From an organizational perspective, the ongoing and accelerating process of institutionalization of the public relations function, besides its many positive aspects (for the organization, for public relators as well as for influential publics of both), also implies certain risks which whoever exercises any influence in determining or assisting that very process, should be well aware of..
One of the main ones is that of, maybe inadvertently, helping the organization reduce its innovation, disruption, chaos and creativity processes! (other risks may be found in another post dedicated to this issue here )
Let me explain: if one of the two strategic roles of the pr function (the reflexive one) is to carefully listen to stakeholder expectations, and interpret these to the dominant coalition in order to improve the quality of its decisions, which will therefore presumably find fewer obstacles to their (increasingly relevant!) times of implementation… then we are directly dealing with Jim Grunig’s two way symmetric model which postulates that organizations listen to their stakeholders to change accordingly; rather than with the traditional more marketing-related scientific persuasion model (inspired by Ed Bernays), which instead postulates that organizations listen to their publics to understand how to better persuade them to accept the organization’s points of view.
This latter paradigm has permeated marketing-related, as well as the public relations professions for the whole 20th century and still very much does; and there is no doubt that , despite many collateral and undesired consequences (propaganda, spin, push, communicating-to, celebrity, visibility and what have you..) it has proven to be highly effective.
As much as the Grunig inspired perspective -in this age of (at least apparent lip-service towards) sustainability and responsibility- sounds and is both attractive and effective, one of its possible ‘glass half empty’ lies in the assumption that, if an organization’s priority lies in reaching defined objectives with maximum cost effectiveness, then it will inevitably balk at any action liable to create tension with stakeholders and/or does not seem to fit their common values and expectations.
Coupled with the acceleration of focus on short term results by most organizations, this combination will inevitably freeze them in a mainstream and conservative position and is bound to curb or disincentivate innovation or any other form of disruptive process.
A second risk lies in the likely reduction of independent thinking from the public relations director as s/he will be inclined, having now gained access to the dominant coalition, to become mainstream and reduce or omit whatever comes in the stakeholder listening process which may seem undesirable to that coalition or stimulate a rethinking of objectives and means of reaching them.
This second risk, of course, very much depends on the quality of the public relator and his/her confidence in being able to leverage professional competence against the ‘usual’ accusation of being victim of the ‘stockholm syndrome’ (being in bed with the enemy, so-to-say..); while the first one is, I am afraid, rather objective and consequential.
The question then is: if our critical and analytical role lies not only in describing an important phenomenon such as the institutionalization of the public relations function inside organizations, but is also that of developing and advising these towards a more effective approach… then we should be wary of both of these (and other..) risks and develop approaches which seem to be more rational and less counterproductive.
For example, this may imply that the professional community advocate an institutionalization model which relies much more on a bottom-up process than a top-down one.
This could well turn out to be a longer process, while senior professionals are usually very much in a hurry… but it is likely to develop a more embedded credibility inside the organization rather than simply the result of a decision from the organizational leadership…
Another perspective could focus on the second role of a strategic public relations function: the educative one.
If we accept that not more the 10/15% of total communicative behaviours of any organization may be managed by the director of public relations, no matter how powerful she or he is…. then a competent, aware and responsible professional should make a special effort to stimulate, enable and support the ongoing efforts of the other managerial functions to create, develop and manage effective relationship systems with their own specific stakeholders.
This, in a way, would be only another way to apply the two-way symmetric model between the public relator and his/her peers in the organization.