- Mitigating executive-induced scandals, lowering tensions, boosting opinions, and building brand loyalty all fall comfortably within the known domain of public relations and communications.
- Executives want public relations teams to be bold and make decisions even with imperfect information. They want order created out of disorder while public relations works miracles behind the scenes.
- The more a communications department knows the heart, mind, and will of company executives, the faster and better able they are to do their jobs well and respond with more confidence.
Generations of business professionals understood the meaning and value of external-facing marketing. A snappy sales campaign advertisement, a clever jingle, customer giveaways, or catchy coupons all fell understandably within the realm of marketing. Marketing functions generally handle promotional, advertising, or direct marketing with intentions to generate sales.
But public relations (PR) exists as distinctly different from marketing and receives the lion’s share of blame when negative attacks befall an organisation. Public relations focuses on strong reputation management through generating positive traditional and social media coverage and internal and external stakeholder communication.
Mitigating executive-induced scandals, lowering tensions, boosting opinions, and building brand loyalty all fall comfortably within the known domain of public relations and communications.
The Museum of Public Relations estimates that the art of PR extends as far back as 19,000 years ago with ancient cave paintings around the world seeking to solidify clan identity and purpose. However, until the late 1990s, not much attention was paid within PR to internally relating broadly to employees.
Since then, more and more executives grew to understand the importance of internal communications. But the relationship between executive-level functions and communications and public relations teams is fraught with difficulty. A classic tussle persists between the two causing inefficiency and missed opportunities.
Executives blame communications teams for not communicating frequently enough, not the right messaging, not innovative enough, and so forth.
Executives want public relations teams to be bold and make decisions even with imperfect information. They want order created out of disorder while public relations works miracles behind the scenes.
In interviews of senior managers, frequent complaints regarding communications teams entail three themes: inability to work independently with claims like “they need so much detail it's better you just write it yourself”; slow to act, saying “their perfection is the enemy of the good – just sit up and act already”, and desires to be bold, saying PR people should “make some decisions, be a manager, do not become an order taker”.
Communication departments counter that senior managers do not provide enough direction and inadequate clarity on the desired brand and messaging points to be created and communicated.
The main themes coming through in interviews from PR and communications teams about issues with organisational top management include: lack of autonomy with voices like “[management] keeps us on such a tight leash we can’t act without their approval”; “the CEO waits for such a miserably long time to give his approval that we respond too late while running around crazy trying to pick up the pieces”; and, “we get yelled at if we make assumptions but we’re never told exactly what is wanted of us” and “PR is left out in the cold and only brought in during emergencies, how should we know what they are thinking”.
How can one stand in the gap and heal the schism that often occurs between these two often warring factions within companies?
Social science boils issues down to autonomy, perceived voice, risk-taking, and creativity. If executives took adequate time to familiarise with the needs of a communications or an in-house public relations team, then they would create the systems, structures, and policies to foster outstanding departments.
Communications groups often get left out of the charts of authority of a firm.
Charts of authority include everything from who can hire and fire, who must sign for different values of capital and operating expenditures, and what signatures are required for product rollout or marketing campaigns, among many other approval levels.
Different levels of signatories typically exist within operations, finance, sales, and marketing teams.
But usually both communications departments and human resources teams get relegated to minimal authority levels, often having to seek ridiculously bureaucratic chasing of signatures from other departments just to do their jobs.
When a CEO, as an example, must personally sign-off on every single internal-facing or external-oriented communication, then this lack of autonomy stifles public relations and communications teams’ wherewithal to be creative, take risks, and move with speed and excitement.
Instead, companies can get creative with their authority levels.
Certain types of communications, such as brand building could just be signed off and approved within the communications team itself. Similarly, quick social media responses to public relations crises should not require out-of-department signoffs.
However, press releases in response to a controversy should indeed receive executive approval. Organisations must not lump all types of communications related approvals.
In response to the interviewee feeling as if communications departments are left out in the cold, organisations must bring them in on regular meetings, planning meetings, and strategy meetings.
The more a communications department knows the heart, mind, and will of company executives, the faster and better able they are to do their jobs well and respond with more confidence.
Researchers Ang Gao and Jing Jiang term the ability to feel confident to share employee views upwards and receive swift action as perceived voice.
The communications team’s voice must matter and the team must know their value, not just during crises.
In summary, act proactively to heal rifts between executives and communications functions. Do not merely wait to react to crisis after crisis, hoping things will improve on their own. Improve autonomy, perceived voice, and reward risk taking and creativity.
Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor