The ethics of nudging
VW tries to win back trust

How PR can get a seat at the table

Table.001Corporate public relations people want nothing more than a seat at the table where decisions are made. But their path to that station is increasingly unclear.

Shannon Bowen, a professor at the University of South Carolina, warned back in 2009 that "a fight for the soul of public relations" would ultimately lead to its splintering.  

She characterized the battle as "advocacy versus counseling" and suggested it was being fought "both in the academic discipline and in the industry."

If so, I was a non-combatant for my more than 30 years as a practitioner. I had both responsibilities at AT&T. Of course, I worked at Arthur Page's desk, and his philosophy so imbued the company in those days, it was understood the head of public relations would report to the CEO and participate in the company's top councils, what academics call "the dominant coalition." 

I was certainly expected to be a vociferous advocate on the company's behalf in the marketplace and the corridors of power. But I was also supposed to provide objective counsel to its leaders on both what we did as well as what we said.

Since retiring in 2003, I've learned how unique that was. In fact, the person who succeeded me quickly discovered the new CEO she inherited didn't see it that way at all. She soon left, and her successors have reported to marketing ever since. Across industry, about two thirds of public relations organizations report to someone other than the CEO.

That doesn't mean they never offer counsel on their company's policies and practices. But it does suggest their internal clients are more likely to see them as hired guns paid to advocate on their behalf, not to advise them on what to do.

Bowen suggested this state of affairs would result in the splintering of public relations into separate disciplines. Those who see themselves as advocates would retain the public relations moniker; those who fancy themselves counselors would rechristen themselves as commmuications or public affairs officers. 

It seems to me that's exactly what happened. But it wasn't inevitable -- it is possible to be both an honest advocate and an objective counselor. 

Bowen suggested what could bridge the two disciplines:  

"Clearly, those who see themselves as counselors to senior management need academic study of moral philosophy before they are thrust into ethical decision-making in jobs with frequent ethical dilemmas.

"Those who see themselves as pure advocates also need to study ethics because they are both the first and last line of ethical decision-making in their relations with publics."

Most importantly, an in-depth understanding of ethics -- along with deep business knowledge -- could be a practitioner's ticket to a seat at the decision-making table.

Yet, according to one study, seven years after a commission of academics and practitioners recommended more attention be paid to the study of ethics in public relations programs "few programs require an ethics course or even recommend one as an elective." Instead, most "embed" ethical considerations into other courses through "case studies, simulations, and small group discussions."

As the study notes, that makes it "difficult to assess ethical knowledge." And since what isn't measured is seldom done, many practitioners leave school without the ticket to that proverbial seat at the table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

Good column. I believe PR people undermined their own status. Over time, many head PR people redirected their position from the CEO's trusted adviser to an extension of marketing and sales communicatons, where media placement became the ultimate goal.

PR people went from initiators of ideas, programs and positions to the practitioners of what I call "PR table waiters." Tell us what you want and we will do it became the mantra.

There are a few people I recall who earned the trust of the CEO and sat at the table as the mediator of what was appropriate for the company to say and do, but there was an irresistable incentive to be the marketing support person. The adviser to the CEO needs fewer people than the marketing and sales support person, so marketing support gets emphasized because there is more status in a larger organization.

Unless and until the head PR person earns the respect and trust of the CEO, there will be no seat at the table and once that trust is earned the head of PR may be seen as too valuable to be the head of PR. We've seen that happen too.

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