Is Corporate Communications Optional?

Early in my PR agency career, our team was summoned by the CEO of a prestigious client. He was a brilliant and entrepreneurial hospitality executive who had been brought in to turn around a luxury travel company. The CEO fulminated about competitors getting better trade coverage than his company. He even tossed one of the offending rags on his table as our team and the long-suffering corporate communications head promised more aggressive outreach. As we left the office, he muttered, “I could do the PR better than anyone if only I had the time.”

That CEO was in many ways correct. He certainly knew more about the business than anyone. Of course he never would have found the time or discipline to manage a media a relations function, and it would have been a poor use of that time. But his words stuck with me, in part because they epitomized the classic PR agency challenge – you must earn your fee by adding value every day.

High-impact PR roles under pressure

The same can be said for corporate communications. As an agency person I’d always assumed that those in client-side roles were safe. After all, any major company needs a strong corporate communications function to manage its reputation, especially in a chaotic and unpredictable news environment. It’s indispensable, right? It was that way, but now things aren’t so simple. Elon Musk’s example has the PR community wondering if his company is the exception to the rule, or possibly a sign of something to come.

As Musk-watchers know, Tesla disbanded its internal PR group at some point last year (we’re not sure when, because there was no announcement and no confirmation from Tesla, naturally.) For months, it has relied on its founder’s Twitter account and the company’s YouTube channel for outbound communications. Media, naturally, didn’t take the decision well. The PR community was also underwhelmed. The Public Relations Society of America responded with a statement warning that, “Disengagement is not a path to success and can result in dramatic reputational ramifications with long-term consequences. Strategic communication counsel is a critical element of reputation management, as is a robust, fully functioning, effective and transparent communications process.”

The Trump model of corp comm

Not so Tesla. Call it the Trump model of corporate communications. If you don’t like your media coverage and don’t trust the journalists who cover you, why bother? Like the former president before his Twitter ouster, Musk can command social and media attention with a mere tweet. He resents bad press and often seeks to punish or freeze out those who don’t cover his businesses the way he’d like. He prefers to communicate directly to friends and fans. (Remind you of anyone?) But as EV news site Electrek observes, “Elon simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to answer even just 1% of inquires, but also… seems to be almost exclusively responding to fans who are lavishing praise on him via Twitter and almost never challenge his views.”

That would be a red flag for most companies, but, face it, Tesla isn’t most companies. Yet it signals potential changes for communicators who represent high-growth, entrepreneurial organizations.

How corporate communications has changed

First, cynicism abounds.  We cannot assume the public believes a given company is operating in good faith. Although businesses in general probably inspire more trust from the public than government and even religious institutions, the environment we work in is sharply polarized. You have to demonstrate your intentions through behavior. Also, relationships have suffered during the pandemic; the typical PR-media relationship is more transactional than friendly, and it’ll probably stay that way.

Stakeholders have growing influence. Stakeholders like partners and especially employees wield enormous reputational influence. That’s why we’re seeing powerful businesses like Google drop its work in warfare technology for the Pentagon, for example. More recently, a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice publicly urged the company to commit to getting its electricity from renewable sources. Within months, Amazon pledged to reach 100% renewables by 2030. That’s real power, and it makes sense to focus where the influence is.

Social content is as powerful as earned media. Owned media may not be as credible, but for many organizations, corporate content channels are a safer and even more potent option than earned media coverage that may include criticisms or mentions of competitors. Even more persuasive are user views and social content from legitimate influencers. Today’s corporations have many more tools and far more content at their disposal than they ever did in the past.

What it adds up to is that corporate communications is changing along with everything else. Like agency work, it requires diverse skills, constant proactivity, and experience that extends well beyond traditional PR and media relations. The top-tier corporate communicators of today and the future must be content experts, media strategists, and internal facilitators who earn their own reputation every day.

What’s Better, PR Agency Or Client Side Work?

In public relations, there are many career path possibilities, but most fall into either the agency side or the client side. This is the time of year when I get questions from new graduates about which path makes the most sense for an aspiring PR professional. But the question isn’t just for PR beginners. Many who’ve been successful after years in agency PR may nurture a curiosity about client-side work. Like everything else in life, a move from agency PR to corporate or brand communications involves trade-offs. Here’s how people in our circle describe the pros and cons of crossing to the other side.

Agency PR Has Many Advantages

Constant innovation
At an agency, “you have your finger on the pulse” of industry trends, according to Debbie Etchison, head of public affairs and corporate communications at a major pharmaceutical company.  She’s grateful for her agency background, which offered “the ability to be creative and think outside the normal boundaries.” It’s true that when you handle multiple clients and are constantly in the marketplace competing against other agencies, your sense of what’s around the corner is always being sharpened, and you’re up on the latest trends.

A true team mentality
An agency executive is surrounded by people who basically do the same thing they do. They therefore share a deep understanding of the work and an appreciation of what goes into it. On the corporate side, things may be different. A handful of clients I queried who moved from agency to client work mentioned having to adjust to an environment where everyone shares a common goal, but where skills and backgrounds are very different. Depending on the company, the communications team may be relatively small, and corporate peers in marketing, HR, and product development may lack an understanding of PR and corporate communications. There’s also the siloed nature of many organizations. Marijane Funess, who left our agency a year ago to join a nonprofit, says, “I thought it would be easy to brainstorm and get information for story pitches, but, proximity doesn’t always guarantee that I’ll shake loose what I need in a timely fashion!”

Well-rounded skills
The opportunity to work on many clients and brands at an agency is excellent career groundwork for whatever may come next, whether that’s a client-side post or even an entrepreneurial venture. Comments Etchison, “An agency position will promote agility and productivity, and the versatility of the work makes you very well-rounded.” Though many agency professionals eventually specialize in a specific vertical industry, like technology PR, or a service offering like content creation or media training, the wide exposure to different aspects of the PR agency service offering is nearly always cited by those who started out in an agency job.  You’ll also learn to produce under pressure, which in itself sharpens skills and enables a bottom-line mentality that can be useful wherever you choose to take it.

Career mobility
Starting salaries at PR agencies can be low when compared to the corporate side. But early in one’s career, an agency environment may offer greater upward mobility, particularly if the agency is growing. Turnover at PR agencies can be high, and while that’s not a good thing, it often creates a terrific opportunity for career advancement for those who perform.

The Client Side Offers Consistency, Focus

One client, one focus
Many client-side professionals talk about their satisfaction in maintaining a pure focus on their particular company and industry, which enables their best work.  Etchison says that her move to the corporate side gave her an in-depth understanding of her company’s brand and business and freed her to be “highly strategic and even visionary” in supporting its communications and business goals. There’s also the advantage of following your bliss. Sri Ramaswami of rbb communications advises, “If you are singularly passionate about a specific industry it makes sense to join a company within that sector and grow through the ranks.”

On the client side, there’s typically no need to be selling in order to gain new clients or have the opportunity to do interesting work. This is in contrast to an agency environment, where new business development is the lifeblood of the place and a requirement for anyone who wants to climb the ladder there. A corporate PR team does need to promote its own work and justify the investment in PR, especially if an agency budget is involved. The difference, however, is that the day-to-day work offers greater consistency and lacks the do-or-die pressure of a growth-oriented PR firm.

No one in the dynamic and every-changing PR universe has perfect control over their programs, but on the client side, resources and politics tend to be stacked in your favor. Etchison explains that on the corporate side, “you’re able to deploy agency teams for maximum brand benefit” and exert a greater degree of control over the outcomes than she did in her former agency life.

Though agency team members support one another and often get shout-outs from their clients, there’s nothing like the shared business mission of those who work under the same roof. Comments Marijane Funess, “The shared pride and admiration for projects has been a thrill. When you are in-house and your co-workers see ‘up close and personal’ the effort that goes into a successful event or a meaningful story, it is really rewarding.”

NFL PR: Protest Is On The Clock

For almost two years, protests during the national anthem before the game have been a growing PR challenge for the National Football League. With the 2018 NFL draft beginning today in Dallas, speculation has intensified about whether the demonstrations will continue through the 2018 season and how the league will manage them.

Since 2015, NFL ratings have declined 8% in 2016 and almost 10% last season. During the 2017 season, unfavorability among fans fell to 32% — note that these are fans of the sport who watched at least two games. Though many factors can contribute to such a drop, surely the relentless public controversy hasn’t helped the situation.

Reputation and ratings are down, yet profits continue to rise. This poses a question for an organization that raked in about $14 billion in revenue in 2017. How much does the NFL really care about its tarnished image? Is the league too big to worry?

The answer seems to be no. Clearly, the league’s reputation management has moved beyond its annual kids’ “Punt, Pass, & Kick” competition. We took a look at some of commissioner Roger Goodell’s public statements over the past couple of years in response to the protests to analyze how well its communications strategy has worked.

NFL’s initial response was tepid

When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016, Roger Goodell’s communication was fairly critical of the protest but sought to find a middle ground. He said, “I don’t necessarily agree with what he is doing,” while offering a morsel of empathy for the social movement. This broad message, “I support our players when they want to see change in society” came off as a bit generic.
Goodell’s statement reinforced the NFL’s alignment with quintessential American values — the flag, freedom, and the military. Given that NFL fan demographics skew middle-aged male, high-income, and white, it’s not surprising that football would play it safe. But at the time of the initial statement, it was still early, and Goodell probably thought the protests would fade.

The stakes rose after Kaepernick lost his job. The 2017 season began without him, but not without controversy. Players, coaches, celebrities, politicians, and fans all said their piece. Kenny Stills of the Miami Dolphins famously urged players to speak out in Kaepernick’s defense.

The NFL offered more measured responses as the controversy grew. In August, Goodell said, “The national anthem is a special moment to me… But we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights and we have to respect those.” It was an accommodation to both sides but like most such statements, it didn’t convince anyone. Things really escalated when the president weighed in a more direct, and far more negative, way. Trump blasted the protesters in a widely reported speech, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”

After that, Goodell was forced into a defensive mode, decrying the comments as divisive and warning that they “demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.” The response unified the fracturing NFL for a hot second.

Goodell takes decisive action

In late 2017, the league sent a letter to NFL owners asking them to require players to stand during the anthem. Goodell wrote, “The controversy over the Anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.” At the ensuing press conference, the commissioner delivered the clearest messaging yet on the issue. He maintained that players should stand during the anthem. the action was decisive and – the NFL hoped – patriotic.
He then spoke about trying to “deal with the underlying issue and understand what it is they are protesting.” These statements communicated greater empathy than in the past, but, more importantly, seemed to take a measure of responsibility in finding solutions to the crisis. The NFL’s position had evolved, and the organization’s next actions showed greater urgency.

The NFL’s answer: a social justice initiative

In January 2018, Goodell trumpeted a landmark seven-year,deal with the Players Coalition, wherein the coalition agreed to end the protests and focus on an unprecedented $89 million social justice initiative. From a corporate citizenship/community relations point of view, the initiative moves well beyond PR expediency. The NFL executives collaborated with the players on the project, helping to mollify any antagonism and sharing responsibility. In accompanying public statements, the league admitted that it failed to understand the depth of the issue for many players, a candid admission of its mistakes. The announcement remains controversial, and there’s no guarantee that some players won’t protest in the future, but it marks a major commitment  as well as the first truly unifying step by the league.

The NFL’s next play

Unquestionably, this corporate crisis has perplexed the league’s executives, and the social justice initiative comes very late in the game. The best outcome would involve concrete results that could be showcased in a serious, non-self-congratulatory manner. The NFL PR team seems to have learned from its mistakes, guiding the organization through these tough times while maintaining its association with traditional American values.
There are still many reputation land mines for the league to fight,  including brain injuries among players, violence against women and other issues. But it is at last making progress in tackling the painful and divisive problem of racial justice with the right kind of constructive action.

Hidden PR Tips In 5 Top Movies

Almost Famous (2000) — Media Relations

It’s the 1970s, and the mid-level rock band Stillwater is poised to make its Rolling Stone magazine debut. The iconic publication sends a 15 year-old reporter to travel with the band to write an in-depth piece. Initially, the musicians consider the music critic “the enemy” and refer to him by exactly those words. Both the inexperienced reporter and the naïve band members make the media relations mistake of getting too close to be objective. Of course, the band wants the article to portray them as musical geniuses – great PR! Instead, the journalist writes a warts-and-all article about the band – which the lead singer promptly disputes, making the reporter look bad. Eventually, the lead singer redeems himself and confirms the story — and Stillwater ends up on the cover of Rolling Stone. It’s good to have connections to the press — just don’t go on tour with them.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) – PR-Driven Promotion

At the confluence of advertising, marketing, and public relations was the genius stunt by the fictional Wonka Corporation to release golden tickets hidden inside their popular candy bars throughout England. The winners were granted a tour of the highly secretive chocolate factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate bars. Of course, sales skyrocketed and kids jammed candy stores clamoring for Wonka bars. Brilliant! It became a much talked about event; it was fun; and fit right in with the ethos of the Wonka brand. Media coverage of the golden ticket winners’ arrival at the factory gate was stellar. It’s a classic “chained product” stunt like the famous P&G anniversary promotion that put 2 million cubic zirconias – and 500 real diamonds – in packages of Spic and Span detergent. When a product promotion leads with a great idea, it tends to generate enough news coverage to sell the campaign.

Jerry McGuire (1996) – Reputation Management

NFL player Rod Tidwell, played by Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., was known as an underachieving receiver with a big ego and mouth to match. His bad reputation prevented him from getting paid well and being able to support his family. Agent Jerry McGuire (Tom Cruise) accompanies Tidwell to the NFL draft despite the fact that Tidwell, as a league member, doesn’t need to be there. McGuire recognizes the draft as public event offering plenty of PR opportunity – including a chance for Tidwell to massage his poor image with a “walk-through” – an apology tour of light TV interviews. In the end, Tidwell’s best reputation move turns out to be on the playing field, where he works harder, plays better, and talks less –all with the cameras rolling. Sometimes a brand’s best PR move is to back up its claims with actions.

PR Crisis in movies
Buena Vista Pictures (1995)

Crimson Tide (1995) — Crisis Planning

How is a submarine thriller a study in PR? When it’s a crisis communications nightmare about the highest of high-stakes events: a nuclear attack. Plus, communications technology plays a crucial role in the plot.

A submarine captain played by Gene Hackman receives two messages – the first (EAM) “emergency action message” says to get ready to launch; the second says to launch missiles on Russia. However, the communications system is damaged, leaving the message fragmented: “subject: nuclear missile laun…” Regulations state that both the commander and the XO (Denzel Washington) must concur on the order to launch their nukes — a critical aspect of the plan. But Denzel’s XO refuses to launch until they see the full message. Hackman’s character, fearful of leaving the U.S. defenseless, orders the missiles launched. It turns out that the second message was a ceasefire order. What follows is a leadership struggle as Denzel’s character tries to have the order retracted.

The Crimson Tide takes us through all Norman R. Augustine’s six stages of crisis. The Navy had taken steps to foresee and manage a crisis event, starting with a full audit of the possibilities, and it has clear chain-of-command and concurrence policies, as seen in a crisis drill. Yet despite the procedures, preparation drills, and continual updates to internal stakeholders (the crew), the plan proves inadequate because it hinges on a compromise between two officers who cannot agree. In most time-urgent crisis situations, a clear chain of command works better than consensus.

The Godfather, Part II (1974) –  Government Relations

Michael Corleone moves his family to Nevada as part of a larger reputation management initiative to establish the enterprise as a legitimate business. In the sprawling opening scene, the Senator from Nevada accepts a large cash donation to a public university from Corleone at his son’s confirmation party. This solid public affairs maneuver would position the family as philanthropists and a socially responsible business. It would also curry favor with the government, easing approval of its gaming license. Of course, things don’t go as planned, since the Senator intends to “squeeze” the Corleones for more money. Soon afterward he is caught with a dead prostitute. It’s clear that public officials can be as corrupt as crime families, so one should be careful with whom you engage in government relations. Lesson learned!

Global PR Trends And Practices In An Age Of Uncertainty


Every two years, the New York-based Corporate Communication International (CCI), conducts an in-depth survey of senior PR and communications officers at Fortune 500 companies about global PR trends. As a sort of “state of the communications field” analysis the CCI Corporate Communication Practices and Trends Study 2017 offers fascinating insights about the PR landscape today.

Speed Kills

Perhaps the most striking trend is the speed of the news cycle and pace of business. Since the digital mediascape is constantly changing, communicators must be agile and always ready to engage in a digital-first environment. Yet they’re aware that the cost of a mistake or a simple overreaction can be high. Any crisis communications team must be ready to respond at any hour to an escalating event, and that speed is vital. Communications professionals must act decisively to safeguard corporate reputation, and many worry that they may miss something.

“Corporate communication functions as the conscience for the business and as a vigilant lifeguard for the brand.”

The Age Of Uncertainty

The speed of the news cycle is compounded by today’s environment of mistrust and uncertainty. And the rules for wading into controversial or political issues are less certain than they once were. Economist Milton Friedman famously said that corporations’ only purpose is to make money, and that they therefore have no social responsibility. Fifty years later, the pressure on corporations to take a stand on politically charged issues is growing. The current Delta Air Lines vs. the NRA and state of Georgia saga is a perfect example of the delicate balancing act of creating and maintaining a company’s ethos – and the real world ramifications of doing so.

“ You must assess a situation quickly and determine a course of action quickly, often ahead of all the facts being known. That requires a high level of trust among senior leaders to launch without all the approvals knowing there is a desire and expectation to own and guide the story.”

C-Suite Turf Battles

As the external environment has grown more challenging, so has the corporate environment. The overlapping roles of corporate communications and marketing and dissolution of silos in some organizations have not always been smooth.  CMOs and CCOs (chief communications officer) jostle for influence within the corporation. Marketing departments often have significantly larger budgets than communications, yet the CCO’s voice must be just as persuasive.  Moreover, CCOs cannot control those functions that have the potential to exert a large influence over corporate reputation, like HR and advertising. Since corporate reputation has a large role in the success (or failure) of the enterprise, the CCO must serve as a strategic business resource and counsel to the CEO, even when in reactive mode.

“Reputation management as the #1 perceived role of corporate communication.” 

Focusing Inward

Another global PR trend in the Fortune 500 companies is the increased focus on internal communications. Corporate leadership recognizes the critical importance of getting everybody on the same page – no easy task in organizations with 20,000 employees. And since a single employee can talk about the company to thousands of external stakeholders at once through social media, the company must take steps to control its narrative. Over 80% of companies now have an employee social media policy. Companies realize that its employees should be the first line of brand ambassadors; therefore they must understand corporate brand values and how they translate outside the organization.

So you want to be a PR executive?

The good news is the communications profession is flourishing. Staffs and budgets are increasing. Corporate recruiting of communications professionals is now a priority. But what talents do publicly traded companies value in public relations pros? It’s not enough to be a well-trained expert communicator; you had better know business and the language of business. About 25% of the communications executives surveyed have MBAs. Because communications now bleeds into so many departments, the higher-ups must have a firm grasp of business strategy. It’s not just press releases and media training. It’s also about globalization, data analysis, and PR as a strategic business function.