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Public Relations Strategy

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Virtually all organizations are run by a senior leadership team that is responsible for setting strategy and carrying out the organization’s vision.

Although publicly traded companies, as well as non-profit organizations, may be governed ultimately by a board of directors, this board looks to the chief executive and his or her senior team to operate the company on a day-to-day basis.

The key functions in an organization include:

These functional areas serve the operations of the company, which in some cases report to a president or chief operating officer. In many cases the CEO also is president/COO (chief operating officer) of the organization.

Together these positions are referred to as The C-Suite
1
finance, headed by a chief financial officer (CFO)
2
legal, which reports to the General Counsel
3
human resources, led by a chief personnel officer (CPO)
4
information services, reporting to the chief information officer (CIO)
5
marketing, often led by a chief marketing officer (CMO)
6
communication, which reports to the chief communications officer (CCO)

Although organizational structures vary from company to company, these basic functional areas are usually present in the senior team.

In some cases, the communication function is subordinated under another area, such as marketing, legal, or human resources. When this is the case, it becomes more difficult for the senior communications leader to play a meaningful role in the strategic decision making process.

The Communication Function
The communication function brings to the senior team a different perspective from these other areas.

The legal function is focused primarily on compliance with the law; marketing is focused primarily on the company’s competitive position with the customer; human resources (HR) is focused almost exclusively on employee compensation and development issues.

In other words, communication is the only function with eyes on all the publics inside and outside of the organization, and should be included in strategic decision making.

The communication function looks at all the stakeholders in the organization and uses a variety of tools and tactics to enhance relationships with these publics.

At its best, the communication function uses research and monitoring methods to keep a finger on the pulse of internal and external perceptions of the organization.

It uses a variety of communication channels to enhance the organization’s reputation.

And most importantly it provides strategic counsel to the organization’s leaders to help the team make better decisions. Corporate Conscience
Some have suggested that the communication function serves or should serve as the corporate conscience.

They contend that communication leaders have a uniquely objective perspective that allows them to weigh the sometimes conflicting needs of different publics and to help the organization make more balanced decisions.

Although there is much truth to this perspective, the conscience of
the organization, its moral obligation to do the right thing, is one that is shared by all who lead it, including the CEO, the board, and the senior management team.

One of the common denominators for officers in the C-suite is the imperative to make good decisions that affect their ability to positively contribute to the goals of the organization.

The ability to make good decisions often defines a valuable manager. To make good decisions, managers need good information. By definition, good information helps reduce uncertainty in making a decision.

Rarely is a decision made with utter certainty, but managers need enough information to have confidence that their decisions will result in positive consequences.

This information is provided as data regarding these various functions:
1
product testing
2
market research
3
legal precedents
4
financial statements

Role of PR
Since public relations’ role is to help the organization develop and maintain good relationships, it must provide data or information about how the organization can achieve this.

This is how strategic public relations earns its seat at the executive table.

As the top communication professional, the CCO has an important responsibility to ensure that all key stakeholders are given due consideration when critical decisions are made.

In that regard, the CCO acts as the voice for many who are not in the room when choices are made. He or she must keep in mind:
1
minority shareholders
2
overlooked employee segments
3
nongovernmental organizations
4
special interest groups
5
elected officials
6
community leaders
7
others who may be affected by the decision
8
Those who have influential roles in their respective areas

Strategic Counsel
By providing this overarching perspective, the CCO does much more than deliver tactical communication products.

This strategic counsel is what CEOs and other leaders are increasingly seeking in all members of the senior team.

By delivering it, the CCO enhances the value of the function and ensures ongoing participation in charting the future course for the company.

Public relations as a profession is often thought of as nothing more than a simple set of tactics.

Far too often those in the profession are portrayed in the media and in popular culture as a group of emptyheaded party planners or deceptive flacks willing to say anything to get publicity for their clients.

The tools of the trade:

are considered as discrete tactics that rarely if ever are driven by an underlying strategy.
1
news releases
2
press conferences
3
media events
4
employee newsletters

This, like other stereotypes, is simply not supported by fact. As practiced by most large organizations and agencies, public relations is an integral part of overall strategy.

Communication programs are developed
based on extensive research to address specific business objectives with stated outcomes, target audiences, and key messages.

The results of these efforts can be measured, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Think of it this way:

Plan Development
When an organization develops a strategic plan, it usually does so with a relatively small number of key executives.

These leaders look at the company’s strengths, organization, challenging issues, and potential problems that could arise.

They consider the organization’s financial position, its growth prospects, its competitive position, and the changing landscape in which it operates.

Plan Strategy
When they have considered all of these factors, they map out a strategy that will build on the company’s current strengths, address its relative areas of weakness, take advantage of opportunities, and prepare for looming threats.

They may decide, for example, to be the low-cost provider in their industry segment. Or
they may decide to take advantage of their expertise in new product development, or to exploit their superior distribution network.

Plan Execution
At some point, the strategy must be executed by a much larger, geographically dispersed network of employees. This is where the communication strategy becomes crucial.

If a company has a long track record of fighting with its employees over issues like pay, benefits, union representation, child care programs, or workplace safety, it will be much more difficult to call upon them to launch a new initiative aimed at improving customer service.

In large measure, an important role of the communication function team is to help balance the needs of all publics—employees, investors, customers, communities—as the organization makes key decisions.

Ineffective PR
Assume that a company is facing financial difficulties due to declining market share in one part of the United States.

They are faced with the decision of closing a regional plant since that level of manufacturing capacity is no longer needed.

In the past, they simply might have turned to the public relations executive and said

We’re closing the Milwaukee plant. Try to put a good face on it

Strategic PR
An organization that views the communication function as a strategic partner instead would say

We’ve got too much manufacturing capacity; operations is recommending that we close Milwaukee.

We’d like you to take a look at the impact this will have with our employees, customers, and the community there and help us measure this as we examine the alternatives.

There may be another choice that won’t be as painful to the organization.

Balancing the needs of publics is just one facet of the impact public relations can have on achieving organizational goals.

It obviously depends on the organization, but in almost every case, effective communication programs help drive strategy from conception to delivery.

The impact of well-conceived strategic communication programs can be profound, and many companies have already benefited by recognizing this importance and building upon the strengths public relations brings to the table.

Internal Communication
Successful internal communication programs can improve the ability of supervisors to motivate employees and build pride in the organization.

External Communication
Creative external communication programs can improve customer relationships, build brand recognition, encourage investor interest in a publicly traded company, and increase the effectiveness of traditional advertising and marketing efforts.

Community Outreach
Community outreach programs can help local residents appreciate the impact of a company on the surrounding area in which it operates.

In 2007, the Arthur W. Page Society, a membership organization of chief communications officers at the
largest corporations, agency CEOs, and leading academics, produced a white paper called The Authentic Enterprise. [1]

The report examined the evolving role of the senior communications executive in 21st century business.

According to this report, the role of the CCO is much broader than it was even a few years ago.

The CCO of today and tomorrow must assert leadership in the following:
1
Defining and instilling company values
2
Building and managing multi-stakeholder relationships
3
Enabling the enterprise with “new media” skills and tools
4
Building and managing trust [2]

The communication executive does not own these responsibilities alone. They are shared with other members of the leadership team.

But the communication executive can and should take a lead role in ensuring that these responsibilities are fulfilled by the organization.

[1] The Authentic Enterprise. (2007). New York: Arthur W. Page Society.
[2] The Authentic Enterprise. (2007). New York: Arthur W. Page Society.