When leadership leaves an organization, the public relator goes too. An alarming acceleration which undermines the institutionalization of the function?

Milano, Italy will host from 16 to 18 October 2008 the annual Euprera conference, hosted by Ferpi and IULM University. The topic in discussion will be ‘Institutionalizing public relations and corporate communication’….From an organizational perspective I advance the thought that a blatant contradiction emerges in the accelerating trend of the fate of public relations directors of private, public and social sector organizations in many countries being increasingly tied to that of the Ceo. Once, this happened only in organizations where the function was an add-on to the core of other managerial roles, and its mandate was mostly geared to enhance the public perception of leadership. In organizations where so-called strategic public relations was embedded, this happened only rarely: the director of pr served the organization first and, in doing this, also served its leadership. Thus, the function could well be considered institutionalized.

Today this is very rare and in most instances public relations professional seem to follow their boss wherever she/he ends up working. To the point that, in quoted companies, minority shareholders sometime argue that the cost of a public relations director should be included in the Ceo’s compensation package, not differently from the ceo’s personal assistant or chauffeur, thus de-institutionalizing the role. The reason for this is that it is very rare that when a conflict of interest emerges between a Ceo and the served organization, the public relations director operates on behalf of the latter rather than the former.

Undoubtedly, there are many arguments to reinforce the general perception that the role is indeed increasing its central function in the organization: for example, public relations directors come more often from other managerial disciplines and not as once happened from journalism or politics; also, overall investments are much larger than before; practices such as internal relations, investor relations, supplier relations, international relations and even marketing relations, corporate advertising or regulatory relations and legal counsel are more frequently attributed to the function rather than just the traditional media relations, public affairs, protocol or the organization of events.

However, in the documentation which I have found on this issue, very little attention is focused, if any, on the seemingly inextricable relationship between the pr director and his/her boss. In my view this is an inherent weakness of a (desirable?!) institutionalization process. Your opinion please?


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5 Replies to “When leadership leaves an organization, the public relator goes too. An alarming acceleration which undermines the institutionalization of the function?

  1. Dear Toni,

    Take a note that companies tend and try to be institutions in order to be better recognized. This is one of the main reazons why they start working on Corporate Social Risponsibility and doing diplomacy with public institutions. Some academics we call it corporate diplomacy but there are yet so many comments to add. This new concept mixes Corporate PR, CSR lobbying, and many other specific areas. Hopefully we can count on this for the new Euprera meeting.

  2. While I fully agree with all comments which have come in, they imply that the pr director acquire skills which, until now, have been diregarded by both researchers and professionals.
    It is clear that if the public relations director is to speak out internally when there is the risk of a conflict of interest between leadership and the organization, she/he will need to have created strong alliances with the other functional managers. And this implies that the latter consider the pr director as a colleague and not as the leader’s personal joker, as often happens.
    So the practice of management is essential, as its related competences.
    Another is the ‘listening to stakeholders skill’ which implies a very careful identification of who these really are, the capability of understanding and interpreting their expectations and anticipating the consequences their actions may liable to have on the organization.
    A third is the skill of supplying resources, talents and know how to all fellow managers so that they may improve and effectively manage their own relationship systems instead of pretending to go solo, as also often happens when the pr director is empowered only by the ceo and direspected by other managers.

  3. Catherine is bang on. The notion that serving a leader from within somehow corrupts or diminishes the thinking or advice of a professional is not a systemic or structural problem. What it takes as she points out is for profesionnals to speak up when they need to regardless of what the CEO says.

  4. Catherine Arrow writes, “…any CEO with half a brain would realise that the organisation is an entity in its own right of which the CEO is simply the nominated leader. ”

    I wish CEOs with half a brain were more common.

    Somehow we’ve allowed (the business community in general has allowed) the concepts of the Imperial CEO and “shareholder value” to completely mess up business and its relationship to all publics, in vast portions of the world.

    It’ll take years to get back to the concepts of depth of management being important, and companies having a responsibility to anyone other than investment bankers and M&A lawyers — don’t kid yourselves that shaeholder value translates into stock market profits for individual investors.


  5. Dear Toni
    I normally resist referencing old definitions, but having read your post, I was mentally drawn back to the 1987 definition of public relations from the then IPR (UK) which states that:
    “Public relations is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and understanding between an organisation and its publics”.
    Flick through the multitude of other definitions created over the years and you will find ‘organisation’ is one of the few constants. The CEO may lead an organisation for a period of time and even become an embodiment of its values and brand, but the public relations practitioner should be concerned first and foremost with the organisation he/she represents and the interests of the publics and communities that interact and impact with that organisation.
    Linking the practitioner to the CEO devalues the role of public relations within the organisation – you just end up with a monkey and an organ grinder. While there has to be considerable trust between the two parties, any CEO with half a brain would realise that the organisation is an entity in its own right of which the CEO is simply the nominated leader. Any practitioner worth their salt must be prepared to challenge the CEO if the CEO’s individual interests impact on the good of the organisation and the communities it serves. The nature of our work demands that we are at once part of and outside the organisation we serve – without the ability to do this, we cannot construct the necessary bridges of understanding between the various publics. The same is true of the relationship with the CEO – ‘close to, but apart from’ serves the best interests of all involved.
    A CEO requires strategic and professional advice from a skilled and thoughtful practitioner able and sufficiently courageous to advocate on behalf of the organisation and public. The ‘monkey’ relationship simply devalues what we do and undermines the credibility of both the practitioner and the CEO.

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