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Markets versus stakeholders

20 Aug

I've been hearing lots of hints lately to suggest that PR people in the public sector feel at some disadvantage compared with their colleagues working in the private sector. (The suggestions make it sound like like it's an envy of larger budgets and also an inability to innovate and take risks).

I'm still puzzling over this perception, but here's one possible explanation.

Successful private sector business tend to adopt a market-orientation. The more customer-focused, the argument goes, the more successul will the enterprise be for all stakeholders (shareholders, employees etc). This market-orientation gives a clear focus to efforts, and leads to some simple and definitive measures of success (like sales).

Compare this with the more confused stakeholder orientation in a public body, trying to balance many different interests without any simple outcome measures.

But I can see an immediate flaw in this argument, because public relations within a market-orientated business is a less rounded and less strategic activity (ie marketing communications) than public relations within a stakeholder-orientation (where it's usually known as corporate communications).

Add to this the effects of the recession, which have to date mostly been felt in the private sector, and I remain confused as to root of this apparent insecurity.

The unacceptable face of public relations

20 Apr

There's a case for viewing commercial public relations as the 'acceptable face of capitalism'. Championing an organisation's responsibilities to all its stakeholders balances the pressure always to put shareholders and profits first. Corporate Social Responsibility and environmental statements play their part in this.

Contrast this with party political public relations where there is a long tradition from Bernard Ingham to Damian McBride via Alastair Campbell of the PR adviser as chief 'attack dog' for his (my examples are all male) political boss. The unacceptable face, if you like, of public relations.

Why such a contrast between the corporate and political worlds? David Starkey, I imagine, would talk in terms of courtiers and princes. The political PR adviser is a courtier whose power comes solely from their close proximity to the prince, hence the need to take risks and retain the favour of the ruler. Call this the Machiavelli theory.

Politicians, in a democracy, stand or fall by their electoral success. So successful politicians tend to be an everyman (or woman) causing least offense to the electorate (and the Daily Mail). Maintaining an inoffensive public persona requires some strong arm tactics behind the scenes and (unelected) courtiers are more expendable than political princes.

Private sector bosses do not have this pressure to stand for election; they are undoubted kings of their courts. Yet they know they are accountable: to shareholders for profits, to employees for strategic leadership, to customers, regulators and communities. These various accountabilities need careful balancing, the role of corporate public relations.

Turning shares into stakes

5 Feb

I've enjoyed a sporadic virtual presence at Davos thanks to many media reports and online commentary. My highlight? This phrase stands out in Richard Edelman's summary:

“You cannot think about shareholder value without considering stakeholders. Any business that wants to endure must have trust and agreement of society for legitimacy." Ian Davis, McKinsey.

It's interesting to note that management consultants are focusing on more than the bottom line (perhaps it's inevitable). But it poses a challenge to PR consultants, because this should be our natural territory. What's the purpose of public relations? To help establish and maintain the social legitimacy of organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. We've recommended and conducted communications audits for many years; who's going to be first to conduct a legitimacy audit?

Welcome to the age of legitimacy. Prepare to move on from the age of marketing and branding.

Where is PR?

16 Sep

More interesting than discussing ‘what is PR?’ is the question of ‘why do PR?’ Most interesting of all is the question of where PR sits in the organisation – the theme of the upcoming EUPRERA congress, awkwardly titled ‘institutionalizing (sic) public relations and corporate communication’.

Dr Tom Watson has just presented at a management forum in South Africa and has this to say about the locus of public relations education:

If PR is to gain continuing recognition as a management function, programmes need to either be situated in business schools (separate from marketing programmes) or have a strong managerial focus if placed elsewhere.

Mad map I

30 Jan

Corp_comms I was introducing corporate communications yesterday by looking at stakeholders and by looking at PR functions. A conceptualised map came into my head and I scribbled it on the whiteboard (see image, please enlarge for detail).

It’s simplified of course, but not I hope too simplistic. One student asked for a reference to the source so I had to admit it was no more academic and authorised than me jotting on a whiteboard. So here it is: published of sorts, and peer reviewed of sorts (by you).

One phrase equity

4 Sep

More praise for Tesco. CorpComms magazine reports on the retailer’s community relations initiatives, and Naresh Ramchandani in Media Guardian explores the meaning (free registration) of the firm’s slogan ‘Every little helps’ (‘perhaps the most ingeniously modest slogan ever written’).

What to do about email

24 May

David Tebbutt has written an excellent article for Information World Review: Ready for the rebirth of email? (I’m late on this, but then I’ve been on leave and deluged by emails…)

He’s so right. Email is too valuable a communications tool for it to be strangled by spam and thoughless overuse. I endorse his advice to outlaw group copying or ‘reply to all’.

Here’s a question. What proportion of your organisation’s emails are internal, and what proportion external? Freelancers have a perfect business model in that 100% of messages must be external. But for most middle managers in large organisations, internal messages represent, I suspect, the vast majority. It’s similar within a university, though if I define students as external on the grounds that they are equivalent to customers, I find to my pleasant surprise that 87% of my inbox is from external correspondents. Perhaps I’m simply quicker to delete my colleagues’ messages. What’s in your inbox?