finding a responsible path towards the institutionalization of the public relations function!

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.

Your thoughts?

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4 Replies to “finding a responsible path towards the institutionalization of the public relations function!

  1. Toni,

    I agree with your first posting and with your reply, as well as Carlos’ reply. You are right when you say that “This gratifying view … does identify a gap between stakeholder expectations and organisational behaviour”. Very often top management has an asymmetrical worldview, while the PR department has a symmetrical worldview. This can lead to a lot of frustration because expectations between these two groups are not shared.

    Top management will often approve research on anything related to stakeholders – stakeholder engagement surveys, reputation surveys, communication audits etc. – in order to obtain information about the opinions of these stakeholder groups. But whether they will react on it is another question. In most cases the PR department will facilitate this process and report back to top management about the results. Management consulting firms are also often approached to do these studies and will give feedback directly to top management. However, even though top management will then have all the information they need about stakeholder expectations, they very often don’t do anything about it and they don’t want the PR department to do anything about it. The PR department and/or management consultants can do the research and make suggestions on how organisational behaviour could change to address stakeholder expectations – in other words approach stakeholder relationship management from a symmetrical perspective – but if top management is not committed to the symmetrical approach, nothing will happen symmetrically. Perhaps we must accept that a mixed motive approach will always apply – the approach that top management (and the PR department) will follow will depend on the situation.

    In SA and with the writing of the King III Report on Corporate Governance there is a serious concern about how organisations deal with the “legitimate expectations of stakeholders”. Top management and PR practitioners are well aware of these concerns – the question is: Does top management have the commitment to not only take note of these expectations, but to really consider them when they develop their corporate strategies? And if not, why not?

    I also agree with your “glass half empty” argument in the first posting: “… if an organisation’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”. This brings me back to the point that the problem often lies with top management and not with PR. They do “bulk at any action liable to create tension” – this inclination is perhaps the main reason why top management is often not committed to addressing stakeholder expectations.

    One of the issues Mervyn King, the convenor of the King Committee also feels strongly about is alternative dispute resolution (ADR) (a legal term, that in PR speak means “conflict resolution outside the court”). ADR also coincides with the Grunig perspective that you referred to in your first posting – “…find fewer obstacles to their [decisions]…implementation”.

    There are so many ways in which the PR department can contribute to strategic processes in organisations – and top management really wants PR to contribute on a strategic level – but perhaps under a different name. That the profession will change in future to accommodate new expectations from top management is undoubtedly so. The question is: How do we stay abreast of those expectations and incorporate them into our academic discipline. And yes, we must continue this debate… Thanks for your commitment to this profession.


  2. Two different points of view, you see here.

    Estella says that institutionalization is a fact. Even if the same identification of the function with a common name, a constitutive element of any institutionalization, is still an issue (but I will not use this argument..).
    Estella says top management is well aware of the need of strong stakeholder relationship management and confident of being able to rely on the support of valuable and professional communicators.
    Thus, the problem has to do with governance (if I interpret correctly) and specifically with a much too short term orientation of dominant coalitions, and/or an insufficiently balanced control mutuality (between top management and the function, I presume?).
    This gratifying view of our profession and of the level of knowledge and awareness of top management however does identify a gap between stakeholder expectations and organizational behaviour.
    In my view the governance gap you indicate is also an indication of an insufficient reflexive role of the public relator, i.e. her/his interpretation of those expectations is probably not sufficiently convincing or might even be a consequence of selfcensure, before it gets to the board.
    Your thoughts are highly might be, as you seem to imply, that tired of complaining about our professional shortcomings I tend to attribute the gap to the glass half empty side of the institutionalization process.

    Ah…but Carlos Brandon proposes a different perspective and says ‘we still have a far way to go before the grand institution accepts PR’.

    Clearly the situation varies area by area, sector by sector, organization by organization and it seems to be it is better if the more aware segment of the professional community analyses the weaker sides of its undoubted progress in order to assist organizations in improving the process of institutionalization as it is proceeding, rather than correcting it after it has happened.
    Let’s continue the debate and thank you for your thoughts..

  3. The risks you perceive following the institutionalization of PR are justified. I see the second risk as slightly less threatening. Any talented PR professional who is unhappy with his/her position in the corporate (as you call, and I concurr, enemy) sector would be foolish not to recognize their opportunities in the private sector. Regardless of an organizations long awaited realization that PR is a cost effective and absolutely necessary function in any business, the talented professional will always have the opportunity to start their own business and create their own niche.
    That being said, we still have a far way to go before the grand institution accepts PR. There are still many skeptics. Our profession has yet to reach the milestones that credentialize any profession (example: standard accredidation testing).

  4. Toni,

    I commented on this topic when it was previously raised on your blog. Thanks for taking the issue up with the Grunigs at Bled last year. I read their and your comments with great interest, but had to really dig deep into this topic before I could respond.

    Over the past few months I have had discussions with many South African opinion leaders, which convinced me that public relations is already institutionalised in SA organisations (even though managers sometimes call it by a different name, but that is for another debate). The question is just to what extent is PR institutionalised? It seems as though the extent of institutionalisation differs from situation to situation and that the terminology used by different academic disciplines and functions in the organisation could be a reason for us thinking that we are not institutionalised. Top management across the world knows that they have to manage relationships with stakeholders and issues like climate change – they are well aware of the triple bottom line, sustainability and governance and the impact of this on their strategy. However, in many cases there is little commitment from their side to address these issues. Perhaps we should look at the reason for their lack of commitment (?)

    Perhaps the problem does not lie with PR. PR is doing what it is suppose to do to the best of its ability and everyone knows that – even top management. They admit that stakeholder relationship management and communication are important. From more than one SA study on governance and sustainability that was done over the past year, it is overwhelmingly clear that top management acknowledges the importance of stakeholder relationship management and communication on a strategic level. And in studies across the world PR and communication usually get the “thumbs up”. I am also sure that top management will acknowledge that they have competent people in the PR departments who can facilitate the communication process.

    Could it be that the problem lies with top management? Could it be that top management is not ready to admit that stakeholders, apart from shareholders, are also influenced by business decisions and that they therefore also have a say in business decision-making? From PR’s side everything that the Excellence Study suggested can be in place in an organisation – knowledge of the top communicator, shared expectations, demand-delivery loop, a supportive culture, even power (even if it is pseudo-power) etc.. And you can add tons of value. But the top communicator will only get a place at the boardroom table if top management thinks that he/she is supporting their business objectives (good or bad). This leads me to think, once again, that the problem does not lie with PR.

    Perhaps the field of governance – the topic that directors lay awake about at night – could provide some answers. Many governance definitions refer to stakeholder relationship management, which shows that boards accept that they have a responsibility towards their stakeholders – case closed. Independent directors, shareholder activism, educating the financial media to act as business watchdogs, encouraging sustainability (ethics, stakeholder relationship management, communication, corporate citizenship etc.), the shareholder-stakeholder debate, are but a few of the interventions suggested in the governance debate. If this is the case, we should perhaps accept that public relations as a function is institutionalised – regardless of what it is called. Perhaps we should ask why boards are not committed to address the issues that they know they should be addressing. Could power or control-mutuality be the answer? Or perhaps a focus on short term results?

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