Thinking strategically will increase your value
Research over the years has supported a long-held view by the public relations profession that the better an organization communicates, the better it performs.
For instance, the communication ROI survey conducted in 2008 by international consulting firm, now named Willis Towers Watson, echoed the results from its previous similar surveys when it found organizations with the most effective communication programs enjoyed a 47% higher total return to shareholders compared with organizations that communicated least effectively.
Good communication at the center of high-performing companies
The study, which surveyed employees from 264 companies employing 6.2 million people around the world, identified six practices of high-performing companies:
- Focusing managers and other employees on customer needs.
- Engaging employees in running the business.
- Helping managers communicate effectively.
- Leveraging the talents of internal communicators to manage change effectively.
- Measuring the impact of employee communication.
- Branding the employee experience.
The Watson Wyatt survey supported the general findings of a seminal US study conducted by Professor James Grunig that found communication was a highly valued function in the typical organization – but only if the head of PR managed strategically. The study found that the single greatest determinant of communication excellence was having the expertise required of a strategic manager.
Managing communication effectively
Strategic communication is communication aligned with the organization’s overall strategy, to enhance its strategic positioning. Strategic communication professionals focus on the management of communication. They understand and use the full range of tactical communication techniques, but in addition they use research and planning, they understand the fundamental nature of the organization’s operations, they can look ahead at emerging trends in the internal and external environment and they initiate communication actions to address those trends. They look at the longer-term point of view and seek to build on the organization’s strengths rather than merely engage in problem-solving mode. They relate well to top management and they review the effectiveness of their communication programs.
The Grunig study found that the top executive and the ‘dominant coalition’ of senior managers generally understood the strategic role of communication and wanted to involve the communication function in strategic decision-making.
Low-level PR outlook holds PR pros back
Unfortunately, the Grunig study found the greatest barrier against this was the knowledge level, or what management perceived to be the knowledge level, of the top communicator. Too many senior PR practitioners still perceive themselves to be technicians or communicators concentrating on the technical rather than the policy, or strategic, aspects of the function.
This greatly reduces their effectiveness. Their focus is tactical – they concentrate on immediate tasks to be accomplished, often at the direction of others or in response to situations that arise. They are reactive, not pro-active. And in justifying their effectiveness, they tend to use outputs as a way of evaluation rather than the more meaningful outcomes or results.
Other staff underestimate PR capability
The limited perception of PR by managers from other areas is a perennial problem. Many of these managers have only seen PR in a low-level technical role in sending information outwards, largely through publicity, publications and event organizing, and they continue to perceive the function in that light rather than in a broader, more strategic light.
Due to the widespread misunderstanding of the capabilities of the PR profession, there is a never-ending onus on communication professionals during the normal course of their work to educate management and other staff at all levels about the changing nature of the role – those others often see it merely as an ‘add-on’ to the real job of running the business.
Executives from operations, accounting and finance, administration, human resources, legal, sales and marketing really do not understand the PR function. These managers are not well informed about what their PR colleagues do, according to the head of a government department.
Constantly, but discreetly, ‘sell’ the capabilities of PR
In view of such long-held misunderstanding by others, you are strongly advised to initiate an informal internal stakeholder communication program with the ‘dominant coalition’ of management decision-makers to ensure they become aware of and support the strategic potential of public relations to the organization.
Aim to achieve a measurable ROI
The communication profession has evolved to the point where the return on investment (ROI) for public relations activities can be readily calculated. The communication function now has the techniques to focus on the business areas where it can produce the greatest results in support of business goals. At the micro level, the ROI in communication can be measured on a range of communication activities. The return on investment can be calculated simply by determining the financial value of relevant operational improvements and estimating the extent to which PR contributed to the improvement. Divide this figure by the cost of the communication effort to produce the ROI. In most cases the result is a spectacular return on investment in PR.
So, the message is there: there are opportunities for the skilful and proactive PR practitioner to exert a strategic presence at the most senior levels, to ensure the basics are dealt with competently and have suitable performance measures in place.
Characteristics of excellent communication departments
The findings of the Grunig study were consistent with this approach, outlining 12 characteristics of excellent communication departments. In practical terms, the main five characteristics are summarized in the view that the excellent communication department:
- is run by managers who make communication policy decisions and accept responsibility for the success or failure of their communication programs;
- contributes significantly to the organization’s strategic plan and organizational decision making;
- works with top management to solve organizational problems that involve communication and relationships;
- facilitates two-way communication between top management and key stakeholders, helping them understand each other and developing win-win situations;
- uses formal and informal research techniques to understand the environment inside and outside the organization to identify key issues.
How can you be strategic?
One of the main things you can do is to review your organization’s vision, mission and goals to identify the organization’s top priorities. Then relate every communication project or program to one or more of these organizational goals.
This is important. You should document in every PR plan and report exactly which goal or goals it supports. Then if anyone ever queries the purpose of any PR activity you can point to the goal it relates to. More in other articles.