The serious business of public relations

It is interesting that the word ‘consultant’ derives from the Latin, consultare, meaning to debate or discuss.  That implies its function is to assist in two-way communications – yet, the role of management consultancy is positioned as assisting organizations to improve performance, through logical analysis and development of plans.  The focus is more on management rather than consultancy.

The history of management consultancy is tied closely to analytical processes and a rational, scientific approach to organizational operations. Consultants provide expertise, often in a prescriptive manner, determining ‘best practice’ that will result from adhering to recommended strategies.

This philosophy underpins modern management with a belief that outcomes can be predicted, risk managed and success achieved by a process of research, reflection, monitoring and evaluation.

Public relations has followed this route in seeking increased status and recognition as a serious business management consultancy service – whether operating within an organization or as external experts. 

Personally, I don’t believe the world is so readily predictable – for me, the idea of rational management is largely a placebo, making organizations feel in control by virtue of implementing processes and seeking the ‘right way’ to operate. (That’s not to say processes aren’t important – but they should not take precedence over a need to adapt and respond to a dynamic environment.)

Consequently, I am interested in the idea of ‘integrated reporting’ and the involvement of public relations in advocating its adoption alongside governments, global businesses, the investment community – and management consultants.

Toni Muzi Falconi argues, in relation to the Stockholm Accords, that the development of integrated reporting is a real opportunity for public relations to be part of the strategic management of organizations. He sees this move away from the traditional ‘annual report’ approach as putting stakeholders at the heart of business concerns.

From this viewpoint, PR is not simply going to be involved in producing the narrative within the integrated report – rather it will be pivotal in ensuring interactive, ongoing communications (dialogue) between senior management and key stakeholders.

Arguably, that emphasises consultancy over management.  But the language of integrated reporting is that of assessing and evaluating quality, performance, value and impact. That is, a systems approach where stakeholders are engaged in transactional relationships with organizations and sustainability is about keeping the system going.

Sadly, I remain skeptical that the momentum behind integrated reporting is anything more than an opportunity for perpetuating the myth of the rational manager. The black and white of a written report inevitably loses the richness of real world relationships, the complexity of an organization’s day to day operations and the increasing chaos of the external environment in which it operates.

In its Integrated Reporting advisory, KPMG states:

The most compelling argument to integrate reporting from the communication perspective would be if it would meet the needs of those who use reporting for decision-taking. This is the most important and most challenging part of the communications perspective: (the process for) assessing stakeholders’ needs. As part of its evaluation, it is of relevance to review whether this process covers all relevant issues, whether stakeholder interaction mechanisms (such as panels, forums, polls, et cetera) are in place to communicate on a continuous basis and whether the stakeholder process is sufficiently robust to manage and meet their expectations.

Again, a nice tidy approach – where logical decision-making is the result of analysis and ensuring processes are in place.  Stakeholders participate neatly in panels, forums and polls – not the messy, multi-directional, disorderly jumble that is the reality of most communications.

Opinions and assessments of organizations by publics are ever-changing, dependent on the immediate and memorable.  They are affected by personal experience, others’ opinions, rumour, prejudice, irrationality and apathy. They may be idiosyncratic, sporadic, contradictory, ill-informed and illogical.  Indeed, they may be sub-conscious, hidden and unspoken (even when asked for).

Where I do agree with those who advocate integrated reporting is a need to reflect on what public relations practitioners can bring as consultants – that is experts in discussion and debate. We need practitioners to understand the drivers for integrated reporting – but also to recognise the dangers of simplifying stakeholder relationships into one dimensional key performance indicators.

Yes, we need to understand the competencies and skills that public relations practitioners can bring to integrated reporting – but not simply in terms of ability to craft narratives or reduce relationships to numerical measures.

Relationships and reputation need understanding on a qualitative basis.  In adopting the largely quantitative mantras of accountants, auditors, management consultants and risk assessors, PR can undoubtedly be taken more seriously.  We certainly need to understand the business of business – but also to ensure that our business expertise gained in the arena of human interaction provides a rounded context to inform decision making. 

An integrated report that does anything less belies the really serious business of public relations.

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9 Replies to “The serious business of public relations

  1. Dawie while you are in there, i would like to state few things about this PR issue and the practitioners. According to Kim, Kim and Choi , (1998:98), “the evaluation of PR is to decide whether it is effective and effecient and PR concepts thAat can be evaluated are concepts such as environmental monitoring, output, intermediate effect, outcome and cost effectiveness.
    Practitioners used to concentrate on communication outputs while disregarding communication effects on the organisation”.

    It seems like the organisations are putting more focus on other functions and are paying less attention to the PR function. Top management do not seem to clearly understand the importance and value of PR as a function as this function does not enjoy access to top management which is very essential for the practitioners to add value to their organition.

    As Steyn and Puth (2004), stated that “the perceptions of CEO’s are that corporate communication function is focused on acheiving communication goals and objectives without necessarily linking them to the achievement of the organisation’s business goals”. I personally think that going foward the PR practitioners should try their best to be part of the ‘dominant coalition’ if they need to have an impact and influence on the strategies that will help in shaping the organisation’s decisions, actions and ideas.

    Top communicators in the organisations are now employed for their strategic communication skills and their ability to be able to adapt to changes in the organizational environment.

    1. Thanks Dawie and William – you both make interesting and valid points. I feel that it is essential for PR to be understood, valued and influential across an organization, including with members of any the senior executive. I do like some of Holtzausen’s arguments for PR not being too embedded with the dominant coalition however as you can lose your sense of understanding others’ perspectives and hence not be as able to help the organization change in response to its environment. We need to be able to remain a little distanced and able to input critical reflection into the senior executive from a position of respect in my view. That’s where counsel is of most value – whether or not that can be done from those with in-house positions is an interesting area for debate, I think.

      1. Heather, in most business schools today one of the dominant subjects for all managers is adopting a critical perspective and avoiding to follow the sheep as they dive into the ocean. I do not think that pr can claim this ‘third party’ role any longer. This is yet another disintermediation process. Also, I am not sure that consultants are necessarily more indipendent than internal managers. This very much depends on the culture of each organization and, of course, on the professional quality of the individuals involved.

        1. But how many current managers are attending business schools and learning critical perspectives and flexible approaches as opposed to relying on traditional rational management ideas whereby planning is undertaken once a year and then actions implemented?

          I am not advocating a unique ‘third party’ role for PR, but the nature of the critical thinking that we can provide should be drawn in large part from our connections and understanding of publics and emerging issues. We can have a unique perspective that is more holistic than many other functions in this regard – but agreed, does require an open attitude from any organizational culture and the professional skills from the PR team.

          I also didn’t say that consultants are necessarily more independent – my question was more one of whether or not in-house practitioners can provide independent counsel.

  2. This is a very interesting post to read regarding how PR is a key essential aspect for organisations and how PR should fit in with the bigger overall picture of an organisation. Every day we as PR practitioners wonder how we can be more effective for the organisations that we work for, whether it is as an internal or external PR practioner, and how we can be seen as a contributing element to the organisation’s success. As Heather Yaxley pointed out we have to assist in two-way communication (symmetrical), but for me sometimes it seems that organisations only think of us as being part of the other three models of PR (press agent, public information and two-way asymmetrical), and neglect our abilities to effectively interact with various stakeholder groups. This stakeholder interaction to me is definitely one of our most important tasks as PR practitioners and contributes to an organisation’s success and reputation.

    Therefore I agree with what Toni Muzi Falconi stated about how integrated reporting is a real opportunity for public relations to be part of the strategic management of organisations. This will help us as PR practitioners to show our worth on an ongoing basis and also ensure that we focus on the best interests of the organisation’s stakeholders. If organisations want to ensure that integrated reporting is implemented correctly then documents like the Stockholm Accords and the King III report need to be taken into consideration and applied. This means that not only do we as PR practitioners have to have a clear understanding of these documents but also the organisations that we work for. The Stockholm Accords for example indicate how PR practitioners should work with organisations to ensure that the management of internal and external communication is taken into consideration before strategic and operational decisions are made. This will help the final strategic decision be more effective and when stakeholders realise that their input has been taken into consideration, then stakeholder organisational loyalty can start to develop. In chapter 8 in the King III report (Governing Stakeholder Relationships) principles 8.1 to 8.5 indicate that there is a need for organisations to have transparent communication through PR, that stakeholder perceptions should be considered when decisions are made, and that the organisation’s reputation will undoubtedly be affected. Chapter 9 in the King III report also specifically focuses on the importance of Integrated Reporting and Disclosure. This to me again proves that we as PR practitioners have to have a say when organisations make strategic decisions. We are the glue that binds the overall organisation with its various stakeholders (internally and externally) and we interact with these stakeholders regularly to find out their perceptions about the organisation. When we realise that a negative perception or a potential problem might occur then we can manage the situation before it becomes a crisis.

    What organisations need to realise is that by allowing PR practitioners to be a part of strategic decision making and integrated reporting, we will be able to ensure a continuous process of interaction between the organisation and its various stakeholders. I do agree that integrated reporting might lose momentum if not monitored and that it might be a very difficult process because all stakeholders are not the same, but I feel it is a key essential ingredient that will benefit organisations (and PR practitioners).

  3. The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management is actively participating in the International Integrated Reporting Committee to apply the public relations profession’s canon and portfolio to this vital business-in-society enterprise. Like many Global Alliance programs, IIRC, being associated with The Prince of Wales Sustainability program, demonstrates that public relations truly is a serious business. This commitment manifests the wisdom of Walter Annenberg’s counsel, “Every human advancement or reversal can be understood through communication.”

  4. Yes!!
    I am happy that Heather took the trouble to assess the integrated reporting movement and its potential impact on our profession.
    I entirely share her caveats and skepticisims and, at the same time, her call for a more attentive analysis of what is going on.

    Two additions to Heather’s wise arguments:

    – let me begin with Don Radoli’s comment related to von Bertalany: the stockholm accords (as far as I know, for the first time in our community and thanks to Sven Hamrefors) argues the fuzzyness of value networks as one of its fundamental pillars.
    As much as Heather is spot on when she states her skepticism about overly rational management processes (the accords also highlights the concept of governance before management , thus recognizing that management is the produce of stakeholder relationship policies defined by boards of directors that have thre repsonibiity of recognizing that fuzzyness), I very much believe that savvy public relations consultants (internal and external) have the necessary qualities to call the attention towards the fuzzyness of the relationship systems that form the added value of a well run organization.
    And this, as often argued, improves the quality of organizational decisions and reduces the time of their implementation: in these times, a highly significant contribution that public relations brings to the licence to operate of the organization.

    – Heather correctly indicates that reducing organizational narrative to numbers printed in black and white in a report is an unacceptable simplification of the complexity of organizational performance and reduces stakeholder relationships to a series of formal, nice to have, lip service, and bureaucratic socalled engagement sessions
    This is a real and substantial risk.
    Yet, this is where we can only hope that the active presence of the Global Alliance in the International Integrated Reporting Committee -that has undertaken the daunting task of developing a global generic framework for the transition ot integrated reporting- will hopefully bear fruit.
    If there is one major value that we public relators can bring to the table is to advocate that transition to a continued, multichannel, differentiated-by-stakeholder reporting activity, rather than simply adding governance, environamental and social information to the current financial report.
    Finally, also referring to Heather’s chill over key performance indicators, that transition will be successful when and if the same number (quality indicators can be reduced to numbers…) is in parallel interpretable in its different financial, environmental, social and governance consequences. And this, instead, is where the IT (xbrl?) people come in.

    I do very much hope that Heather’s post stimulates further criticisms, suggestions and ideas.

  5. Heather: Two notions in Ludwig von Bertalanfy’s systems approach (popularized by Peter Senge), may help clarify the apparent incompatibility between integrated reporting and the normally fuzzy outcomes of human interactions — stakeholder engagement (a traditional PR domain).

    First there is the notion of equifinality — alternative ways of attaining the same outcomes. The focus is on outcomes with a both/and inclusive solution seeking approach. This replaces that normal either/or exclusive approach to problem solving (or better still solution seeking).

    The second notion is that of multifinality — attaining altenative outcomes from the same inputs. An enterprise can be; a profit center, a distribution system, an employment provider, a ccompetitor, a good neighbour etc. While a quantitative accounts system is imperative for analysisng thhe financial side of the business, qualitative systems approach methods are neccessary for evaluatiing and reacting to the concerns of other stakeholders — for example, employees.

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