Lions or donkeys – is PR ready for the challenge of Institutionalization?

The recent Euprera congress in Milan advocated insitutionalization of PR as a strategic leadership function, where organisations value communications as a strength in the same way that they respect other expertise among the executive. 

The impression was that PR practitioners are "lions" being led by "donkeys" who fail to recognise our courage and competence as they task us instead in fighting futile tactical battles.  (My analogy being the views towards the British generals of World War One and their heroic infantrymen.)  But are we really capable of being lions? And why were there no donkeys joining the conversation?

The presentations advocated the value of PR playing a boundary spanning role – that is, in a bridging fashion of helping organisations to adapt and build relationships rather than as a buffer to protect or insulate. 

Similarly, the call was for PR to challenge its current institutionalization as a technical function, and move beyond seeking recognition as a management function, to ensure that when it achieves a seat at the top table, it does so in a strategic, contributing role.

This strategic PR would be an adaptive entity, based on ensuring values and culture are institutionalized rather than techniques or processes, as that would lead to a more rigid, inflexible capability.

However, one of the barriers that prevents PR taking up this position as a lion leading the charge was noted as a tendency for CEOs to seek strategic counsel from others, not their senior PR advisors.

It also seemed that when PR folk do get this level of recognition, it is a result of their personal influence.  So, if (when) they leave an organisation, the march to the top often has to start all over again. 

Sadly there were no leaders (donkeys) present to engage with the call for PR’s strategic insitutionalization; although most of the attendees (largely, but not exclusively PR academics and students) supported the notion of PR in a leadership role.

What I found of particular interest was some of the research presented during the congress.  Professor Anne Gregory, for example, also noted that CEOs value the input of advisors who don’t solely have a functional perspective of the organisation. 

Her work looking at competencies of senior PR practitioners had fascinatingly identified a typical "species".   The characteristics of this "animal" had much in common with CEOs themselves, but perhaps without the desire to hold the top job.   Does this explain why so few CEOs are former CCOs?  Do we need PR lions to become pride leaders as a measure of institutionalised success?

It seemed that for PR to secure even the recognition as a valued consultant and advisor, more focus is required on demonstrating attributes of leadership – in the wider arena of corporate affairs rather than just corporate communications.

The question raised that I am left pondering is whether PR practitioners are sufficiently interested in business outcomes to warrant a position as lion leader in the pride, rather than carrying the burden as a donkey.

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8 Replies to “Lions or donkeys – is PR ready for the challenge of Institutionalization?

  1. And the moral of this ancient story, my dear Judy?… It does not matter whether we call it public relations or corporate communication or communication management or….After all, what’s in a name?

    The knowledge that should stick with us all is what is really important is the coming together of the representatives of two opposing factions, and the trusting relationship that developed — reflecting their deep affection and mutual understanding that resulted in a legitimate union. Till death do them part. Long live their reputation!

  2. And did you know, sweet Benita, that when Juliet asks, “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” she’s not calling on some ancient GPS system; rather, she’s really asking why he had to be from that family tree/name? (Why art thou Romeo?)

    It’s amazing how some of that knowledge just sticks with you….

  3. The answer to Toni & Heather’s question is, alas, no. Well, at least mostly no. This issue was discussed at the recent IPR Measurement Summit, with several people venturing that maybe 7 or 8 schools produce true, cross-functional PR professionals who see themselves as ascending into the senior ranks. Most either receive, at best, mere technical training. Beyond that, PR is still way too loaded with J-school/journalism refugees, most of whom have limited business knowledge or interest. This “PR hack” problem is actually getting worse as traditional news organizations shed staff.

    I have come across very few practitioners who have the ability to offer the sort of senior strategic counsel we all believe the profession should provide. They can’t ask the right questions, they aren’t engaged with the business, sometimes don’t have the well-rounded presence needed for the C-suite, and far too many are comfortable with the people-pleaser ‘comfortable pew’ of being a tactical service bureau, irrespective of whether that work serves the organization or not.

    At the widest level, I think this is changing for the better, slowly, but we clearly need to see ourselves as -and to behave as- lions. The problem isn’t donkeys as much as seeing ourselves as Stakhanovite workhorses awaitng our next assignment…

  4. Jed, I agree that PRPs have to breathe and understand the business. And some of them do function at the strategic organisational level (as the research findings presented at Euprera 2008 indicated—see Toni’s post above). But are they the exception or the rule? And is their role only to ‘communicate at such a high level’? (It depends of course what you mean with ‘communicate’). And do they have the competencies and know how to function with maximum effectiveness once they get to that level?

    In this regard I shall never forget an article by Moss & Warnaby that quoted a senior PRP in their research study in the UK. The good news was that the PRP had ‘arrived’ at the top management level and attended board meetings. The bad news was that he acknowledged that he didn’t have a clue as to what he should be doing there and didn’t find that he could make any contribution to the topics discussed there. Now I must admit that if he were one of my (former) students, I would resign the next day and probably shoot myself because it would attest to my total failure as an educator. I believe that a person is only as good as his/her education and the responsibility for such a situation lies with those who trained him. (That is, IF he received any training, which the article didn’t state).

    Prof Anne Gregory touched on this aspect in her research paper at Euprera 2008, titled ‘Competencies of senior communication practitioners in the UK: An initial study.’ She referred to Murray and White’s (2005) research findings that CEOs are aware that senior PRPs can make a major contribution to their organizations and indeed desire them to fulfil a more strategic role. However, CEOs are concerned about the caliber of PRPs and the paucity of PRPs who are capable of operating at Board level. Such individuals must be able to engage with the business model, key performance indicators and the operating environment at a level of knowledge and skill equal to Board peers.

    CEOs appreciate the input of a skilled and experienced practitioner who brings to the agenda reputational challenges and debates communication solutions. This type of practitioner understands the organizational context, stakeholder requirements and organisational drivers, and has the confidence to challenge. Such a PRP is acutely aware of what is needed to guard reputation and provides an objective view on what the likely impact organizational decisions will have on stakeholders and their reactions to them.

    However, CEOs consider the barriers to entry to PR practice as being too low, think that it fails to attract the most able candidates and that there are too few high calibre practitioners in the field.

    PRPs, on the other hand, still regard their tactical communication expertise as entitling them to a seat on the Board. This is however not enough. CEOs expect PRPs to make a rounded contribution based on how the organisation is seen in context, the risks and issues that face it, how to build and sustain relationships with key stakeholders and on bringing the stakeholder perspective into the Boardroom. Those able to rise to that challenge will be highly valued members of their organisation and much in demand.

    My question is the same as Toni’s in his post above: Are educational institutions turning out PRPs with these competencies?

  5. An interesting post, with some certain food for thought and maybe a call to arms for unambitious PRP’s.

    The reasons for PRP’s becoming more involved in a business’s direction and strategy is clear, they see how the company is perceived and if they can physically change the shape of the business then it’s easier to sell the new perception because that is reality.

    As for PRP’s not being able to communicate at such a high level?! I don’t agree with this at all. For a PRP to be totally efficient they have to breathe the business, they have to completely understand the business and it’s role. They advise to CEO level, surely that in its self suggests that they can communicate at such a high level?

  6. A good summary of some of the major points that emerged during Euprera 2008, Heather! I fully agree with your assessment.

    It is an open question whether PR Practitioners (PRPs) ‘in general’ have the heart/courage of a lion or even an interest in leading the pride. An article by McGoon (1997) immediately comes to mind. In a telephone survey, he asked 70 PRPs what they wanted to be doing in 10 years time. The answers were revealing (and did not say much for PRPs ambitions)—one wanted to sit on the beach and read a book. Another wanted to be playing with her grandchild. Etc. Etc. Only one expressed the wish to be heading the company as CEO. Since then, I have always wondered whether one of the reasons why PRPs are not on senior management teams is because they don’t WANT to be? And if so, was this because they had not been given this career path during their training?

    Another possible reason might be a lack of competency to function at that level. Anne Gregory’s (2008) research presented at Euprera gives a more comprehensive articulation of the ten most important competencies of Board level practitioners in the UK. In the private sector, the top two were found to be “Strategic/long-term view” and “Leading and Supporting.” In the non private sectors, the top two were “Understanding the Bigger Picture” and “Consulting and Involving.”

    My musings above might be giving the wrong impression as to the general mood of the Euprera plenary sessions. The findings of three studies presented in the closing plenary session indicated increasing institutionalisation of PR’s strategic role and representation of chief communication officers (CCOs) at top management/board level (more about this later). Anne Gregory’s (2005) research in the UK supported these findings with respondents in ‘Most Admired’ companies revealing that 43% served on the executive management team or Board, 64% reported directly to the CEO and three quarters had direct daily or weekly contact with the CEO.

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