from both a reading of the scholars (Mintzberg; Grunig; Steyn; Fleisher; etc. – and not too many non-scholars can say they have read most everything Steyn and Fleisher have published!) and also from working in the trenches for the past 20 years, as a management consultant specializing in the PR/C function: many engagements regarding function vision; mission; organization; resourcing; capabilities and capacity; strategic management; roles and responsibilities; performance management and measurement; leadership.

    First, let me say what is influencing me the most now:

    – Harold Burson’s (see Burson-Marsteller site) stages of management’s recognition of PR:
    1. tell us how to say it;
    2. tell us what to say; and
    3. tell us what to do.

    – management scholars saying that only 10% of deliberate strategies get implemented as formulated, and the current importance placed on execution at the expense of development

    – internal communication professionals difficulty with change management and engagement (see the Melcrum, Ragan, Council of Communication Management vehicles).

    Summing up these points above, I believe that in 2007 strategy execution is more important than strategy development, that strategy execution is about behavioural change, and when asked (if asked) we can’t help them with the do. The most we can bring to the table is the ability to table some faint environmental signals, to communicate the strategy downwards, and (once you decided what needs to change) to develop a communication programme to communicate a particular change programme.

    Allow me to comment on some of the points made in the past few posts:

    Benita on the abuse of the term strategy:
    Could not agree more. I now get physically ill when a client uses strategic and messaging in the same sentence.

    Benita on the difference betweem communications strategy and PR/CC Strategy:
    The first exists in my experience (it’s the two examples in my paragragh above: Summing up … The second does not exist, as described. I have seen many annual Strategic Communication Plans. Most are a combination of a Mission/Value Statement, menu of service offerings and an attempt at context (poor environmental scanning and analysis used to “position” the function with certain issues/stakeholders and thus with certain internal clients). There is nothing strategic about them, in that they are divorced from the corporate strategy process. Oh, they may tie messaging to corporate goals, but that’s it. My point really is that there is no need for them. The need to be integrated in the organizational strategic management process can be achieved organizationally.

    Benita on deliberate and emergent PR strategy:
    In both cases, the description reads “using communication.” I interpret this as PR providing a communication plan, programme and activities. Communication, therefore, in my mind, is a tactic – for someone else’s strategy. Thus PR strategy as described is tactical. I agree with what Toni has said, “the whole communication aspect becomes inevitably tactical …” Toni also said that our strategic role is assisting leadership with changing behaviours.

    Benita on deliberate & emergent:
    As you have later, I try to add formulated and formed or just use these terms alone. I think formulated and formed are better descriptors of a process than deliberate and emergent. Much of the discussion has been on PR role in organizational strategy formulation, not on strategy formation or on formulated and formed strategy execution. I don’t think your description of deliberate and emergent PR strategy really is a description of or substitute for PR’s role in organizational strategy formulation and formation. In both cases, I believe the onion has to be peeled further, particularly for PR’s role in stakeholder relationship management and change management – in particular where they interact. Surely, being strategic, means more than environmental scanning and communication programmes. Remember, strategy execution is not happening well. Is it because our communication programmes are poor? Or, is it because managers do not know how to make organizational or stakeholder change happen – and we aren’t capable of offering advice and direction and of running a change managment activity. Most change involves us changing, or at least us changing before we ask them to change.

    Benita on stakeholders, environmental scanning and boundary scanning:
    Most of the PR literature suggests that PR should scan, build the relationship with stakeholders and span the external boundary. I would argue that other functions are closer to particular stakeholders and it is our role to support their scanning and relationship building – with our most important role being boundary spanning internally (rolling up scans; rolling up stakeholder relationship intelligence; rolling up change management status; getting internal silos working together; etc.) Toni seems to support this in his b above: “… assist other functions govern their relationships …”

    Our role should not be with issue management arising from stakeholder relations (lagging) but with issue management arising from change management (leading).

    Toni on PR being strategic:
    Toni said that “PR is strategic when it consciously helps improve the quality of organization decisions…” This is the same as Jim and Laurie Grunig’s Model of Strategic Management of PR (p. 145 Effective Public Relations and Excellent Organizations). I would suggest again that the onion needs further peeling. Decisions can or can not lead to action. It’s the action, behaviour change that should be the defining factor.

    Benita on Anne Gregory:
    Anne got it right I believe when she talks about listening as both internal and external and providing support on what they should DO.

    Craig on “functions have boundaries”:
    The analogy I’d use is that of a legendary many headed and brained hydra. If PR is organized as such then it can contribute to organizational strategic management. If not, it can’t. Structured this way, it can span internally and can SEE stakeholder and change management being operationalized. We are the only operational function that can see across an organization and down each silo. We can see the state of the execution of formulated strategy (corporate and business unit), the state of stakeholder relation management, the state of change management, the emerging of formed strategy, the new state of stakeholder relation management, the new state of change management. Kaplan and Norton of Balanced Scorecard fame are trying to do this with their Office of Strategic Management. I believe that this Office is at too high a level to really see into the trenches. PR is in the trenches, or should be.

    This is where I’d compare your definitions of strategy, Craig, to Mintzberg’s five: strategy as a plan; as a pattern; as a position; as a persepctive; and as a ploy. Unfortunately, in my mind, PR focuses too much on strategy as a plan, or a planning process.

    By the way, see Alan Kelly’s book The Elements of Influence for … strategy as a ploy.

    It has been my experience that few heads of PR/C are natural leaders (they manage well: defined as maintaining the status quo) but have diffuculty leading (defined as making change happen). This is apparent in their own function (acquiring resources; building capacity and expertise; developing retention and learning programs; selling capabilities; etc.), so it would come as no surprise their inability at the organizational level. There are exceptions: Toni wrote of the great heads who built value in their roles with executives. Fraser Seital wrote for years in PRSA’s PR Strategist about head leadership skills with the C-suite.

    Please appreciate that it is difficult to outline a position in a limited number of words, but here is a summary of the arguments I was trying to make.

    – There is one strategy (enterprise, corporate and business unit are variations).

    – There is no such thing as PR Function Strategy. If you want, the PR function can have resource strategy or plan, an organizational strategy or plan; a client strategy or plan, a workload stratergy or plan; etc. It can have a vision, mission or values statement. It can have a communication philosophy and/or policy.

    – There are communication plans and programmes, tactics of change management programs.

    – For PR to be involved in strategic management, there are organizational structures and head leader enactment necessary. PR ‘s role is not relationship building itself (except our stakeholder, the media, I guess) but relationship management’s horizontal management combined with a role in collective and business unit change management.

    If you understood the above, then there no need for me to RE-FRASE it!

    Submitted with all due respect.


  12. Fraser, Don’t you PLEASE want to consider moving to Cape Town. I assure you it is the most wonderful place (Craig and Toni can attest to that) with over 300 winefarms in the Stellenbosch region where I live!

    I can see endless conversations on Saturdays, as one of the PRConversations sub-committees meet (on a different winefarm each week, of course–we don’t want to become stale). As we stare at the rugged mountains all around us, we can contemplate how/if the PR function can/should overcome the strategy barrier–aided by visions of Boer pioneers who crossed these mountains in their flimsy wagons (prodded by Zulu spears in their backs) until they arrived in the Promised Land (I am sure Craig will be present to celebrate this day of arrival with us, should it ever be reached).

    The idea of flipcharts (rather than laptops) during these meetings is an excellent one (and don’t forget the candles). While we have good wine and food in the Cape, we don’t always have electricity. (This is due to a small oversight on the part of the new government when they took over. They went into execution right away, forgetting to plan for the expansion of our industries and the prosperity that followed in the New South Africa).

    I’m sorry, old chap, but you are going to have to re-FRASE it many times before we see the light. You are also going to have to wait a little for a response so that I can request a sabbatical (in typical academic style) so as to have enough time to make a list of all my questions. That is, unless Toni advertises a position for a full-time blogger. Or maybe I should forget about strategic PR when I get fired (which is immiment) and rather start my own company, teaching a course titled: ‘How to write Books on Blogs’.

    But watch this space–I will be back with the next chapter (eventually).


  13. Wow – I have been reading with increased fascination and nodding of my head in agreement, brow furrowing etc.

    Thank you for this. I will recommend this thread to all my Diploma students who struggle with the concept(s) of strategy.

    Fraser’s point on PR’s role as “issue management arising from change management (leading)” is magnificent.

    I am so tired of those in PR being reactive to issues rather than proactive – and not realising the need to lead rather than follow (often mopping up) behind organisational decisions.

    I can’t wait for Benita’s further development – although her concept of debating this over South African wine is much more appealing…

  14. I’m all for discussing this over some of those excellent wines they produce there near Cape Town. Bravo Benita — although the ‘book by blog’ idea is one that will take some getting used to for sure!

    About twenty years ago, I had written about the need for communicators to practice 1) change, 2) issue and 3) stakeholder management, as well as the ethical bases contained within what was called corporate social responsibility, now called corporate social responsiveness or rectitude or one of those variants. I always taught those approaches to my students in my Master of Public Affairs (MPA) or MBA courses/subjects, and continue to see them as being the foundations of proactive, well-rounded, and (dare I say it) strategic communication practice.

    Thank you Fraser for recognizing the key difference between planning and strategy. Plans absolutely do not equal strategy. Planning does not equal strategy either. Strategy is supported by those things, but no less than also by experience, insight, knowledge, leadership, management, observation, and recognition, among other things.

    One of the biggest problems I have always observed relative to PR/CC taking on more meaningful roles is that the top management teams of organizations seldom have an appreciation, experience with, or understanding of HOW PR/CC can be a critical element of the organization’s success. Read or listen to the many so-called “best practice” case studies or award-winning PR programmes that are touted at our conferences, meetings or in our publications and look at how the language, tone and character differs so greatly from the same items presented by our colleagues in other organizational areas. We are almost always “on the defensive,” trying to demonstrate (our practitioner and sometimes even our academic colleagues often say “prove,” but any knowing social scientist would view this skeptically) our worth retroactively. Ex post facto demonstrations of value are nearly always flawed from the start, and if others don’t inherently see our worth or value in organizational activities, than what does that say about our ability to get, or retain, a valued place at the key decision making tables of our organizations?

    Then again, a place at the table over a nice wine has its pleasant ambiance, in any case…

  15. I very much appreciate the quality of south african wines….

    thank you fraser for ‘outing’.
    I seem to agree with everything you write and much of it new to me… so, as for Benita, I will need some time to ruminate and eventually come back.
    Only one point: you say quote
    PR ’s role is not relationship building itself (except our stakeholder, the media, I guess) but relationship management’s horizontal management combined with a role in collective and business unit change management
    My Italian colleague prof. Emanuele Invernizzi (to be fair, he is a true full professor while I am only an adjunct, but we have been long time friends and the best part of our relationship is debating specifically on the reputation/relationship schools as we amicably divide on that although recognising that both are relevant..chicken and egg?), based on studies he has been conducting over the last twenty some years says that there are ‘core competencies’ and ‘extended competencies’.
    Media relations is obviously amongts the first while, for example, employee or investor or marketing relations are amongst the latter.
    But also public affairs, crisis management, organization of events, community relations, public diplomacy are amongst the first.
    The fact that public relators are usually in charge of developing relationships directly with journalists, public policy decision makers, local communities and other stakeholder groups of an organization… is one of the (not the only, admittedly, but certainly the most evident) variables which stand behind the legitimacy and sense of organizational leadership assigning to the public relator the horizontal responsibility of ensuring a coherent and possibly comparable system of listening to expectations of all stakeholder groups (if pr does this for three/four constituencies, which is more than any other function -so goes the argument- they must have learned how to do this properly.. so let’s give them the task to extend their listening competencies also to other stakeholder groups which ‘belong’ to other functions like employees, suppliers, distributors, customers, investors and analysts…).
    Of course the listening phase(segmented in recording, understanding and interpreting) needs to be performed by, or at the minimum in full accordance with, the related internal function.
    And, as I see we all agree, this is where the two truly strategic functions of public relations in an organizations appear: reflective and educational (don’t really like this term…other options?).

  16. My friends,

    I have one last thought, before I too must work for a living. (The next piece of work on my plate is a benchmarking study of management and leadership practices of about 30 heads of PR/C. Delicious!)

    The folks who perform employee/internal/organizational PR/Communication are perhaps the least studied of all subfunctions. Yet, if there has been an explosion in growth over the past fifteen years in PR/C, it has been in this subfunction (at least in NA and the UK).

    IABC, Council of Communication Management, two or three separate groups in the UK including an umbrella group, the Ragan empire, the Melcrum empire, trade conference providers with annual internal comms conferences, ETC. In fact, the greatest trade story yet untold is the head-to-head Ragan and Melcrum slugfest. (Actually, it seems – though I’m not close to the real action – there is more than enough pie to go around and both are prospering.)

    I posted the following (edited) in another discussion, and feel it furthers my whine-less thought process above:

    “For a conference presentation two years ago (The Institute for PR’s annual Measurement Conference held in the fall in New Hampshire US), I conducted a content analysis of various internal comms vehicles (publications; conference programs; forums; webcasts; training offerings etc. from IABC; Ragan; CCM, Melcrum). I was looking at how internal/organizational communication professionals saw and enacted their their roles.

    From what those involved with internal comms write about, from what they speak about at conferences, from what they discuss on-line, there appear to be four roles:

    (content; delivery; technology; audience; etc.)

    Change Agent
    (cuture; internal branding; engagement; change management
    communication programs; etc.)

    Head Trainer
    (improving C-suite and middle manager communication capabilities)

    Performance Consultant (operation performance improved through work level communication)

    These are very rough percentages, but I’d say those in
    internal/organization communication see Communicator as 75% of their role; Change Agent as 15%; Head Trainer as 7%; and Performance Consultant as 3%.

    Very, very seldom could I find reference to these roles linked to the strategic management process of an organization. That is, the most common worldview seems to be: you get on with the thinking; we’ll get on with the doing. We’ll help you: disseminate information (mostly top down); try to persuade people to behave differently; become a better communicator yourself; and help those on the front line sort out all the conflicting messages they receive daily.

    Therefore, having a “full business understanding” would be seen as being able to write a more “in context” message than to actually participate in the business thinking/management of the organization.

    I’ve asked myself this question: Are these four the only roles – because that’s how management sees us – or because that’s how we see ourselves?”

    Particularly with regard to strategy execution, this is a subfunction that requires considerable more attention. Bled will be looking at the old PR and Marketing canard next July, therefore the place and role of the Marketing PR/Communications subfunction. Well and good. I hope in the future that the academics will also examine PR and HR/Change Management and internal comms.

    Benita, I’m looking forward to your next sabbatical and your next post to see how your views have moved – or not – from those on page 158 of The Future of Excellence in Public Relations and Communications Management.

    As I said, it has been a great and continuing learning experience for me to have read and digested what you all have written over the years.

    and I’ll have a glass of SA shiraz now …


  17. My comment with regards to taking a sabbatical was only a joke (although some of the comments here fully merit an in-depth study and I will certainly make a note of them). However, I did know when I said it that I was going to be out of circulation for a while (being so busy with ‘implementation’ that there was no time for ‘strategising’—what’s new)! Hopefully the conversation with Toni, Craig and Fraser can now continue, as well as with anybody else that has an interest in the subject of PR strategy (even if it is somebody that doesn’t believe in it at all!!). Please note that short comments will also be appreciated, especially if there is somebody that perceives a need for PR/ corporate communication strategy, has been in a situation where it was requested of you, or want to provide your ideas on what it is or might be).

    Maybe I should mention why I got involved in this topic in the first place (in case Fraser thinks that I dreamt it up in my ivory tower). Also, why I find it an important concept, worth while exploring. When I started my new position as a lecturer at the Dept of Marketing and Communication Management at the University of Pretoria in 1996 (after spending 16 years as a practitioner), the first telephone call I received was from a desperate PR manager who wanted a model for developing PR strategy (requested by her CEO). I didn’t know of such a model (and thought to myself that I was a failure as a lecturer before I even started!). Then, within a week, there was another request and then another. By now I had scanned the PR literature worldwide but to no avail. All I could find were frameworks/ models/ guidelines for PR plans, but nothing that remotely represented PR ‘strategy’ in the sense that I understood the word.

    Having just left practice, I then called on my many friends in industry to send me their models or examples of PR strategies. What I received were lists of activities or PR/ communication plans. I then realized that research was very much needed on this topic in South Africa since there seemed to be a need for it. It came as no surprise when, in a subsequent quantitative study that I conducted amongst CEOs, their highest expectation for senior PR/ communication practitioners was to develop ‘corporate communication strategy that supports the corporate strategy’. (And they were not talking about communication PLANS! I made very sure of that in the interviews following the quantitative research). Based on these findings, I put my PR roles research aside for a while and started exploring the concept of corporate communication strategy.

    To address some of the comments made above, I do not see a PR strategy meaning the same as a plan or even planning. I see it as strategic thinking that takes place before planning starts, and long before plans are developed. It is synthesis, putting the pieces of the puzzle together—decisions on why communication is necessary, who needs to be communicated to, and what needs to be communicated ABOUT follows. It is not about identifying specific target publics and specific messages (which belongs in the plan and is a process of analysis), but rather thinking through how communication can be used to solve organizational problems or capitalize on opportunities. (One strategy could be not to communicate at all). It includes thinking through whether the societal/stakeholder problem or issue or risk or opportunity, etc. is an ‘organizational’ issue (and if so, whether the PR function can indeed make a contribution in solving it) or whether it is a ‘communication’ issue (where the PR function definitely can make a big difference). This kind of thinking with regards to the PR/communication function is currently not taking place. There are very few senior managers who have the knowledge to do so. And there are senior managers in South Africa saying that they expect their senior PR/ communication people to provide direction in this regard.

    Leaving South Africa for the moment: When I recently signed into Melcrum’s Strategic Communication group, the first post was by a communication manager of a global company who wanted to know how to write a communication strategy. Her senior management wanted a communication ‘strategy’, not a communication ‘PLAN’. She expressly said so. Furthermore, at the top of Tom Watson’s recent list of most important research topics for the future is “Public relations’ contribution to strategic decision-making, strategy development ….” Also, the study by Zerfass et al that has just been introduced at the recent Euprera conference in Denmark, identified “Linking business strategy and communication” as the most important issue for public relations by every second PR professional in Europe. (Another finding was that “integrated communication has to be re-conceptualized as a strategic assignment, transcending the instrumental level”).

    So for the time being, until any of you can come up with another concept to tie the disjointed PR function to organizational strategy formulation, I am not budging from the need for the concept of ‘PR/corporate communication strategy’. I am not saying it has to remain the way it is now. The very reason I am in this conversation is to see how it could be improved or to develop something to replace it. But let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    I realise that the labels ‘deliberate’ and ‘emergent’ PR strategy might not have all the characteristics that strategic management scholars intended with the concepts originally. Does it matter? I do however see these two concepts for PR as broadly referring to ‘formulated’ and ‘formed’ strategy. Is that not close enough? If these labels have been ‘borrowed’ from strategic management and ‘reconceptualised’ to make them applicable to the PR function, is the important thing not whether they assist those PR practitioners with little knowledge of strategy to better understand PR’s contribution to organizational strategy formulation. (If it is found that they don’t, I will be the first to discard them). Is it not worth a try? What do we have to loose? Which concepts are they competing with?

    In South Africa, we have been teaching the concept of corporate communication strategy for 10 years, not only to masters students but also to undergraduates (final year). I remember Lauri Grunig saying in 2000 (while she evaluated our courses at Univ of Pretoria) that undergraduate PR students in the US would not be able to cope with such a complex concept as corporate communication strategy. I told her that our students had no problem with it. We concluded that the difference was that our students were management students. They all encountered strategy in Business Management, and also in Marketing and in HR Management. As a matter of fact, where students had difficulty distinguishing between communication plans and marketing communication plans taught in their first and second year, they much better understood the difference between PR/corporate communication and Marketing in their third year when introduced to corporate communication (and marketing) strategy. Because here the focus differed considerably. Or so they said.

    It needs to be mentioned that the first masters in strategic communication started at the Univ of Pretoria already in 1995. After being exposed to the concept of corporate communication strategy, many Masters students (often senior practitioners) remarked that for the first time they understood what it is that they are about in the bigger scope of things, besides developing communication plans. If the concept makes even a small contribution in helping to let the lights go on with regards to PR’s contribution to strategy formulation, what harm is done? In the end I judge the value of the concept from the perspective of the PR function and not from top management. I don’t think senior or top managers care which instruments we use to teach or what labels we use. What is important to them is what results are achieved and whether the PR/ communication function helps them to solve critical organizational problems.

    With regards to Heather’s remark above, I see PR/ corporate communication strategy as a mechanism for the PR function to be pro-active rather than wait around reactively until senior managers experience/ cause a crisis and then expect reactive communication plans to be developed at a dizzy speed. Of course an optimal corporate communication strategy will be developed if there is a practitioner functioning at senior organizational levels (in the role of the PR strategist, as I call it or a Leader, as Fraser calls it). But I have seen the strategies developed by junior practitioners where no direction has been provided by any senior person and that has given me a lot of hope! (Do you know how often practitioners say that there is NO strategic planning process in their organizations — to say nothing of a strategic thinking process)!

    In conclusion: Many valuable remarks have been made in previous comments that I still want to touch upon but this is getting too long for now. So another episode will follow! (This reminds me of a soap opera). Also, there is quite a number of topics that have been raised that I think can become posts by themselves, rather than being discussed in this PR strategy post. One of these is Craig’s comment on whether PR can be a strategic management function. The other is PR roles. I agree with Fraser that we can hardly discuss strategy without discussing PR roles and think that a discussion on the latter will be beneficial before delving further into the ‘PR strategy’ issue. (The PR and strategy post was not a planned conversation, but the depth that has quickly been reached necessitates some shared assumptions and background knowledge to make it easier to talk to each other). Auf wedersehen!

  18. Hi Benita,

    I am just to know if you are still with the university of petoria? My name is Lindiwe Maboa, I was hosted your final year students at Correctional Services Communication Department to do their research work.

    I would like to meet with you and have a chat with you as there are a few things that I would like you your advise on.

    I am with Eskom at the moment as a Communication Manager in one of the business units.



  19. Hi Lindi

    If you are interested in the topic ‘Strategy and PR’, my master’s was published by Heinemann SA as a reader titled ‘Corporate Communication Strategy’, available in the bookshop on the campus of the University of Pretoria. Also, I can email you my chapter in the ‘Future of Excellence in PR and Communication Management’ on this topic, as well as some articles.

    You can write to me at or call me at 021 856 3005. I don’t live in Pretoria anymore, but moved to the Western Cape 6 years ago where I developed the web-based master’s in PR Management at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. There has been a few people from Eskom in this master’s over the years.


    • It is good to know that there are students still interested in this very interesting exchange nearly ten years after it occurred. The exchange still resonates in my opinion, and I have a sneaky suspicion that, if wound up again, would continue to generate good energy.

      We have come a long way in both PR and Strategy, but there remains a long way still to go.

    • Thembela, I assume you are the ‘TN Mgudlwa’ who made the comment above? If so, I am happy to see what you have been reading even before you landed in my PR strategy class at Cape Peninsula Univ of Technology. I look forward to interesting discussions on this topic with your masters group at the Contact Session in July.


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