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Too many senior executives don’t understand the good value of PR: Here’s how you can gain more executive support

01 Jun, 2020 Proving PR value

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

Recent research by Releasd found too many communicators fail to get senior executives to understand the good value of PR, and therefore they don’t have a good opinion of our value. Releasd surveyed 300 senior executives from UK companies with 1,000+ employees, and found:

  • 20% of senior executives didn’t understand what the acronym “PR” means.
  • 37% of senior executives didn’t have a good understanding of what the Comms function does within their business. The bigger the organization the lower the level of understanding.
  • 40% of senior executives in large companies thought Comms falls short of delivering good value to the business. Bear in mind that those executives will be setting or influencing PR budgets.
  • 80% of senior executives who thought they had a good understanding of Comms also thought it delivered good value to the business. But only 8% of executives who didn’t have a good understanding of Comms said they thought it provided good value.

Conclusion: if you want to demonstrate the good value of PR/Comms to senior executives, the essential first step is getting them to understand our role.

Each respondent in the survey worked at either Senior Management, Director or C-Suite level. To ensure opinions of those outside the Comms function were gauged, executives from Marketing were excluded. The term ‘Comms’ is used to mean either PR or Communications, as these terms tend to be interchangeable in larger companies.

Six tips for confirming your value to the organization

1. Demonstrate your business acumen

IC Kollectif recently published a report on “The case for business acumen,” based on wide-ranging research of trends in internal communication reported in its Research Brief Series. A clear conclusion from the research was that internal comms pros need to realize how important it is to understand the business of their organization and to demonstrate this knowledge in their everyday work. Senior executives and recruiting professionals believe business acumen is the most important attribute that internal and external comms pros should develop. “Business acumen is keenness and speed in understanding and deciding on a business situation,” according to the Financial Times, and quoted in the IC Kollectif report. It means you have ‘business sense’ or ‘business smarts.’ Business knowledge is required not only for the most senior roles but also for entry-level communication professionals, who “need to improve their business skills and apply business acumen, including financial literacy, to their everyday job responsibilities.” The IC Kollectif report noted that:

“Over 60% of recruiters believe business acumen is the most valued specialist knowledge, and yet it is the number one skill capacity that candidates are lacking.”

Internal comms pros can demonstrate business and financial acumen through sound knowledge of the organization’s business and core processes. You can find some helpful advice in this 2019 article on how to develop business acumen, “Six ways to improve your business acumen,” by Sharlyn Lauby.

2. Communicate your role to others

You can win support across the organization by giving presentations to each division or department, demonstrating the good value of PR. Don’t just do this for senior managers; ensure supervisors attend as well. You will need to include relevant data in this process, so be prepared to learn about the numbers that executives want to see and to relate to. This means you need to be comfortable with numbers and business terms, which you can use to present your work to them. You need to communicate how your function is helping the company to meet its objectives. One way to do this is to turn data into persuasive stories for those audiences.

3. Speak the same language

Meet with each of the executives who need to see your results and find out the figures that are the most important to them from the results data you have collected. Base your conversations on business impact and financial value. Reach agreement with them on what they will be satisfied with in order to make good decisions.

4. Add context

Show how the relevant aspects of good PR activity provide value so that execs unfamiliar with the role can understand its value. Use the opportunity to explain the most important figures from your point of view as well. These should lead to a strategy for improvement, so ensure you are clear on the decisions that need to be made from your data.

5. Simplify metrics

Proving PR’s financial impact is one thing; communicating it effectively to high-level executives (your top internal stakeholders) is another, according to Laura Browne from Covalent Bonds. When you need to present a report to internal stakeholders, select a range of simple measures to discuss, and explain what they are and why they are being used. Avoid or at least explain confusing terms like Sentiment and Share of Voice.

6. Focus on developing what each stakeholder wants

Develop different reports for each set of stakeholders. Upper management will want to see only high-level data. Other levels of management will want to understand your presentation of content as easily as possible, especially as it relates to their area.

Coach top management on communicating better to middle managers

Middle managers are the key to employee engagement, according to research conducted for the UK Chartered Management Institute. But middle managers need good lines of communication from top management in order to engage their own staff. Unfortunately, good contact from the top happens far too rarely, according to a 2018 Gatehouse survey of employee engagement and internal communication.

Poor middle manager communication is the biggest barrier to successful internal communication, according to the Gatehouse survey, which drew responses from 650 communicators internationally. Around 57% were based in the UK and 20% in the US. Middle managers play a central role in managing and guiding employees, and yet are often stymied by upper management. You can read more about this in my article, “7 tips for getting your top management to communicate better with employees.”

Internal stakeholder relations programs demonstrate the good value of PR

You should establish a formal or informal internal stakeholder relations program with the CEO and other top executives to ensure they understand and support the good value of PR, and to enhance the personal relationship with you. (Sometimes if the executive in question is not very receptive to an overt program of activities, it may be better to proceed with such activities discreetly so you are able to subtly develop a good relationship with them over time. For example, give them advance briefings on forthcoming issues, making sure they are invited to hospitality events, corporate announcements, product launches and so on.)

The internal stakeholder relations program might firstly involve some investigation to find out the background and interests of each senior executive so you understand them better. You should hold periodic meetings with head office and operational managers anyway to initiate and manage communication support for their area. At the same time these meetings could also involve a component to create personal support for the heads of the various areas. For example, such a personal stakeholder program could entail the following:

  • Arrange media and presentation skills coaching
  • Develop subsidiary messages to the main corporate messages
  • Organize attendance at comms briefings, for example, on stakeholder relations management or a developing issue, so the stakeholder understands the impact of communication matters on their operations
  • Set up networking opportunities
  • Arrange for them to host relevant stakeholders at the corporate box at sporting and cultural events
  • Obtain publicity for them in industry publications
  • Contribute or ‘ghost write’ articles in their name in professional association publications and in your organization’s social media channels.

One way to improve your relationship with senior corporate and operational managers is to hold cross-functional, facilitated workshops on issue management. This will lead them to a deeper understanding of the strategic potential and good value of PR.

Conduct a communication audit in each senior manager’s area to assess the effectiveness of communication and identify the ways in which their area would benefit from communication support.

It would also help to conduct workshops to identify key stakeholder groups for each senior manager’s area and then conduct audits of those stakeholders’ communication needs to help management understand the potential impact of those stakeholders on each manager’s operational area.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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