Human relations is central to PR practice. Employees are central to brand culture
Public Relations is a strategic corporate issue that creates meaningful value for corporate growth and market visibility. PR if properly executed is at the core of strategic planning or corporate image planning, business development, networking capital, local and international collaborations, digital communication strategy and global penetration.
It cannot be side-lined to functional levels in the organisation. PR should claim its place at business and corporate levels and even the boardroom.
PR is a management function which involves analysis of trends, predicting their consequences and advising or counselling the organisation for it to remain relevant in a dynamic global environment. Analysis of trends involves updating the organisation on global dynamics in business, economics and digital communications.
It assists also in the analysis of trends in digital communications and their impact on organisations. PR involves putting in place open systems in doing business, thus creating a permeable boundary between the organisation and its environment to allow information in and out so that the organisation does not get into entropy — decay. Image is core to business survival and critical to business growth.
Image as directed by PR, creates opportunities for market penetration and positioning, both important ingredients for competitiveness.
Analysis of trends requires competences related to business and corporate strategy to make sure that business is abreast with modern trends and consistent with global business best practices.
It is more than just writing a good news release and coming up with “cosy” corporate golf shirts and magazines.
Today’s PR requires more than just being a journalist or media practitioner but a combination of this plus being a professional generalist who understands business up to corporate level.
An appreciation of boardroom issues, financial markets, investment dynamics, media strategy, corporate image issues, corporate governance and ethics and branding is important. Days are gone when PR practitioners would be used simply as spin doctors, reactive functionaries and “cover up” agents.
There is too much information on internet (the information super highway) and other digital platforms that have availed loads of data which cannot be wished away. It is there for the world to see. Issues, even sensitive ones and those that were considered taboo cannot easily be swept under the carpet.
In this context, a PR practitioner has to be of strategic value to his or her organisation by strategically positioning the organisation so that it moves with times. It also includes changing mindsets in the organisation to allow different managerial levels to warm up to new trends in the digital world, world politics, international or domestic economics.
Globalisation is about shrinking space, time and global trends cannot be ignored by a PR practitioner worth his salt because the relevance of PR in corporate or in Government can be gravely compromised, thus relegating the profession to the gutters.
The art of analysis of trends and predicting consequences now requires a practitioner well positioned to enter the executive level of engagement and even the boardroom and earn respect.
That way one will be able to advise corporate level structures and be given attention. If a PR practitioner confines himself/herself to running with purchase orders for golf-shirts or T-shirts, and always concentrating on processing travel and subsistence allowances, no one will ever take them seriously for corporate level decision making. Your advice will not be taken seriously. This is the reason why terms such as “spin doctors” (meaning you spin someone’s image in a crisis to spruce up his/her outlook), propagandists, spies, masters of ceremony are common.
These terms while relevant in the day to day life of a PR practitioner removes practitioners from real strategic issues thus relegating the profession to an afterthought, after crisis, or cosmetic/ornamental department that gives the organisation colour, glitz and glamour but not for real serious business.
When retrenchment comes, personnel in the department are the first to be shown the door or have benefits slashed because a PR practitioner has not positioned himself or herself strategically to be of value at the highest levels in the organisation.
In Zimbabwe particularly, PR is not really taken seriously as a strategic issue because of the way it is perceived by accountants, lawyers, economists — who constitute the majority of CEOs, board members and corporate level leaders.
Their perception is to view PR people as side-kicks almost who act as personal assistants to arrange their travel itineraries and advance party to organise venues, speeches etc.
This is the reason why they are more comfortable with recruiting former journalists from particularly television because they use them as the “face” of the organisation (cosmetic purposes) or a print journalist because he writes a good copy. In today’s world PR is a strategy issue which requires more than being used for impressionable purposes.
Sadly, those who get into consultation as PR strategists, are easily overshadowed by purely marketing (branding) and advertising professionals, who it is believed bring real value to the organisation because of the immediate dollars and cents that they bring.
Yet PR professional advice can create value for the long term because their job is to create knowledge and understanding of the organisation and its products and services.
From a professional point of view, they surface and resurface the ground for marketing, sales and advertising to thrive. They are the water and manure that allow the seeds to germinate leading to a bumper harvest. In the process of growth they nature the plant through managing its growth, treating it and weeding till harvesting. That is PR value.
Marketers always talk of brand culture, yet humans are central to it. Human relations is central to PR practice, that’s why PR is often referred to as the conscience of the organisation. Employees are central to brand culture. Their interaction with customers plays a critical role in bridging the gap between the envisioned brand values and those perceived by external stakeholders.
The culture of an organisation that is, its values beliefs and basic assumptions manifest itself in the ways employees feel about the organisation and forms the environment in which brand values must be developed. PR is central to this and it is no mean business.
The value created from this perspective is for strategic purposes, and critical for strategic planning because employees are an asset of the organisation. Burman and Zeplin (2005) argue that building this commitment requires the integration of three sets of managerial activities of which PR plays an important role — brand centred HR, brand leadership and brand communications.
Why brand centred HR for PR practitioners? Some may ask. Brand centred HR should ensure firstly that recruitment and promotion is based upon a close fit between personal identity and brand identity.
This entails recruiting and promoting employees with similar values to the brand. PR can proffer professional advice to HR and both departments complement each other on this one for strategic value to the organisation. PR professionals who focus on media relations and publicity may not see this as their management function.
Similarly, the creation of, or training for brand citizenship behaviour in employees is central to PR and marketing. This entails the successful development of employees’ commitment to the organisation’s brand because of its link to the development of appropriate brand behaviours.
Brand citizenship behaviour involves seven (7) dimensions: helping behaviour, brand consideration, brand enthusiasm, sportsmanship, brand endorsement, self-development and brand advancement.
While all this appears a marketing activity, PR is central to create a culture because their concern is what Professor Claude Mararike calls the human factor content in management. Remember corporate culture or organisation culture refers to the internal values, beliefs and assumptions that embody the heritage of the company and communicate its meaning to its members.
The above argument is just but one example of the strategic value of PR to organisations that is often taken over by other professions.
Therefore, let’s smell the coffee as practitioners. Lastly, to push my argument for PR as a strategic issue, brand leadership is essential to the development of brand commitment.
The role of brand management is too important to be delegated to the marketing department and that it should be the responsibility of senior corporate management team and PR. The CEO should take on the role of brand champions. This means that PR at corporate level should give a clear sense of vision, what the organisation aspires to be in future, aligning vision with culture and image and fostering an organisation — wide commitment to the brand.
Coming up with internal brand requires leadership to establish corporate structures which convey coherent and consistent messages to staff.
Therefore successful and strategy driven PR practitioners should act as integrators between elements of corporate identity structures (corporate culture, corporate design, corporate behaviour and corporate communications).
Competent and corporate level PR professionals should act as mediators between corporate branding structures and individuals. They should enter the psychological set of all levels. Isn’t that strategic comrades.
Lastly they should facilitate employee brand commitment by acting as role models. This therefore demonstrates that PR from my point of view is not the business of simply writing news releases, being MCs, designing function programmes, appear on television etc. It is really a strategic issue for top level corporate planning and execution. Join the executive levels and change their perception.
From my analysis over the years I have been involved in marketing and PR, I suggest the following for the profession to be taken seriously as a strategic profession in business, Government and civil society.
- PR practitioners should enhance their education to postgraduate level in their field. One way is to do projects/dissertations/thesis related to their field focusing on solving real corporate communications, PR or publicity challenges and make noise about it. The business of T-shirts, golf-shirts and T/S you can direct but leave it to your juniors/ interns and focus on strategy, business and corporate issues.
- Be comfortable with figures, financial statements, investment portfolios, general economics and other business issues. Be comfortable in the boardroom full of accountants and lawyers, get an appreciation of law, corporate law, corporate finance and even the constitution of the country. By this one becomes relevant and his/her voice can be listened to. A practitioner should advise executive/board from an informed and solid point of view.
- Be digitally savvy. Don’t have a phobia for computers, social media and other web-driven technologies. Do not be old fashioned because youngsters today will see you as a buffoon of the Stone Age. Appreciate the value of digital marketing and communication and use it to the best advantage of your organisation. Use it to sell yourself and demonstrate your competences to make it a strategy issue in the boardroom.
- Demonstrate and show the value of PR in business by being able to calculate the return on PR investment in real figures, tangible and intangible benefits. This is the language accountants understand (remember they are our greatest critiques and yet they dominate the boardrooms together with economists and legal practitioners). They see PR practitioners as big spenders who do not bring real value to the companies. In some cases, PR people are seen as crooks, fancy and fashion trendy people without an iota of knowledge about business and finance.
- Avoid being a wish-washy or mickey- mouse kind of person in meetings. Concentrate on strategic issues of PR and demonstrate its business (RPRI) value. Concentrate on these PR fundamentals at corporate level such as strategic planning, corporate image strategies, issues management, media relations strategy and communication, customer service and customer service operating standards, return on PR investment, budgeting, strategic PR plans, PR finance. Make PR a board issue with a designated committee, craft linkages and endeavour to bring results. Avoid being taken for granted, sell yourself.