PR’s Strategic Advisory Role in the Age of Blurred Job Functions: 24 PR Leaders Speak

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Inflation is more than a term economists use to describe a rise in prices and decline in the purchasing power of money. It's also an apt descriptor for what's happened to the roles of public relations professionals.

In addition to handling traditional PR duties, communicators—one of the few functions that works across the corporate enterprise—are relied upon by the C-suite to help craft, augment and monitor corporate culture internally and to do the same for brand reputation externally. Their myriad responsibilities for digital PR/social media and roles in times of crisis need hardly be recounted here. It's safe to say more than a few communicators earned their paycheck last week, what with the need to strategically craft brand responses to the events in Charlottesville.

Still, in some quarters, old habits die hard. Despite their expanded job responsibilities, some communicators continue to battle decades-old perceptions of PR as a soft profession, unworthy of a seat at the proverbial table. In addition, the term "PR" continues to face the possibility of disappearing altogether, morphing into marketing and advertising.

With this as background, PR News asked a cross-section of PR leaders this question: "How can public relations leaders become stronger strategic business advisers as the lines between PR, digital and marketing continue to blur?"

Their answers ranged widely. Some implied PR is secure in its role as a strategic adviser. Others maintained the struggle for true acceptance continues. Several threads were common to the majority of responses, including the critical need for PR professionals to stay ahead of trends and ideas inside and outside their companies. Another area of agreement was the need for PR practitioners to augment their sensibilities as businesspeople. As one communicator told us, "If you want a seat at the strategy table, you better earn it by understanding the [business] conversations and making smart contributions." We thank the leaders who responded so thoughtfully. Below are their responses:

 

Kathy Bloomgarden
CEO
Ruder Finn
Now more than ever, the public relations, marketing, digital and even advertising industries can no longer be easily defined and siloed. Public relations already leads in driving engagement, conversations and building communities, but we cannot afford to be complacent. We need to evolve as our industry evolves. This includes strategic shifts in the way we do business, like incorporating analytics and data-driven insights into our campaigns, getting smart about and implementing new technologies, and making public relations a more experiential industry that gives our audiences a reason to engage and interact with us as brands and communicators. But beyond the work we do, we also need to shift the way we think about traditional public relations roles and talent pools. We need to hire people from non-conventional backgrounds who bring new perspectives to our industry and who can push us further into the blurred lines so that we can stand out among our rapidly growing list of competitors.

 

Roger Bolton
President
Arthur W. Page Society
The line blurring causes public relations and marketing to work more closely together in the digital commons, where brand and corporate reputation are intertwined. Both use data to engage stakeholders and measure the value of that engagement, but each makes a distinct contribution. The strongest corporate communicators understand the company’s business and corporate culture, the competitive environment and the sociopolitical landscape. They think strategically about these issues and the needs of all stakeholders, not just customers, and weigh into—if not lead—the corporate debate on strategic business challenges. Critical thinking, the guts to speak up and EQ are essential.

 

Steve_Cody_021016Steve Cody 
Co-Founder/CEO
Peppercomm

 CEOs have learned that advertising, marketing and digital are meaningless if public relations hasn’t built trust with audiences over the years. Unlike advertising and marketing, public relations professionals are trained to engage in conversations instead of talking at audiences. We alone must create compelling stories to convince the Fourth Estate that our news is interesting to its readers, viewers, listeners and followers, or it won’t be published. Passing that litmus test of authenticity, transparency and newsworthiness positions us as the natural, strategic leaders of any integrated campaign. That's why, next to word of mouth, public relations remains the most credible form of communications.

 

Jane3Jane Dvorak
APR, Fellow, PRSA, 2017 National Chair
PRSA
The very nature of the work we do positions public relations leaders to be strong advisers. Communications is a function that crosses all layers of a company. We understand business drivers, revenue generators, target audiences and the marketplace. That gives public relations leaders a unique role in companies and brings insight into all functions. We can maintain consistency, focus and direction across all platforms to share a company’s unique story, products, services and programs. We become stronger leaders when we do all of that from a strategic foundation, not a tactical one. That kind of advice is essential to success.

 

Peter_Finn_Photo August 2017

Peter Finn
Founder
Finn Partners
Messages travel across media platforms—print becomes social and social becomes viral.  Historically, public relations has been about honing a message to enable clients to remain connected to societal and brand decision makers.  It's about building global, shared-interest communities that rally around message touch points to ensure clients are central to customer conversations.

 

14063-MarcoGonzales_HeadshotMarco Antonio Gonzalez
VP, Public Relations & Corporate Affairs
LBI Media Inc/Estrella TV
For starters, I think it’s essential to establish yourself as the steward and pacesetter for all written communications in your organization. It’s important to set yourself as the bridge and vehicle for all things related to your company’s messaging and narrative.  Having strong relationships with the heads of marketing and digital will only make your company stronger. Acting as a unifying agent with key departments can bring major value-add to your role as a PR executive.

 

Catherine Hernandez-Blades
SVP, Corporate Communications
Aflac

The CEO of any business is interested in the numbers, specifically the metrics they’re committed to achieving.  Sometimes public relations practitioners fall into the trap of measuring activities rather than results, making themselves transactional rather than mission critical.

Know what your leadership is accountable for before you begin.  From there, employ a few simple steps that ensure you’re doing the right things that drive the business.  Remember that to have an impact you must understand the business side of the business. You can’t be a separated, subject-matter expert only.  You must have tremendous business acumen.

Here are examples of key steps that should help: First, determine what the end state is. Second, isolate the metric. Third, create a feedback loop to ensure results, and not just activities, are being measured.

For example, say your CEO wants more employee engagement in environmental and sustainability efforts, requiring an internal, public relations initiative.  Using that example, your steps would be:

1) End state: Give away trees on Arbor Day, and ensure employees actually plant them.

2) Isolate the metric: Employees should only be able to sign up for a free tree through your intranet portal.  The portal should also be the only way employees learn of the giveaway.

3) Feedback loop: Make it fun. Any employee who submits a photo of the planted tree, along with pets, children, etc., is entered into a drawing for free yard service all summer.

Had we stopped after numbers one or two, we would be measuring activities only. By incorporating number three, we can then use the formula for how much oxygen is produced as a result of each planted tree (results), as well as how many employees participated (more results), ensuring you’ve solved for the right “x.”

 

Emil JanssensEmil Janssens
Head of Marketing & Communications
Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, Americas
For all public relations activities, alignment and communication with the business divisions are essential for success. In-depth knowledge about the products and services as well as understanding the business objectives are fundamental, not only for public relations, but also for sales and marketing, in particular. Collaboration between the business and all these commercial functions will create synergy, true brand building and ambassadorship. That’s why it is absolutely vital to manage and build relationships internally with the business divisions, so together you can build the brand (and client relationships) externally. If you are able to add value to the business and help in achieving its success, you will strengthen the relationship, develop strategic support and have a positive impact on the brand for the long term. As long as you are focused on bringing value to your client, you are going to improve your brand reputation and build relationships.

 

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Evan Kraus
President/Managing Director, Operations
APCO Worldwide
The blurred lines are creating massive growth in the complexity of what we do—increased activism, distrust, diversity of stakeholders, speed—at the same time clients face tighter cost controls. So public relations leaders must grapple to do more with less.

The most effective public relations leaders are driving efficiency into their operations—building reusable content that delivers against multiple objectives, leveraging data and programmatic targeting to reach micro-segments at low costs, and embracing purpose in ways that appeal to multiple stakeholder communities in an integrated way. They are focusing less on lower traffic, corporate-controlled channels in lieu of self-propelling campaigns and measuring outcomes rather than output, proving ROI to skeptical business leaders within their organizations.

 

iben8ni4z4dslh6ud3lmChris LaPlaca
SVP, Corporate Communications
ESPN
Navigating a brand in today's media environment is a minute-to-minute, 24/7 exercise. And if that's an exaggeration, it likely isn't a big one. Communications pros in any organization best understand at any given moment where their company sits in that environment. As a result, they can bring tremendous value.

 

UntitledJohnny Little
CEO
E Little Communications Group
As a public relations pro, one works tirelessly to elevate the reputations of brands. In an ever competitive and growing field, public relations leaders can strengthen their position as strategic business advisers by demonstrating their capacity to innovate and craft unique and compelling messages. Since the role of public relations has expanded from overseeing traditional campaigns to executing and managing digital media, social media and marketing, it’s essential that we understand the complexities and value of these tools while building a cohesive plan. We’ve got to be able to see the big picture—from 10,000 feet. It’s this vision that will afford the best public relations execs the ability to think, act and influence others in ways that will catapult a business’s brand and reputation to success.

 

Jim Maiella Nov 2016Jim Maiella
SVP/Co-Head, Corporate Communications
AMC Networks Inc.
Make sure your public relations strategies and tactics tie directly back to your company's business objectives in clear and tangible ways. The best path to becoming a stronger strategic business adviser is to drive the business forward in ways that senior leaders in your organization see and recognize. As public relations, digital and marketing functions increasingly align, it is important to make sure each element is in sync with and amplifying the others, which comes from careful and thoughtful collaboration. Always remember that recognition within an organization closely follows impact, especially in a dynamic and competitive environment.

 

Maureen Manier
Department Head, Agricultural Communications
Purdue University

Whatever your focus is in the marketing communications arena, it’s absolutely essential to immerse yourself in how you can successfully connect with your audiences and then analyze how those connections are producing change and meeting your goals. Communications = conversation, and we must commit ourselves to being active participants in that conversation so that we can advise and lead.

 

PeteMarino_970Pete Marino
Chief Public Affairs and Communications Officer
MillerCoors
President
Tenth and Blake
As the world of marketing continues to evolve, public relations practitioners must continue to first and foremost understand the business that their companies or clients are in and how they make money. It’s imperative to have more commercial and financial sensibilities to provide better advice and counsel that influences the business through persuasion, storytelling and the other skills that public relations people innately have.  Said another way, if you want a seat at the strategy table, you better earn it by understanding the conversations and making smart contributions.

 

Dr. MartinelliDiana Martinelli
Associate Dean/Widmeyer Professor in Public Relations
Reed College of Media, West Virginia University
Although the consumer world is becoming more personalized via digital technology, it is becoming less personal on a human level. Real connections with stakeholders and communities help build and sustain long-term trust, reputation and value. As liaisons and cultural monitors, public relations leaders are uniquely positioned to anticipate opportunities and concerns and proactively work with other business leaders to help seize and address them.

 

Shirley Powell
SVP, Communications and Community Relations
Cox Automotive

A leader finds much greater value in the communicator who speaks the language of business and works to achieve the business objectives first. Too often, public relations leaders try to have “public relations conversations,” and that won’t get to where you need to be. You must have a multi-dimensional view of the business to be in the best position to do the job you need to do—a trusted adviser with management influence. When the public relations leader is positioned as a trusted adviser, you’re now a management tool to help drive the business.

 

Bianca Prade
SVP
SKDKnickerbocker
Public relations leaders can become stronger strategic business advisers by doing two things. The first is maintaining a commitment to knowing and being part of what’s next. There always will be shifts in trends, influencers and media-consumption habits. It's critical to stay on top and ahead of these. The second thing, and it is equally as important, is to align client business objectives with strategy. There’s simply no way to be an effective, strategic communicator if you don’t understand your client’s business objectives.

 

Sherry Pudloski_Guardian 2017Sherry Pudloski
CCO
The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America
Effective public relations leaders need to have an in-depth understanding of their business, clients, competitors and the external factors that touch their industry. Technology has advanced our role so that we have access to an incredible amount of data and tools that improve how our messages are delivered and our core audiences receive them. But technology cannot replace solid communication skills. The public relations team must collaborate closely with our digital and marketing counterparts to ensure we speak consistently with one voice to help drive measurable business results.

 

Jennifer Risi
Worldwide Chief Communications Officer

Ogilvy
Consumers are bombarded with content and brands are competing for engagement. Public relations campaigns go beyond "earned media" and cross paid, owned and shared media to "earn" influence.

The opportunity for public relations practitioners is to provide relevant, timely and informative content while influencing what content will matter to consumers. Without the public relations expert’s lens, it will become challenging to earn the influence that shapes consumer sentiment.  Once a brand earns the trust of consumers, they will in turn become advocates, which elevates the brand’s reputation. Understanding how brands earn influence and what that means to the bottom line make a public relations leader a strategic business adviser with a well “earned” seat at the table.

 

sloCHBz5Dave Samson
General Manager, Public Affairs
Chevron
It boils down to leadership rather than organizational design. The most effective public relations leaders understand that it is the collective contribution of these disciplines—working in concert as part of a single engagement ecosystem—that delivers the greatest value to an enterprise.  Operating independently of one another only serves to sub-optimize the value each of these critical disciplines offers—all at the expense of the company. While some companies try to solve this issue organizationally, it's fundamentally about leadership and influence. In the end, those who foster relationships across all disciplines, and focus on delivering enterprise value, make the greatest positive impact and offer the most strategic value.

 

John Saunders
President/CEO
FleishmanHillard
A growing part of our role as communicators is to understand, better than other advisers, how public expectations and experiences intersect with business priorities, in the context of a rapidly changing social environment. This gives us the opportunity and responsibility to anticipate and respond to events, issues and attitudes that can either accelerate business success or increase barriers. In order to do this more effectively, we often need to help our clients define and reinforce their relevance in the context of the relationships they have and want.  

 

Stacey Tank
Chief Communications Officer
The Home
Depot
The best public relations leaders I know are eager and constant learners. They’re curious about everything—the things going on inside their company and especially what’s going on in the external world. As our function changes, leaders with this level of curiosity naturally find themselves evolving and in a position to offer sage counsel to their organizations. The lines between public relations, digital and marketing are incredibly gray these days. A flexible, inquisitive person with a collaborative approach will embrace the ambiguity and turn this “issue” into an incredible opportunity for growth.

 

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Dr. Juliana Trammel,
Associate Professor/PRSSA-SSU Chapter Adviser
Department of Journalism & Mass Communications
Savannah State University 
It is imperative for public relations leaders to stay committed to the functions of public relations. Generally speaking, media convergence has contributed to the blurriness between public relations, digital and marketing. Despite growing similarities, public relations constitutes communication practices that build mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. Public relations is the broad umbrella that often relies on digital communication to build a virtual two-way communication system with constituents. On the other hand, public relations can serve as the consciousness of marketing, which is the management process of goods and services from concept to distribution. Public relations leaders can become stronger strategic business advisers when they understand the roles that public relations serves in program planning and implementation, but also how to strategically use digital communication as the company implements its marketing program.

 

14a5fc0-1Daren Williams
President
Agriculture Relations Council
Senior Executive Director, Communications
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
First, as public relations counselors we must have a good understanding of our organization or client’s business goals. Then we need to become the experts on the drivers and barriers critical to achieving those goals. For beef, that could be taste, nutrition, safety, animal care or the all-encompassing buzzword in food production, sustainability. Finally, we must conduct market research to understand consumer attitudes and how to impact them positively. Only then can we develop strategic communication solutions to support the organization's goals.

Follow Seth: @skarenstein