The waters of corporate communications are not only muddied but becoming
turbulent and dangerous.
Gather any two communications service professionals together, add a
client and you have instant discord. No one stays in his box any more.
All the old certainties about role and responsibility have gone.
At the epicentre of this clamour is the public relations industry, grown
in the 80s, buoyant in the recession and now seeking a place on the
corporate table. But the seats are limited and the dash for places is
furious, as specialists in sales promotion, advertising, corporate
identity, even management consultancy, compete to re-invent themselves
as ‘strategic communications’ advisers.
The bad news for PR is that some of these ‘interlopers’ are winning.
Research in the US suggests that companies don’t always believe PR can
offer the depth of advice needed.
A survey, from the American Management Association, designed to analyse
trends in corporate communications, found concern among the 600
executives surveyed about the degree to which their companies were
communicating key messages to both internal and external audiences.
Although senior managers cite communications as a top priority, they are
focusing on technology, such as electronic mail and the Internet, when
the answers have more to do with words and thoughts than tools.
The most significant finding, as far as PR professionals are concerned,
is the low esteem in which they are held by their fellow executives.
It’s no wonder PR is busy trying to re-invent itself.
Burson-Marsteller caused an outcry when it chose ‘perception management’
as its new banner. Would it now ‘leave’ the PR business? What did people
believe ‘perception’ to mean? Internal specialists Smythe Dorward
Lambert were braver and opted out of PR, and my own firm decided to
describe its services as ‘the management of reputation’ eight years ago.
Meanwhile, agencies are arguing that brand reputation is their
responsibility, ignoring the reality that when a product or a company’s
reputation faces a crisis, it’s not the ad man who is first into the
boardroom. Ask Shell, British Gas, the baby milk makers, or the beef
industry. Communications specialists do not advocate advertising as a
route out of a product disaster - unless to inform consumers in a
product recall, or to explain the issue and perhaps apologise!
Powerful in-house corporate affairs directors might call in PR
specialists but most have their own systems. And as the boardroom
realises that the media is calling the shots in a way undreamed of ten
years ago, the communications adviser moves centre stage.
The issue for the PR industry is its diversity - both in the range of
services it provides and the quality. Many marketing clients merely
demand publicity. For large parts of the national media, PR equals
bimbos, obfuscation - or downright lying. They won’t acknowledge its
influence. In the industry’s failure to get its own message across lies
the risk that the best elements of its role will be taken up by
competitors who will have one thing in common - to make sure they are
not seen as PR people.
Peter Hehir is chairman of Countrywide Communications Group