The endless fight for the (PR) power

Warrior with Shield, Henry Moore
By Sean Williams

Who owns corporate messaging?

This is navel gazing of the first order, and the fact that I’m writing this post is testament to how we can start arguments with all the seriousness of Lindsay Lohan’s newest brace of public shenanigans. Judy Gombita’s recent Social sniff test post skewers the idea that “everyone is an employee brand” advocate; its associated comments by some smart thinkers covers some, but not all, of this ground.

The marketers claim to be the guardians of the brand, which they define as every means of communication for every purpose (every “touch point”) anytime and anywhere. Brand is reflected in customer service, in sales, in advertising, in design of our offices and buildings, and also in our typefaces, our corporate colors, our phrases and even in the shades of our ties and scarves.

This is to some degree true, as the customer experience is a crucial component of the development of reputation and increased likelihood of continued patronage.

But it is also a somewhat reductivist point of view, turning all interactions with anyone into a transaction, a relationship based on exchange—I give you money, you give me stuff. This is the root of the integrated marketing thinking—in the end, it’s all about selling stuff, and anything that we can’t link directly to selling stuff is not valuable.

Contemplating the non-marketing relationships

We know, however, thanks to work by terrific scholars like Drs. Larissa and James Grunig, Dr. David Dozier, Dr. Linda Childers Hon and Dr. Brad Rawlins, that there are many valuable relationships with stakeholders that aren’t based on the exchange relationship.

There are activities that address these non-marketing relationships—issues management, reputation management, investor relations, employee communications, community relations, government relations—that have intrinsic and extrinsic value to organizations. The impact of these relationships, while complicated and frequently expensive to measure quantitatively, can be demonstrated.

This is especially important in employee communication, and as I commented on Gombita’s Social sniff test post, requiring employees to function as an extension of the sales force, even to the extent of being an “employee brand” activist, deepens the exchange relationship between employer and employee.

But that’s a problem because the relationship should be communal—to paraphrase Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, “If we take good care of our employees, they’ll take good care of our customers and we won’t have to worry about shareholders.” Taking good care of employees includes fostering a sense of identification with the organization and building a team that feels inspired by the mission and values of the organization.

In the “free agent nation” that sense of belonging and community is lost in service of the “all-sales, all the time” that marketing advocates and frequently requires.

We can argue the point that we want people to do business with us—namely, a sales relationship—but we cannot defend the concept that marketing knows what to do with those constituencies that aren’t customers.

We might be selling something to all constituencies, but we surely won’t do so in the same way that we sell a potential customer.

Who owns messaging?

So, there we are. Who owns messaging?

Are corporate communicators some sort of Machiavellian schemers, locking the methods of messaging behind their gilded doors, hoarding the C-suite’s attention in the battle for budget and resources?

Mercy, are we so powerful that we can go toe-to-toe with our colleagues and vanquish them with our superior might? The Social sniff test: engaging employees as advocates or treating them as commercial commodities? post goes deeper into these questions, but my answer is, at least, brief.


I’ve got news for you. PR budgets are a lot smaller than marketing budgets. Marketing has more staff. CEOs understand marketing; they studied it when they got that MBA from Wharton. Not to mention how according to Ansgar Zerfass’s research, the CEOs are discussing communication issues with everyone in the C-suite except the PR people.

My take

Most companies I deal with are team-oriented. There are no bright lines between the communications functions, there are grey dots. The ownership of messaging rests with the C-suite, not the PR or marketing corporate pukes.

It’s like Congress in the U.S.—we propose, the CEO and company dispose. Enlightened PR practitioners work with their colleagues and don’t scrap over petty turf. Oh, sure, we worry about losing out, but in my experience it is way more likely the marketers will worry about losing to us.


Because if you do the ROI math, we the (PR) Power People are orders of magnitude less expensive than marketing, for the same sort of results. This is especially true in the age of social media.

Stop fighting. Play as a team. Give credit freely and share glory. No one else is keeping score.

And for the love of Arthur W. Page, quit gazing so deeply into your navel.

No one cares, and it’s more than a little creepy.

Sean Williams is the owner of Communication AMMO, Inc., which helps organizations plan and execute communications effectively and measure the results. His current and past clients include Ernst & Young, Western Reserve Academy and University Liggett School. He also is an adjunct professor of public relations at Kent State University and chair, employee communication section, for PRSA.

Previous contributions include the Triple-associate Sean Williams asks, “Why join?” post and his responses to the (PR Conversations exclusive) PRoust Questionnaire.

Read his Communication AMMO! blog, connect with Sean William on Twitter, GooglePlus or LinkedIn or contact him by email.  

About the image accompanying this post: Henry Moore’s 1954 bronze sculpture, Warrior with Shield and the Francis Bacon 1963 oil painting, Study for Portrait on Folding Bed (behind the Moore piece) are part of Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty, where the Art Gallery of Ontario brings together two giants of 20th-century British art in a major exhibition. The editor of this guest post was pleased to attend an April 2nd preview of the show (which examines the impact of war on society) that runs April 5-July 20, 2014.




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48 Replies to “The endless fight for the (PR) power

  1. @Alan – just a quick followup on your last comment. Could there be any disagreement over this statement?

    “PR/Comm’s ultimate function is to advance the relative competitive advantage of an entity in its marketplace, broad or narrowly defined. Reputation, authenticity, etc. are all fine, but they are subordinate strategies to the imperative of advancing the client or company.”

    Even if we take the Full Grunig view, the act of seeking “win” for stakeholders as well as ourselves is still consistent with your statement. In the same way, my differentiation of marketing and non-marketing objectives still holds and agrees with you statement as well. Robert Heath wrote that persuasion was essential in PR and couldn’t be trumped. One might say that asymmetry best serves that goal on the surface, though I would argue that the same outcome can be realized with symmetrical tactics.

    I can’t speak for all of PR education, but based on what I’m hearing (at conferences like the IPRRC) there’s great variety in theoretical education across different institutions; of course San Diego State is big on Excellence (Dozier’s still there…) but I think there’s healthy discussion occurring. At Kent State, we are practice oriented in both graduate and undergraduate, though are beginning to develop the research angle…

    Thanks again.

      1. I think I’m agreeing with your statement that ultimately, advancing the interest of the organization is the purpose of the communication function. The Grunig purists will say, perhaps, that mutual advancement is the strategic imperative, but as we see, it has to be more than simple mutual interest — we need our organization to thrive. It is the rare case when interests align perfectly; there often will be a winner and loser, and our role is to help our organization win. Still, we can strive to discover those situations when interests DO align, and aspire to fulfilling higher purpose for our organizations.

        1. Thanks for clarifying, Sean. Mutuality is surely something we’d all like to believe is the imperative. But every market (including not-for-profits) operates in a competitive context. That PR/Comms practitioners have become so tuned to serving the mutual interest is laudable, truly, but it is ultimately out-of-tune with reality. It is, in my view, one of the essential reasons that its value falls so far below other functions. As a non-competing function, per se, it is far better at compliance than differentiation. My feature article, Dancing with the Giant, online at the International Journal of Communication, details this debate I have with Jim.

          I have not been to an IPPRC conference for a few years, but my sense has been that there is variety in what I might call the high-fit side of the equation. With respect to relationships, trust, authenticity, mutuality, storytelling, etc., there is a diverse offering. But rhetoric and debate are a foreign language.


  2. This comment from catherine I do like. The rest is old stuff we have digested years ago in this very blog….

      1. The part recognizing the reality of communication between unequals. I prefer to use the term tendentially symmetrical, rather than symmetrical, multilateral rather than bilateral and left right left rather than bottom up or top down.

        1. Thank you Since I’m new to this discussion and this blog, what exactly is old here? I don’t agree with all that’s being written, but it’s a fresh exchange that reflects some thawing of what I can only call symmetrists or mutualists.

          1. Alan – many of us at PR Conversations are Europeans and definitely wouldn’t describe ourselves as symmetrists (or Grunigians). Your point is taken though that just because we’ve chased the tail of a debate here previously, doesn’t mean it isn’t new to those who haven’t stopped by before.

            We do like to chew on things, argue and debate among friends (I include you in that), show healthy skepticism (I’m genetically cynical even) and stretch the old brain muscles a bit.

            I hope you will participate more as been great to read your comments. And we are always interested in guest posts if you’ve something you’d like to originate here yourself.

          2. Alan, this blog has been around since 2007 (Toni Muzi Falconi “founded” it). The current principals (since June 2010) are Heather Yaxley, Markus Pirchner and yours truly. More information in the “Redux” post:


            Heather and I are the co-content editors (and primary blog writers–Markus focuses on the technical end of things most of the time). I second her invitation to contribute a guest post here! I’ve also been delighted that you followed the LinkedIn posting of Sean Williams’ post from the IPR Group (presumably) and have continued to comment and debate with us and some of the regular commenters (who also tend to be PR Conversations alumni, like Catherine Arrow).

  3. I’ve read this post and the comments with great interest but it has left me a little frustrated. I have to agree with Heather – really, as a profession, we should try to get out more. I thought we had gone past the point of worrying about the whole ‘who owns what’ debate but it would seem not.

    Public relations is concerned with building and sustaining the relationships we need to maintain a licence to operate – regardless of whether those relationships are exchange or community, internal or external. Reputation forms part of that process but is by no means the whole, any more than any other strand of activity necessary to build and foster bonds between organisations and communities.

    Which brings me to the reason for my comment – your post headline sent me straight into a navel-gaze around the language we use. It really is time to stop talking about ‘corporate messaging’. It sounds dictatorial and instructional, smacks of one-way communication and there is an insistence about it that echoes a hierarchical approach that would not pass any social sniff test.

    ‘Messages’ can be useful in an emergency but it is dialogue and conversation that, in the long term, sustain a relationship, improve knowledge, deepen understanding and improve the behaviour of all involved.

    In answer to the question posed by your headline Sean, I would suggest that ownership of ‘corporate messaging’ belongs – or at least should belong – to history. Then we can perhaps move on to other, more social business models, more in keeping and more sustainable for our times.

    1. Thanks Cathherine. I do like the positive intention expressed in your second last paragraph especially “… it is in dialogue and conversation that, in the long term, sustain relationship…” The inherent problem with this is the assumption that parties in a communication interaction are “structurally” equal. In a majority of the cases they are not. Communication then reflects structural inequality inherent in a society. This is often expressed in social, economic and cultural imbalances. Pseudo-dialogue that is for example sometimes feigned between companies in the extractive industries and indigenious peoples, is an example of communications among economic unequals.

    2. Catherine, thanks very much for an excellent comment. I know all of us have seen our leadership focus overmuch on messages to be sent than on the outcomes of our communication activity (whether narrowly defined as comms objectives or more broadly as the business results that ensue from attaining our comms objectives.)

      We often observe that words matter — hence the continuing (ad nauseum) debate about what we call ourselves, who owns what function and even (guilty as charged!) what the purpose of our comms activity is.

      To @Don’s point about structural inequality, Brad Rawlins’ work on prioritizing stakeholders is very useful in analysis and planning. The disposition of various publics and their potential impact on the organization is part of the analytical picture, but not the whole enchilada. Clearly, if we accept that amid our employment of two-way symmetrical communications, we still are responsible for helping our organizations succeed, we can adopt a broad view of that mission. There also will be times when there are winners and losers that Excellence cannot suppress; it is these times when the ethical predisposition of leadership and the overall values-base of the organization are far more important than how we talk about those things.

      @Paul — it’s quite true that the anti-capitalist (or anti-market economy) crowd seem resurgent, and that leads to companies shying away from their missions. There is room (he said, idealistically) for doing well by doing good and avoiding to the greatest extent possible doing harm. There always will be people who object by nature to certain industry; witness the hostility to nuclear energy, oil/gas/coal.

      Again, many thanks to everyone for an excellent conversation.

    3. Cathy, I too very much dislike public relations being reduced to “messaging” (even “story telling”) and I also dislike references to “audiences” (let alone “fans” or “followers” of “the brand”). And I still remember getting chided by Jim Grunig for saying “targeted publics.”

      But two things I must point out. First of all, the “post headline” for Sean Williams’ was “The endless fight for the (PR) power.” The “Who owns corporate messaging” was actually how Sean started the first paragraph, which I turned into a sub-hed, instead.

      You talk about how “we need to get out more.” I’m not sure if you mean physically to conferences and events, or simply participate in various social media platforms–LinkedIn Discussions (in Groups) or Twitter chats, etc.

      I can tell you that I do both on a regular basis, and the marketing people are regularly talking this talk of “messaging” and “audiences” and “fans.” In the minds of these marketers, public relations is simply a tactical form of marketing PR, primary relating to media relations (which now includes “blogger” relations).

      And Toni may agree with you and state that we’ve discussed this all before elsewhere on the blog, but isn’t that rather elitist and/or wearing blinders, if we assume that something discussed here on PR Conversations (amongst a very small group of people who tend to think the same, rather than argue against) really has significantly altered or persuaded other people’s mindsets, point of views or conventional wisdom?

      I think not. Ergo, I agree with Sean Williams that this “endless fight” is ongoing and certainly can’t be consigned to history–yet.

      1. I believe that Cathy was referring to my argument that in PR we need to stop simply talking with ourselves and engage with other management functions, etc, which I believe we need to do more to look at the areas that concern them rather than just our PR anxieties 😉

        1. Well isn’t that a given, Heather? For example, the tweets I curate from the PR Conversations account more often relate to management, human resources, leadership, etc., rather than strict “public relations” topics. (Part of that is because so much of what is written about in popular sites such as Ragan or the typical blogger seems to focus almost entirely on “media relations.”)

          THOSE are the people who need to get out more, in my opinion. Including spending some time reading this blog, natch. 😉

  4. if what Alan just said in his last comment were true I’d be content. He wrote:

    “…from reputation to authenticity to values to character — it’s clear that we literally don’t know what we’re talking about.

    In fact, we do; we just don’t want to acknowledge it.”

    In fact, I say, we don’t. But we can’t just blame PR for that. To a large extent business and its leadership has lost its self-confidence and sense of purpose. And PR merely represents the weather-vane response. Other examples to Alan’s are CSR and triple bottom-lines and the mantra that all stakeholders are equal. This stuff goes beyond PR to the top of society. For instance, heads of world-leading mass-retailers are saying things such as ““we have to get consumers in developing countries past wanting the “American Dream of more.”’

    Indeed, capitalism in general has become deeply risk adverse. Now every new idea has to prove its sustainable in the eyes of anti-capitalist fortune tellers. This reveals that our corporate leaders have genuinely lost the plot – rather than that they are just faking it for PR purposes. We live in an age of self-denigration when, for example, BP goes Beyond itself because it loathes who it is and what it does. But if ever we want to rebuild trust and confidence and begin to grow our economies again – PR has to become part of the solution that helps business become focused on its core purpose once more.

    And we – PR pros that is – have to begin that process by looking at the broader picture. Yet, right now, we keep looking at our self-image in the mirror to reassure ourselves of our own self-worth the way teenagers often do.

  5. Nicely done Sean. These turf wars, futile fights for budget scraps, everyone circles the wagons, protecting their own instead of working together – piffle, fiddlesticks, whatever. Paul is right about business goals, the bottom line outcomes; sometimes those objectives don’t extend to much past sales. Think of the flashy startups; reputation and sustainable growth aren’t the goal – it’s quick hit buzz, cash out and move on. Now flip that to the ‘best’ companies like Apple, Disney, Coke; of course they have sales success, yet there’s much more to their brand, touch points that aren’t about products or sales.

    The research you mentioned, that’s what’s most telling: TPTB talk about communications issues – including, not limited to marketing – with everyone except the PR people. If the goal is growth and profit and the bottom line, then IMO a strong PR base can only help. That integrated comms foundation is what will drive HR and employee comms, everything from recruiting top talent to improving efficiency to developing brand advocates; will serve as platform for investor, community relations; for SoMe; for connecting w/ key stakeholders like customers, giving everything from new product and pricing ideas to R&D.. and so on. It does take a team, cue the sports metaphor logic of winning it – together. FWIW.

    1. Thanks Davina! This is why my oft-repeated quote is apropos: All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.

      Cheers for now!

  6. Everyone , thanks for a stimulating conversation.

    @Paul – indeed, the Madoff and Enron examples have limitations to illustrate the point, but I’d offer that these both are failures of PR to behave properly (i.e., ideally). It’s out of scope to talk too much about the collision between the Heath and Grunig perspectives, though I think the criticism of Grunig as too idealistic is valid when compared with observed reality. Enron is a great example of what happens when press clippings from a disengaged media meet auditors seeking ways to accommodate with actual criminality. PR people have a choice whether to participate in such shenanigans, and sadly choose the path of continuing collecting the paycheck rather than draw and ethical bright line for themselves.

    @Alan – thanks so much for your comments. You are absolutely correct that reputation is frequently an “eye of the beholder” event, but the aspiration that an organization has is still a valid objective. The say-do disconnect is huge and has the worst impact on positive reputation. This is what argues for a strategic communications angle that appears to be rare in our current context, but still worth striving for. It’s not that reputation is the ‘domain’ of communications, but that communicators should be involved in the promulgation of its worth. The chief reputation officer is/should be the CEO, and there is good research that says PR (in the holistic sense) can help support it. I don’t see it as a crutch, in particular when further supported via ethical and values-laden programs.

    @don – also thank you — I think part of my point is that our marketing colleagues are better at trumpeting value, which is why we need better articulate our value as appropriate. The big thing is that for some C-suite people I’ve worked with, they accept the value without complicated or expensive means of measurement. Secondly, the accountants and lawyers (and doctors) have licensure and are prohibited from practice without it, which is why PR is an aspiring profession… That said, forward thinkers like you and those others who have commented here are clear-eyed about the limitations of PR’s influence and capabilities perform a valuable service in pointing out where we need to improve.

    To return to my central argument — it’s not so much about turf, it’s about understanding how business objectives should drive messaging and all of comm strategy. That encompasses more than transactional and exchange relationships. Therefore, we are (ideally) suited to lead across silos if we demonstrate our strategic bone fides.

    @Judy – @Heather appreciate your comments here too — the Institute for PR attempts to foster dialogue across comms disciplines and particularly to connect practice and the academy, and research it publishes for free is becoming canon for teaching our practice in a strategic sense. It is this holistic view that we need more of…

    Many thanks everyone.

  7. Judy,

    To my knowledge, the 30-70 rule was not observed by Page; I could be wrong. My sense is that this notion came into vogue in the 1980s with then new-age branders.

    My reference on Page is with respect to the ten “Page Principles” touted by the Arthur W. Page Society. These were derived from his writings, never written by him — a little like the Gospels, I suppose, but an important fact given the tendency to deify PR pioneers.

    For my money, Page’s truest and directly-attributable principle, which ironically is not part of the celebrated list, was his view that ‘for any company/entity to prosper in the public realm, it can only be successful if it secures the permission of the public to operate in that realm.’

    To jump in on your interesting exchange with Don, I would add that reputation is an outcome, and not an especially manageable one at that. I have long-argued that reputation is beset with three problems: (1) it is a shared responsibility from clerks to CEOs and, as such, cannot/should never be the domain of communications; (2) it is subjective because what is a good reputation to one public is a bad one to another (think Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin, Mark Cuban or Marc Benioff, GM or Tesla); and (3) it is an outcome whose characteristics are invariably influenced through secondary and tertiary effects. So good luck measuring much less managing reputation.

    Reputation is the alchemy of our time and a poor crutch on which so many PR/Comm’s educators and pros like to rest.

    1. I am with the Arthur W. Page Society and wanted to weigh in with a couple of thoughts since this discussion has invoked our namesake a couple of times – and rightly so. Alan Kelly (who happens to have been a respected Page member for many years) is correct that Arthur Page didn’t literally write the seven Page Principles (, but our founders did derive them from his lifetime of work. They aren’t meant as “gospel” per se, but rather as a set of timeless tenets that should guide the responsible and effective practice of public relations.

      Personally, I agree with Alan that one of Page’s greatest insights was that organizations can operate only with permission granted by the public. I view this more as a truism than an actual principle. Telling the truth to the public, proving those words by action, listening to stakeholders, managing for the long-term, minding that companies are not merely what they are but also WHO they are – these factors all contribute to the degree of trust that the public has in a company. In that respect, the value of public relations is in preserving the company’s very right to operate by taking good care of the trust it has earned from the public.

      Where I take issue, however, is with the notion that reputation is not manageable by any one function within the organization, including communications. In my view, communications is the only function that has the broad view of multiple stakeholders necessary to manage reputation appropriately. Stakeholder engagement enables an organization to bring outside perspectives into the boardroom and bring the company’s actions into greater accord with those stakeholders’ interests and expectations. To be sure, companies can’t be all things to all people all the time. But dealing in good faith, with honesty and a sincere willingness to compromise, goes a long way toward maintaining relationships with stakeholders. And those relationships do have tangible value in a business context.

      To be fair, there are of course metrics for measuring and managing reputation. In actuality, good reputation is largely a result of a company’s character – which is what actually ends up being managed through its mission, values and actions. Some of our latest thought leadership work (shameless plug: examines the value of corporate character – the unique set of beliefs, values, purpose and actions that compose what an organization is. Corporate character may not necessarily be tied directly to P&L in the ways that marketing is, but it is undoubtedly a factor in business success. This is increasingly the case given the rise of social engagement – whereby people, more and more, decide which brands they engage with by recommendations from peers and others online – and the emergence of a millennial generation that places a premium on good corporate citizenry.

      Personally, I like Sean’s take but would put a slightly different spin on it. The ROI on PR is high because the cost of bad PR is too great to endure.

      These are just my thoughts, humbly offered. I’m so glad to see this conversation taking place – we need more of it.

      1. Sincere thanks for the link (and reports) you share in your post, Eliot. A calm and relaxed reading will give some of us time reflect after an exchange that may have produced more heat than light 🙂

      2. Thanks for your post, Eliot.

        On the Page Principles, these should be carefully and transparently attributed to those who wrote them. Among today’s members and elsewhere, they are widely considered the principles of Mr. Page himself. But a full reading of his works might suggest a more Bernasian figure. It has to me. Page was, lest we forget, instrumental in the architecture and articulation of a monopoly. He was very good at what he did; maybe too good.

        On reputation, I understand your position but remain convinced that measures/metrics of reputation are terminally unstable and that communications is exploiting it as an easy path to The Table. As much as we all see comms as a management function, we mortgage its value by attaching it to a concept (reputation) for which a CCO can never be held accountable and that, in practice, has become a dog whistle for mitigating corporate character, not building it. We can do better.

        1. Alan, I’ve admired your work in the past — the Elements of Influence and of course, Playmaker, come to mind — actually, I’m pretty sure we’ve met at either/both an IPR or IABC event… Anyway, it’s true that we are often seen as the tool you reach for when the stuff hits the fan, rather than the person you listen to to avoid it hitting in the first place. But I am coming to think that’s because of a reductivist view of what we PRs actually do — narrowing it all down to media relations and crisis spokes… Is that because of education, experience, etc.? Probably.

          As for Page himself – yes, he did preside over a monopoly and probably sought to maintain it (or at least its influence), but he wouldn’t be the first person to have his ideas elaborated upon in a somewhat different direction than he might have anticipated. So too Bernays, no?

          Thanks again for stimulating contributions.

          1. Sean,

            I’d enjoy meeting you again and thank you for your kind words. PR surely suffers from reductive thinking. A clear reputation problem, ironically. My sense, however, is that the industry still dances around the edges of what it is here to do. If you consider the hop-scotching that has occurred just in the last ten years — from reputation to authenticity to values to character — it’s clear that we literally don’t know what we’re talking about.

            In fact, we do; we just don’t want to acknowledge it.

            My answer is that PR/Comm’s ultimate function is to advance the relative competitive advantage of an entity in its marketplace, broad or narrowly defined. Reputation, authenticity, etc. are all fine, but they are subordinate strategies to the imperative of advancing the client or company.

            This is not how the Grunig’s like to see it. This is not how PR educators are preparing our grads to practice it. We have dug a very pretty but deep hole.

        2. Alan, you make a fair point about not wanting to misrepresent that the Page Principles were written by Page himself when they were not. I’ve updated the Page Principles page on our website to make that clearer.

          1. Excellent! For perfect and proper attribution, you might consider calling them “The Page Society Principles.” It will give historians more latitude to interpret Mr. Page’s work and help clarify The Society’s relationship with its namesake.

      3. Eliot — thanks so much for this. Part of the issue here is semantic; “measuring” and “managing” reputation has become of a bit of a cliche, a sort of talking point for filthy capitalist consultants like me who don’t see a future in “media relations,” but want to be seen as more relevant and outcome oriented than merely “communication” consultants. I think this accounts to some degree for the skeptical reception the holistic comms idea sometimes engenders.

        To repeat myself though, a lot of c-level folks will accept as an axiom that effective comms in an organization help make good business things happen, and problems in comms bring about the reverse. If we look at this through a risk prism, however, reputation risk and its mitigation on a proactive basis certainly would be within our comms purview, and brings a business-seriousness to our interactions across the enterprise.

        I agree that negative impact avoidance is an important part of PR generally, and that it’s pretty difficult to measure other than anecdotally. Nonetheless, I’ll accept that some of the Excellence Theory is aspirational (and many critics say untenable), but we keep seeing the limitations of simple persuasion played out in crises or near-crises, so adopting a proper tactical plan that levers the Page Principles accordingly can only be of benefit.

        Thanks again!

  8. Two further comments on your comment, Don:

    1. Please tell me you don’t equate public relations with advertising….
    2. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer focuses on TRUST in institutions, and a lot of the study revolves around reputation of companies (within specific sectors or industries).

    Ergo, not that different than the phrases I quoted, attributed to Arthur W. Page (whether correctly or incorrectly).

    1. Of course I don’t. The quote was meant as a generic example. And you’ll agree that the jury is still out on the trust and reputation barometers as accurate measures of stock value. Yes, one can assert the a good reputation is adds value while a bad reputation subtracts from that value. But it is a great leap of faith to assert that a good reputation adds x% to the value of a given company. As noted above other not so pleasant factors (insider trading) can affect valuation.

      1. Yes, but that was a generic example of a “broadcasting” medium (advertising), not one that was relationship based, Don.

        And I think when it’s phrased “as much as 30 to 70 per cent” that provides a lot of latitude in terms of true impact.

        Of course measurement and proof of this is difficult. It’s why I look to organizations like the Institute for Public Relations (an independent organization where Sean Williams is actively involved) for the “science and art” of public relations style of research.


        The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) is an independent nonprofit foundation dedicated to the science beneath the art of public relations™. We focus on research that matters to the practice, providing timely insights and applied intelligence that professionals can put to immediate use. We do this through three kinds of research:

        – Research in public relations, to guide and evaluate communications programs (in other words, planning research and measurement)
        – Research on public relations, to understand what we do and how we do it (benchmarking and best practices)
        – Research for public relations – the social science underpinnings of our work

        BTW, when I visited the site to get the exact terminology, I was interested to see that IPR AND the Arthur W. Page Society are co-sponsoring this conference:

        2014 Public Relations Leadership Forum – Chicago

        Co-sponsored by the Arthur W. Page Society and the Institute for Public Relations, this is an intense two-day seminar for high-performing mid-career managers at public relations firms and corporate communications departments to develop their executive skills.

        1. Thank for agreeing that measurement and proof are difficult. What you call latitude I prefer to call an imprecise claim whose veracity is at best dubious. The same claim as the one made about the 50 per cent of the advertising expenditure being wasted. Now, the “generic nature” is the sweeping claim about a certain percentage (30 to 70 per cent) not whether it was PR or advertising.

          Your reference to IPR and their promotion text, could be construed as an argument appealing to authority (argumentum ab auctoritate). Just because IPR makes these claimsdoesn’t mean that they’re valid in the context of company valuation. Even for brokerage firms such valuation is at best an imprecise science.

          Shall we leave it there since we’ve veered off the original post?

  9. Sean,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful post and for spurring this discussion. My two cents:

    1. Be careful of Arthur Page. His 10 principles were derived by his acolytes, never penned by him personally. He was, in fact, the chief advocate for one of history’s great monopolige and, as such, not truly interested in symmetry and two-way dialog.

    2. The Grunigs, et al, who taught us the virtues of symmetry and two-way dialog, have brilliantly defined the purposes(s) of PR. But, like political parties, their theories don’t take into account the necessity for debate, friction and contrast. Yet these are important elements to prevailing with a point of view.

    However you chalk up the virtues of brand and reputation at their respective adherents, what cannot be discounted is the imperative the advance a corporate or client interest in a competitive environment. Marketing and sales have an easier time with this than, say, comms or public affairs, and ths is one of the reasons their advice and budgets are proportionally large. They present as front-line functions. As competitive funtions. PR and comms, by contrast, have allowed themselves to be positioned as compliance and placation functions. In fact, they are probably the better masters of competitive messaging.

    Alan Kelly
    Executive Director & Founder, Playmaker Systems, LLC

    1. That’s really interesting information about Arthur Page, Alan. What about these thoughts (that the late Arthur Yann, VP of public relations for PRSA) penned for Heather Yaxley’s co-authored The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit: An Essential Guide to Successful Public Relations Practice:

      “It has been estimated that reputation accounts for as much as 30 to 70 per cent of the gap between the book value and market capitalization of most companies.

      The value tied to corporate reputation is something that public relations professional have long understood. But as Arthur W. Page noted, the public’s perception of an organization is determined 90 per cent by what it does and 10 per cent by what it says. “

      1. Judy,

        The problem with an all encompassing quote about percentages is that it is very difficult to verify. It is similar to: ” Half my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” attributed to John Wanamaker:

        Besides, market capitalizaation is based as much on emotion, greed and other irrational factors as on objective information about the company’s products and services.

        Reputation could also be based on false information. Intuitively, what seems probable is that true reputation is based what an organization does or doesn’t do than what it says.

        1. Don, I was only asking Alan Kelly if the above (widely quoted) phrases were indeed penned by Arthur W. Page…or by his acolytes. I wasn’t asking about their veracity.

          1. Sorry for the slight misunderstanding, Judy. Mine was meant to be a general comment on the nature of such assertions regardless of whether it was Arthur Page who made them or his acolytes.

  10. I would first like to thank @Judy for the original post and @Sean for this frank follow-up. One thing that irks me in this never ending debates about the value of PR is why the profession is so obsessed with its worth. Might it simply be that the profession and its practitioners suffer from an extreme inferiority complex and thus want to validated by the C-suite at every turn? And if ignored, are wont to throw up inantile tantrums about their worth?

    Despite high sounding protestations to the contrary, the normal routine of a monthly pay-check and paying of bills is a very potent motivation in most professions including marketing, PR and law.

    I have yet to read an article about a lawyer, an accountant or a doctor arguing how they’re valuable to the organization. How come it only seems it is the PR profession that has to regularly proclaim to the world about its importance? Maybe we should be reflecting more on our mental models than gazing at the remnants of our umblical cord.

    1. Don – I have been thinking about this area in relation to some other work regarding how many PR practitioners never engage in any navel gazing – or more specifically, development of their skills or knowledge. It seems to me that perhaps reflective PR practitioners (and academics) appear insecure because this is an occupation that is still predominantly about habitus – so we do not stand on secure ground.

      Lawyers, doctors and accountants are more assured in their foundations, which include ongoing reference to, and updating of, a body of knowledge and established practice. That’s not to say they are less responsive or creative, as these fields have to engage with a changing world. For most PR practitioners, the occupation is little more than a job – a craft – where the focus is on their practical skills which are self-taught or passed on over time. Indeed, even when I do hear practitioners tell me about latest developments underpinning their practice, rarely does this come from books or other learning sources – rather they pick up ideas (such as inappropriateness of AVE) from word of mouth or the zeitgeist.

      My biggest criticism of PR reflection however is that it is so insular – we talk to and with ourselves too much and not enough with our colleagues in marketing, management or broader academia.

  11. Enron and Bernard Madoff are examples that fail to make your argument stick, but they do rather reinforce mine.

    They both systematically disguised fictitious assets and bottom-lines with the aid of high-profile PR. Nobody studied Madoff’s books and/or business model. They relied instead on his image promoted by his PR and on word of mouth marketing and endorsement from peers who did business with him. Enron prioritized PR to a greater extent than almost any other company I can think of. It was very keen on CSR. It was so transparent it even published its fraudulent book-keeping in its annual report. But the analysts were merely looking at the pictures and press clippings.

    The problem with both these examples is we that we didn’t take the bottom line seriously enough and it ended in tears.

  12. Apologies for tardy replies, all: In reverse chron:

    @paul — my dear fellow, of course business exists to make money. I don’t dispute it, nor do I denigrate here the importance of marketing. I’m as capitalist as they come (and have to be as a small businessperson.) But when you say, “Sales and the bottom line (should and do) trump broader reputation issues almost every time in every company in every sector in every country.” — I think of Enron. Of Bernard Madoff. If only someone within these organizations had stood for something other than the bottom line. I care more about my own reputation than I do about chasing every cent. This is probably outside the scope of this discussion, but we have seen around the world what happens when the “bottom line…trump[s] broader reputation issues.” I’ll also aver that even if we squeeze every corporate communication discipline through the tiniest filter ever known and say that indeed, in the end, it is about making people more willing to do business with us, the long and winding road through that filter has many, many alcoves, turnoffs and traffic roundabouts. Just because the end result is as reductively stated as that does not obviate the importance of the nonmarketing outcomes.

    @Bernard, thank you so much. I will caution though that it depends on our ability to more effectively articulate through measurement exactly what our value is. I’d contradict myself at the same time, though, and say that most organizations I’ve dealt with take our point about our value. Many others do not, but that’s why our practice needs to be much more engaged with our academic colleagues. That engagement might take the form of funding for formative research to further quantify and expand the body of knowledge supporting the demonstration of PR value. Merci!

    @heather — The sales folks can be very helpful to us. With one client, we’ve figured a means (thanks more to creativity on their part than on mine) to calculate the value of communication materials to sales. Absolutely impossible without salesforce input and interest. Stay tuned on this one…

    Finally, to Judy – many thanks, my friend, for permitting to launch this humble tirade through this august channel.


  13. The objective of business is more to do with marketing than with PR. Sales and the bottom line (should and do) trump broader reputation issues almost every time in every company in every sector in every country. That’s why marketing dollars are massively in excess of PR ones everywhere. Business does not exist to obtain a good reputation, even if having one (though the question here is always with whom) matters.

    In short, marketing has the link with the customers and with production/product management and the essence of what a company provides. In other words, marketing is intrinsically linked to the core business objective in a manner PR can never be. The problem with the PR “profession” is that too many of its academics and practitioners don’t have a clue about the realities of business and the limitations of what they do for a living. That’s not to say reputation doesn’t matter – it is to say the core product/business matters most of all.

    1. Paul – whilst I would not deny the importance of marketing and its traditional focus on supporting sales, over the past 40+ years, marketing has become less about the business return and more about brand. This has shifted its focus onto communications, often, I feel at the expense of stimulating action on the part of consumers. Marketing has morphed considerably into a promotional version of PR with its concentration of internal marketing, cause related marketing, social (societal) marketing, advocacy advertising and so on. This has left others – more operational functions – to look at product/service development, pricing and distribution, customer satisfaction and so on.

      And, while this focus on the bottom line is undoubtedly vital for the survival of any organisation, as Sean notes, it does not take place in a vacuum. Public affairs is critical to ensuring a licence to operate and favourable political conditions, for example. In terms of reputation, it is often the key to whether or not politicians recognise and engage with an organisation. (We had a big debate on this during the CIPR Public Affairs Diploma course that I teach).

      Reputation is also essential in securing employees – particularly where there is a tight market such in attracting the highest level engineers. Indeed, it also helps attract customers, distributors, investors and so on – who each are necessary for a profitable business.

      Arguably reputation is the output of a solid business – rather than the froth that marketing often puts on the top of less robust businesses. Yes, it is still possible to put lipstick on a pig – but it is harder to convince people that it isn’t a pig these days compared to those glitzy Mad Men days when marketing and mass advertising ruled the world.

  14. This is a fine post, Sean. Ultimately, the fact that PR is not marketing gives us an advantage. PR is about more than marketing. Our approach has been, from the start, a more holistic one. The key is to ensure the occupants of the C suite to recognize that and tap into our full potential.

  15. Sean – great follow up post. Whilst reading it my head is going “but sales and marketing are different”, indeed, in my experience (and reading), marketers (including those in PR who think it is part of marketing) are frequently more focused these days on brand communications than on joining the dots to the sale. They’ve bought the PR idea of the value of intangibles (including employee ‘advocacy’) but applied a marketing mindset to this. Good sales people value the intangibles but know that without the exchange, the communal relationship is meaningless.

    So I’m agreeing with you about not fighting for territory, or picking fluff from our belly buttons, and reiterate that PR people have to be able to secure a ‘sale’ in their relationships. If they don’t then CEOs will continue to disregard them. That’s also the biggest threat to marketing – all the ‘content marketing’, ’employee advocacy’, ‘digital word of mouth’ and other jargon will be worthless if it doesn’t deliver a return on investment.

    That’s not to say that employees should be pitching product through their personal social media, but they’d better be delivering on their transactional contracts in doing the day job.

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