PR Pros as Strategic Advisers, and Where It Goes From Here

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In French, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

shutterstock_666889795In a rough sense, that aphorism sums up what 24 senior communicators told us in response to the following question: “How can public relations leaders become stronger strategic business advisers as the lines between PR, digital and marketing continue to blur?”

Asked of the 24 earlier this month, the question formed the guts of a public forum that ran on this site Monday.

These leaders, from iconic brands, agencies and associations, including Aflac, MillerCoors, Chevron, ESPN, The Home Depot, APCO Worldwide, FleishmanHillard, Ogilvy, Ruder Finn, PRSA and The Arthur W. Page Society, accepted part of the question’s premise: That the label “PR” may be seen less frequently in job titles and descriptions, but its myriad functions—communicating brand messages to the public and corporate information internally, managing crises, promoting corporate citizenship, being the face of a brand with the public—remain essential to business.

As Peppercomm co-founder/CEO Steve Cody says in response to the question, “CEOs have learned that advertising, marketing and digital are meaningless if public relations hasn’t built trust with audiences over the years.”

It’s even likely that digital communications and the rise of the millennial generation, with its interest in brands’ social personalities, have made PR’s role as a creator, protector and promoter of brand reputation more important than in the past. As ESPN SVP for communications Chris LaPlaca says, “Navigating a brand in today’s media environment is a minute-to-minute, 24/7 exercise.”

And as one of the respondents, Pete Marino, chief communications officer of MillerCoors and president of Tenth & Blake, told PR News a few months ago about why he returned to communications several years ago after a period away, “The [communications] industry was changing for the positive…When I started in the mid-1990s, communications was definitely the proverbial red-headed stepchild of whatever function it was part of…”

That idea that PR, no matter what it’s called, carries strategic importance was cemented last week as brands, CEOs and politicians struggled to position themselves regarding Charlottesville and the president’s response (it’s communications again) to it.

In addition, owing to PR’s work across the enterprise, PR is positioned to be in a strategic advisory role. As PRSA national chair Jane Dvorak says, “Communications is a function that crosses all layers of a company.”

The Business of PR 

Another theme that dominated in the 24 responses was that PR practitioners need to be knowledgeable about the business side of the brand they represent. “You can’t be a separated, subject-matter expert only.  You must have tremendous business acumen,” Catherine Hernandez-Blades says. Adds Roger Bolton, president of The Arthur W. Page Society, “The strongest corporate communicators understand the company’s business and corporate culture, the competitive environment and the sociopolitical landscape.” Jim Maiella, SVP/co-head, corporate communications, AMC Networks Inc., puts it succinctly:Make sure your public relations strategies and tactics tie directly back to your company’s business objectives in clear and tangible ways.”

In sum, PR professionals are strategic advisers because of what they do for a company and where they do it. Still, “We cannot afford to be complacent,” Ruder Finn CEO Kathy Bloomgarden says. Her prescription includes “incorporating analytics and data-driven insights” as well as new technologies into PR’s work. Says Bianca Prade, SVP, SKDKnickerbocker, to remain business leaders PR practitioners must maintain “a commitment to knowing and being part of what’s next.” While that’s a challenge, it shouldn’t be out of character. “The best public relations leaders I know are eager and constant learners,” says Stacey Tank, chief communications officer, The Home Depot.

Follow Seth: @skarenstein