It’s All Relative: Page Society Members Hone In On Relationships

It was a roundtable of a different sort: On May 21 - 23, thought leaders from two industry realms - corporate communications and academia - gathered in Hanover, N.H., for the second annual Arthur W. Page Society/Tuck School of Business Academic Symposium. The syllabus was a varied one - from how to focus research around credibility, trust and ethics, to corporate communications curricula in institutes of higher education, to shared objectives of public relations and corporate communications. But, as is often the case with "professional thinkers," attendees were quick to hone in on thematic issues that continue to challenge the communications function. While all issues were not on the official platter of discussion points, each did apply to crucial questions: What is keeping industry leaders up at night? And, aside from filling a prescription of Ambien, what are they going to do about it? Here is a quick snapshot of the conversation. The Butcher, The Baker, The Relationship-Maker In business, stakeholders are calling the shots more and more; thus, executives are left to feel they are ceding power to the entities that once answered to them. Case in point: utility corporation TXU, tiptoeing through a minefield of criticism last fall after announcing plans to build 11 coal-fueled power plants, found itself turning to NGOs and environmental critics to negotiate before a private equity buy-out earlier this year. Cutting down plant construction from 11 to three represented a victory for the environmental lobbyists and underscored a harsh reality for communications executives: The stakeholders are kings, and executives are their minions. Where does this leave industry professionals? Those present at the symposium asked, albeit rhetorically, if they are currently face-to-face with a monumental crisis, complicated all the more by the mass proliferation of digital communications platforms. But hope was not lost - au contraire. "Web 2.0 has put tools of information production into the hands of the masses," said Roger Bolton, senior counselor, APCO Worldwide. "Now there are no-lost or low-cost ways for institutions to be heard and to collaborate for all kinds of purposes. It's not just about communications dissemination; it's about relationship-building and creating dialogue [with stakeholders]." This concept of communicators doubling as relationship managers, then, went full-throttle, as Bolton continued by acknowledging the power vested in stakeholder groups that they've never had before. (This conversation was in the context of a forthcoming Arthur Page white paper.) Jon Iwata, SVP of communications at IBM Corporation, circled back to digitalization's effect on how business is done, saying that, "There are pretty clear implications of message control and segmentation of audiences. [New media] has created a great deal of complexity, but it has put a potentially powerful array of new tools into the hands of communicators. We are in the business of building and selecting channels of communication, but now we can build networks of relations with the constituencies we care about." The conversation about understanding stakeholder empowerment and engagement, and managing relationships, in this lawless business backdrop transitioned to one surrounding the construction of integrated communications plans. In fact, the ability to do so was championed as the anti-crisis, if such a thing exists. "We have the opportunity to create the tools and the integrated plans, because if there is a crisis in the corporation today, I'd say it's in the marketing profession and the adjacent advertising/media industries," Iwata said. "What has worked for them on how to reach their audiences is now being questioned. There are specific things we could do in the profession to show how we can manage different responsibilities that could yield news plans, tactics and measurements. Though, measurements are always devilish." Peter Debreceny, recently retired from Allstate Insurance Company, added, "It takes time and care to manage relationships [with audiences]. You can't just issue a press release. We need to bring good judgment to the table because we need to be in the business, not just a tactical function. That means the C-suite needs to put more resources into this. We need more MBAs." Bam - more MBAs. The request came from the mouth of a corporate communicator, but it applied directly to academics at the table. It also opened up the discussion for what needs to change in PR curricula today, as most courses taken by PR students don't address relationships outside of traditional ones - those with the media, for example. Rob Flaherty, senior partner, global practices at Ketchum, pointed out that MBAs learn how to plan organizational changes, and most PR students don't. "It's a potential for us to be seriously marginalized. We need new skill sets," he said. "We call ourselves 'public relations,' with 'relations' being our last name. We need to bring the focus on relationships to the forefront." "Public relations needs to find some common language with management," added James Rubin, assistant professor of business administration and area coordinator of management communication at the Darden School of Business. However, a room filled with academics appeared incongruent to their acknowledgement - obsession, even - with the need for immediate action and change. Academic institutions aren't known for their warp-speed shifts in mindset, philosophies and strategies. So where will this critical shift be initiated? Without the most learned, capable candidates being taught planning and relationships, and, more important, actually entering the PR industry, the strategy is a glass house - transparent, pretty - livable, even - but easy to shatter. What Have You Done For Me Lately? The relationship-centric conversation continued into day two, when Rubin's presentation opened up with a key question: What are the shared objectives of public relations and corporate communication? Put another way, what are the similarities/differences between in-house communications functions and agencies, and how should they relate to one another? The agency-client relationship has always been a tricky one, and it is made all the more so by disintermediation, stakeholder empowerment and alleged shortcomings in PR education. The answer to Rubin's questions, as it turned out, was a complicated "no." Objectives are different because interests are different: in-house is looking to achieve business goals, and agencies are looking to make money. "The goal of an in-house shop is to serve the organization and the CEO. I'm not sure what the goals of firms are. It's a flawed model," said Paul A. Argenti, professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "When you work on an hourly basis, you think like an hourly worker. You don't get the same level of quality. You dumb things down to the lowest common denominator because you get more work done, cheaper. If agencies were more like consulting firms, they would provide more quality." The reason firms are still around, Harvard Business School professor Stephen Greyser said, "is the sage advice. What constitutes the bulk of time spent is on outsourced activities that, in a different life, might have been done on staff. It's done with greater expertise, but with less empathy." So what does this back-and-forth mean for the future of PR agencies and in-house communications functions? The billing rates of firms proved to be the greatest source of doubt, with their ability to provide specialized counsel boosting their perceived worth (at least among attendees. But as the symposium wrapped up, the debated lent itself to contemplation of the industry's future - from a relationship standpoint, an academic standpoint, a business standpoint. "At the best organizations, the corporate communications departments have advanced way beyond where agencies still are - look at FedEx," Argenti said. "in the future, you are going to have more and more people looking at multiple constituencies. The whole idea of agency-of-record is going to change. There must be a clear differentiation of strategy and values of organizational goals. Turf battles are just the tip of the iceberg." P CONTACTS: Roger Bolton,; Jon Iwata,; Stephen Greyser,; Peter Debreceny,; Paul Argenti,; James Rubin, Symposium Attendees Sue Westcott Alessandri, Assistant Professor, Advertising & Public Relations, Syracuse University Paul A. Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication, Tuck School of Business Roger Bolton, Senior Counselor, APCO Worldwide Shannon Bowen, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Maryland Peter Debreceny, Allstate Insurance Company (retired) Rob Flaherty, Senior Partner, Global PRactices, Ketchum Michael Goodman, Director, Corporate Communication Institue, Fairleigh Dickenson University Stephen Greyser, Richard P. Chapman Professor (Marketing/Communication), Harvard Business School Michelle Hinson, Director, Development, Institute for Public Relations Jon Iwata, SVP Communications, IBM Corporation Thomas Martin, Executive-in-Residence, Department of Communication, College of Charleston Tom Nicholson, Executive Director, Arthur W. Page Society Jim O'Rourke, Professor and Director, The Eugene D. Fanning Center, University of Notre Dame Frank Ovaitt, Present and CEO, Institute for Public Relations Lamar Reinsch, Professor, Georgetown University James Rubin, Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Darden School of Business Maria Russell, Professor and Chair, Public Relations Department, Syracuse University Don Stacks, Professor and Director - Program in Advertising and Public Relations, University of Miami Don Wright, Professor of Public Relations, Boston University

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