Where does public relations fit into the organization? How should we update our practices to meet the needs of today and tomorrow? What are our responsibilities to the organizations we serve—and how can we communicate with, and address concerns of, stakeholders?
By Bob Geller
The above questions were some of the topics covered in a session I attended in New York in late February 2014, the Director Roundtable on Stakeholder Expectations and the 21st Century board; co-hosted by the Conference Board, and the New York University School of Continuing Education. My colleague Judy Gombita had alerted me to its posting and I gladly signed up. It was a good thing that I jumped when I did, as the event quickly filled to capacity.
The roundtable provided a forum to discuss some of the big questions facing the field of public relations today. It was a fast-paced and provocative session, let by some of the top minds in academia and business.
In many ways, the two-hour roundtable was a tale of two books, which offered metaphors for visions of PR. They revealed tensions between old and new, European and American, internal vs. public communications and commercial vs. civic. I know I am being cryptic here, but I hope I caught your attention—read on to learn more.
Stakeholder Expectations highlights
Conference Board president and CEO, Jonathan Spector, opened up the event. He highlighted the importance of considering and meeting stakeholder expectations in an uncertain environment. “How stakeholders feel, think, and behave is important,” he said. Gaining trust is paramount; as we are not likely to see fewer governmental regulations. Spector introduced the star panel. Each one spoke for 15 minutes and deftly set the stage for the next:
Richard Edelman, president and chief executive officer, Edelman, spoke first. Richard Edelman is renowned as the son of the founder (Dan) of this namesake agency, which is the world’s largest, he said. He started off and framed the debate based on the findings of the firm’s annual Trust Barometer, an “international study conducted in 25 countries among opinion elites that focuses on the principles of trust in business, government, media and NGOs” according to Wikipedia.
Some of Edelman’s key points:
- NGOs are the standard-bearers for trust.
- Our trust in media has eroded in recent years.
- Businesses are trusted more in developing countries, less so in Europe.
- Governments have record-low trust numbers.
- The gap between trust in business and government has never been larger.
- As bad as government is, it is still better than unbridled business.
- “People want more regulations.”
Some of my takeaways:
- We need to conduct ourselves in a better way, one that is about shared value, not shareholder value.
- We need to sell societal benefit.
- Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and philanthropy are good, but not enough.
- Businesses do poorly when it comes to engagement and integrity.
- The CEO should be the chief engagement officer, and willing to do the hard work that government used to do.
Emilio Galli-Zugaro, head of group communications, Allianz SE was up next. Emilio started off by recounting his various roles over the years (he previously worked as a journalist and in the PR agency world).
He spoke about the growth and influence of social media, and how it empowers average citizens to be an extension of the media.
He also explained that public relations people lag in credibility (well, at least we are above websites and ads)—and CEOs are only slightly more credible than PR people. This is a challenge for the profession.
- “Reputation is nothing but consistent and sustainable behavior.”
- He told a funny story; the punch line involved his little red PR handbook, the first of the two books mentioned above. Galli-Zugaro had the book with him and held it up for all to see. He and others mentioned it throughout, as a metaphor for stakeholder expectations of traditional PR.
- Get organized, build “in-trust-structure.”
- “Communications is the ‘Intel Inside’.”
Galli-Zugaro and the next speaker were contributors to the second book. I will get to this one in just a bit.
The next speaker was James Grunig, professor emeritus, University of Maryland.
He spoke about the two cultures of PR; messaging and media relations vs. strategic management. Dr. Grunig raised the following points:
- PR has had a buffering role, like a “magical solution”; if we can just get people to think about the organization the way we want, its problems will be solved.
- Instead of buffering, we should be bridging with stakeholders.
- What really matters is relationships with strategic publics and stakeholders.
- This gets to a cognitive representation; it is about what images and brands represent, and the way we think of them (most PR activities just help people recall bits and pieces).
The last speaker literally wrote the book on the topic (yes, the second of two books mentioned above), with help from Dr. Grunig and Emilio Galli Zugaro, who contributed chapters.
Toni Muzi Falconi, is senior counsel, Methodos spa, the Italian change-knowledge management consultancy; and an adjunct professor at New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies and LUMSA Università.
Muzi Falconi referenced the new book he edited (including contributing a chapter): Global Stakeholder Relationships Governance: An Infrastructure.
This excerpt from Amazon’s description says:
“By… detailing the elements of [an]… infrastructure approach to global stakeholder relationships governance, this book integrates advanced, flexible and … feasible tools to develop a… listening culture; integrated reporting as an ongoing process of continued, multichannel, multi-stakeholder reporting; to align internal and external relationships; to enhance stakeholder involvement and engagement and to perform effective stakeholder network analysis.”
Muzi Falconi detailed some of the trends driving change, and the need for this approach:
- The deceleration of globalization.
- Many are changing from a shareholder to multi-stakeholder focus.
- Value creation is shifting from material to intangible.
- A movement from transactional CSR to building cultures on durability and sustainability.
The goal, he said, is to improve the quality of decisions.
Other points Muzi Falconi raised:
- He talked about a dashboard that can help boards better communicate with stakeholders and make decisions, as well as integrated reporting.
- In general we need to abandon silos, and embrace organizational listening.
- Muzi Falconi disagreed with Richard Edelman’s point about CEO “leadership,” declaring that: “Governments need to lead.”
- He emphasized the importance of various forms of listening: “The best form of listening is to step outside yourself and listen to a patient stakeholder.”
In “stakeholder expectations” conclusion
As stated, the roundtable participants proved a friendly and collegial bunch—the panel all seemed to know one another well, from current and past lives (also, they were a punctual group; moderator Jonathan Spector marveled that this was the first Conference Board roundtable in which each person kept to precisely his allotted time of 15 minutes).
The panelists agreed, more often than not. Areas of contention were about business vs. government leadership; Edelman who represents the commercial side, emphasized the importance of storytelling. Others seemed to think that listening was more important.
It is a fascinating area; one which will I continue to follow. I will pick up the book Toni Muzi Falconi edited (and to which Emilio Galli-Zugaro and James Gunig contributed) and urge others to do the same; and will look out for the next great event on the topic of stakeholder expectations.
Based in New York City, Bob Geller is president of Fusion PR and Social Fluency. He is a veteran of tech sales, marketing and PR and has developed best practices for working social media and content marketing into the PR mix. He has been covered in publications such as (the former) CMO Magazine, PR Week, PR News and Bulldog Reporter. Bob writes and speaks frequently on social media, content marketing and PR.
He posts on Flack’s Revenge and Social Fluency and has contributed to Cision Navigator, CommPRObiz, Ragan’s PR Daily and Handshake 2.0. Bob writes a column on content marketing for Maximize Social Business.
He contributed an earlier post to PR Conversations, You start (me) up. When and how to ramp up PR?