Public relations may be essential to the majority of organisations, but the profession must do more to prove to firms that it is worthy of a seat on the board, according to research carried out by professional body the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA).
Most directors (73%) believe their PR and communications function is doing a good or average job within their company, yet only 13% think it is reaching its full potential within the business. This is partly because companies are not making best use of PR professionals’ skills in many cases.
The value of PR is clear, argues Francis Ingham, chief executive of the PRCA. But he acknowledges that there is much work to be done to improve the perception of PR, saying: “The results are highly encouraging but they also raise a couple of challenges.
“PR people have a good deal to do in terms of taking the strategic role that they rightly think belongs to them. PRs often talk about deserving a seat on the top table, but the results of this study show they need to earn that place.”
While 21% of senior PR professionals say they spend between one and three hours a month with their chief executive, 18% reveal that they get no access to the boss, indicating that many business leaders do not believe PRs play a significant enough role in their business to sit down with the person setting strategy at the top.
Ingham says there is room for the PR function to be represented at board level, but practitioners need to do more to prove their worth.
“It’s all very well to say that we deserve to be the chief executive’s key adviser. You can’t just say it to make it true – you need to make it happen.”
Given that 33% say reputation is a regular topic of board-level discussion, and 32% believe that PR and communications helps to implement, maintain and bolster the reputation of companies, getting access to the chief executive seems to be an obvious way for PRs to demonstrate their value.
Corporate reputation management is recognised by 71% of directors as an area in which PR professionals play an important role. But given the speed with which reputations can be diminished, it seems surprising that only 57% are seen to add value to crisis and issues management.
Rupert Younger, director at Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, says that PR has an obvious strategic role to play that smart businesses already recognise.
He adds: “Reputation can be simply described as a combination of what you do and how you talk about what you do. PR is about how you communicate and who you communicate with. On the basis that you have something to communicate then PR strategy comes into play.”
In some cases, PRs need to spell out to their directors just how important a part they can play in reputation management. Using the profession in a strategic way to maintain reputation and deal with crises could save a company a lot of money – and working out just how much money is the fastest ticket to the boardroom.
“We need to prove the value of what we do – the strategic role we play in solving and avoiding crises, and the value of that to an organisation’s bottom line. We have to constantly prove all these things. What’s clear to me is that the human resources director is now embedded in the board, as are the legal and financial directors. But PR hasn’t yet got to that stage,” Ingham admits.
As things stand, only 18% of respondents to the PRCA survey believe that PR and communications make a clear contribution to the bottom line.
Ingham adds that the profession has to get better at demonstrating that it makes a difference to a company’s profit margins.
Simon Wakeman, head of communications at Medway Council, agrees that PRs need to do more to prove their worth so that they can gain the respect of business leaders. “For too long, PR has been one of the least accountable disciplines. You’ve got to be able to demonstrate the impact of what you’re doing in the same way that a direct or digital marketer can,” he says.
But, he adds, the vocation is moving in the right direction: “As a profession, it’s moving towards a more disciplined, structured and statistically valid way of evaluating its impact.”
One of the ways in which PRs can boost their profile is to nudge businesses away from the idea that PR simply means media relations. PR professionals themselves say this is the main way their role is defined within companies (by 71% of the PR professionals responding to the PRCA research).
Ingham says that while the profession shouldn’t move away from media relations altogether, the remit needs to be wider than simply press relations.
He adds: “Whenever I judge awards, the most entered category is ‘media relations’. The least entered category universally is corporate social responsibility or evaluation, and that reflects the fact that much of the industry still has to make the move away from dealing with press releases and towards giving strategic advice to the board.”
One of the ways that PR is widening its remit is by taking ownership of social media within organisations. This is the case for 54% of respondents, with only 35% taking on agency support for their social media activities.
Ingham comments: “For quite some time there was concern within the industry that social media was going to be owned by advertising or marketing. The fact that it’s owned by PR is good for the future of the industry because it is increasingly becoming more focused on social media.”
Medway Council’s Wakeman agrees that the public relations department is best placed to take charge of social media. He says: “The discipline of PR is essentially about relationship management and if you think about social media, it’s about connecting people with other people.
“The skills that underpin PR are much closer to the ones you need for social media than marketing.”
Medway Council uses social media when its value can be proven, claims Wakeman. It focuses on campaigns that promote cultural and commercial services, such as theatres and concerts, where returns from social media can be measured by linking it to ticket sales. Twitter is also used as an emergency communications tool because it’s where many people go for information during a crisis, adds Wakeman.
Ingham agrees that social media strategy decisions are best left to PR professionals, adding that taking the lead in this area will also help to demonstrate PR’s value to corporations.
“It’s a much quicker game than it used to be. PR is best-placed to deal with reputation and, as social media can mould reputation so quickly, it follows that PR should own social media.”
PR is already central to some businesses. Simon Duffy, founder of male grooming brand Bulldog, says its dedicated communications professional, Angela Acquaye, is involved in strategic decisions such as creating the “voice of the brand” (see Viewpoint, below).
Although there is a way to go before many firms embrace PR in their business strategy, it is encouraging that 46% believe it is more valuable than it was five years ago – a sign the discipline is recognised as having an important role to play.
In particular, directors in public organisations appear to have noticed the potential of PR and communications, with 83% of respondents in the PRCA study believing that it is more valuable than it was five years ago.
In the future, 39% overall believe that PR and communications will support the business more than it does now, indicating that the upper echelons of business realise PR has great potential to add value.
Now organisations just have to make sure the skills that PRs possess are not simply used for writing press releases and speaking to the media, but instead play a strategic role at the very heart of their business.
46% Think PR is more valuable now than it was five years ago, while 36% believe it is just as valuable as it was five years ago. Only 6% say it is less valuable.
17% The proportion of businesses spending between £50,000 and £100,000 on PR per year; 42% say
they spend more on PR now than they did five years ago.
70% Say that PR and communications needs to better align delivery with wider business objectives, while 39% say the function needs to improve how it communicates with the board.
21% Of senior PR and communications professionals say they spend one to three hours with their chief executive every month. But 18% say they don’t spend any time with their CEO.
13% Say that their PR and communications function is doing an excellent job, while 73% say the department is doing a good or average job.
81% Believe PR and communications could be seen as a source of value to build and sustain reputation, which is considered highly important by78% of companies.
Simon Duffy, co-founder, Bulldog
PR sets you apart from the competition, especially if you are a small brand up against the world’s biggest companies.
In terms of marketing budget, big brand owners, such as Procter & Gamble, probably spend in one week what we spend in a year. For us, that rules out the conventional ways to launch a product, such as lots of TV and print advertising.
We feel we have something unique to talk about at Bulldog because we’re not following the conventions of developing a male product. The fact that our products are made specifically for men, and aren’t just a male version of a female product, sets us apart from larger competitors. We’ve got an amazing story from an ingredient point of view, too, because they are derived from natural sources.
One thing that small companies have to their advantage is that they can take their individual story and then tell it in their own way. That has been an important part of how we have grown.
For the first couple of months, we used a PR agency. But we learned that when you’re a start-up, you can do things better yourself. We don’t want to outsource our relationships. Having an in-house PR enables us to communicate in an authentic way.
I think PR agencies can be quite slapdash as to who they send [press releases] out to and it can fly out all over the place – you can quickly forget what you want to say. Everybody on our team is involved in conversations about PR and communication in general, so we are in control and know that it’s exactly the right message.