In public relations, we’re all about supporting strategic business objectives. Ask any PR professional, and you’ll probably get an earful about how what we do goes far beyond publicity and media relations.
But CEOs haven’t gotten the memo. At least, not according to research unveiled at the 2014 International Public Relations Research Conference. One learning that jumped out of the meeting was a study by Dr Ansgar Zerefass of the University of Leipzig, Germany. Dr. Zerefass polled 602 German CEOs on how they view their PR executives. The headlines from the study are a mixed bag for corporate communicators and PR agencies.
The good news is that the great majority of CEOs surveyed (92%) believe that media coverage affects corporate reputation. Yet, they don’t always see PR executives as a strategic resource for advice or insights. Instead, communications is viewed as an internal function, and as more or less a one-way channel – getting the word out to target audiences.
The CEOs queried are traditionalists in how they view corporate communications. They value conventional media relations over social media interaction and see communications as a function that supports the corporate relationship with primary stakeholders like employees and customers, as opposed to activists or advocates.
The biggest red flag for communicators might be the fact that the professionals aren’t the first-line resource for strategic advice on public opinion and communications matters. For that, the top executives turn to their C-level counterparts or division heads rather than their own corporate communications hires. So it’s not surprising that they rate speaking (particularly their own internal communications role) as more important than active listening, initiating dialogues, or exploring trends.
(For those who think the opinions of German CEOs may be vastly different from those in the U.S., it’s unlikely. Also, Dr. Zerefass points out that his study is more objective than those conducted by groups like the Arthur Page Society, for example, which are driven by corporate communicators at “enlightened” companies.)
The short answer to the PR industry’s dilemma — our yearning to be taken more seriously in the C-suite — is clearly to position communications as a credible source of strategic counsel, driven by insights into high-priority audiences. Part of this is the “feedback and insights” role that the C-level executive may overlook.
So, chalk up another post on the communicator as professional listener. As Steven Covey has said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” That applies here. The one-way PR offensive is archaic; communications today is an ongoing, two-way conversation, and PR needs to claim our rightful role in initiating and interpreting that dialogue.