As suggested by Prof Emanuele Invernizzi, co-organizer of the Euprera Congress taking place in Milan 16-18 October, I listened to his interviews with a number of academics and practitioners on the Congress website on the topic of the ‘Institutionalisation of Public Relations’. Both Prof Betteke van Ruler from the Netherlands and Prof Anne Gregory from the UK emphasised the importance of the educational role of PR. This was one of the four PR roles/dimensions identified in the European Body of Knowledge Project (EBOK) in 2000, described as: ‘To assist organisational members to become communicatively competent in order to respond to societal demands. This has to do with the mentality/behaviour of employees’.
In the Congress interviews, Betteke reiterated this view and added that everybody in the organisation is responsible for communication; that managers are responsible for seeing that it is organized; and that PR is responsible for assisting managers in this task. PR practitioners are not responsible for all communication in an organization. Anne was of the opinion that PR represents stakeholder voices and expectations and had to bring it to the attention of senior managers. But PR is also responsible to educate managers on how to communicate both internally and externally.
This made me think of the master’s research of one of my students, Mateboho Green (reported at the 2006 Euprera Congress in Carlisle). She empirically verified the four EBOK roles (‘reflective’, ‘managerial’, ‘operational’ and ‘educational’) in the privatized telecommunications service provider in South Africa, Telkom—one of South Africa’s leading brands. The roles were measured according to the ‘expectations’ and ‘perceptions of performance’ that the top 140 executives (that made up Telkom’s dominant coalition) had of the PR division.
One of the major aims of Mateboho’s research was to conceptualise and measure the PR ‘Educationist’ role. Telkom was selected for the case because Mateboho was working there at the time in Internal Communication, and had insider knowledge that the PR ‘Educationist’ role was probably institutionalized in Telkom. According to the findings of the quantitative study (and its confirmatory factor analysis), she was right—the 140 executives expected it and judged the PR division on its performance. As a matter of fact, the PR ‘Educationist’ emerged as the strongest of the four roles measured and verified.
Differing from the EBOK ‘Educationist’, Mateboho anchored her PR ‘Educationist’ in the field of Management Communication — an interdisciplinary field that integrates the functional skills of Business Communication with the knowledge orientation of Organisational Communication. It borrows from communication science everything that a manager/leader/supervisor needs to know (knowledge) and to do (skills) in order to manage people better, and is the only field that totally integrates communication with management. The focus is on internal communication processes, e.g. the informal interpersonal communication between managers and subordinates. (It thus differs from the EBOK role in that it is not aimed at all organisational members but at a specific subset, namely managers/leaders/supervisors).
The role of the PR ‘Educationist’ (as measured in Telkom) is thus focused on making managers aware of their communication responsibilities towards employees — managing conflict and change, motivating, encouraging and empowering employees to participate, increasing productivity, unifying and leading employees in achieving organisational goals. Managers have to be guided in optimally using communication in solving decision-making problems, resolving conflict, being change agents, and being expert at interpersonal communication with subordinates. They must be coached to be employee-centred rather than production-centred. Although it is the role of the PR ‘Educationist’ to support, coach, educate and assist managers, and be a consultant to them on becoming a skilled communicating manager/leader, it is NOT to communicate on the manager’s behalf. The ‘communicators’ in this instance are the managers themselves.
How come this role was institutionalized in Telkom? I can only speculate–maybe because Prof Gustav Puth, a South African expert in Management/Leadership Communication, consulted the PR division? Maybe because Adri van der Merwe, Nr 2 PR Executive in Telkom came to the Univ of Pretoria to do her masters in Communication Management? Maybe because Adri developed a model for leadership communication (supervised by Gustav) that was subsequently implemented amongst the 3600 Telkom managers? Maybe because Retha Groenewald, NR 3 PR Exec, was a previous academic with a master’s in Communication Management? What was no maybe is that employee communication surveys indicated over 90% satisfaction with the communication (at this time). Could this be the difference that one or two master’s degrees can make for 62 000 employees?
(To place this seemingly unrelated conclusion in perspective, see the PRconversation on the value of post-graduate education that was concurrently conducted.)