PR comes out into the light?

February 15th, 2010 by Jon Clements

Is it right for the corporate “story makers” – aka PR people – to become the story?

PR Week editor, Danny Rogers’ latest editorial poses the question in the wake of the Toyota furore, in which the company’s UK communications chief, Scott Brownlee, as opposed to the management, did most of the talking.

Add to that a tardy apology from Toyota’s top brass, and you wonder what the company is doing at the most testing moment in its history.

I’ve spent a number of years working on media training with major companies so that people at the head of running operations are capable of communicating effectively, especially in times of trouble. Fielding a PR person to defend the company would seem to defeat the object, and suggest that those at the business end have got something to hide.

But after the worst recession in living memory, in which a lot of PR and communications went the way of all flesh, does the Toyota example illustrate a more interesting point: that PR is being treated as an equal at the boardroom table?

Countries, never mind companies, are reputedly looking to PR advisers to protect their reputations and solvency during the current Eurozone financial meltdown.

But is this approach to PR still resonant of barn gates and bolted horses?

A quick internet search for PR and strategy brings up an interesting study. Before I tell you how old it is, I wonder how close to your experience this extract comes.

“Public relations professionals typically are not involved in strategic management until an issue occurs; they are not called in to help anticipate which publics might create issues and to communicate with those publics before issues occur. Senior managers are preoccupied with the mass media, even though they generally are not the most effective way of communicating with strategic publics-especially at the stage of building relationships rather than responding to issues. And there is a surprising fragmentation of the communication function, especially in corporations. Many departments have responsibility for communication, and many organizations do not integrate the function. As a result, strategic planning for public relations is almost impossible.”

The study, by the IABC Research Foundation, was published 20 years ago. I’d like to think much has changed since then, but the scenario depicted  by the research still seems remarkably familiar.

PR people often cry that the client’s call for help came too late, leaving them to make the best of a bad mess.  But do communicators ever wonder why they were not part of the inner management circle from the beginning (after all, the marketing people are there)?

A more recent (2004) and highly informative study by Chime and Henley Management College into CEOs’ views on reputation management suggests that while bosses value PR very highly – seeing it as part of strategic thinking and providing the “corporate conscience” – they also need PR to make its case very clearly in order to be taken seriously at management level.

But former McKinsey consultant, James Kwak, warns CEOs about the dangers of overconfidence, which can apply to their attitude to PR also.

Some chiefs are natural communicators with an instinctive grasp of PR, but not all. Bringing in the PR team – in-house and agency – early in the strategic planning stages will give the comms plan the discipline it needs. It won’t necessarily make the bad stuff go away, but it will make it a lot easier to chew when it does.


About Jon Clements

Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR. Connect at: JonClements ''

Leave a comment