Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Public Relations the strategic management function - not a communications strategem

Three weeks ago Professor Grunig put his thoughts about what public relations is to the New York Yale Club.

I quote:
Simply put, I have come to understand public relations as a strategic management
function that uses communication to cultivate relationships with publics that have a stake in the
behavior of the organization—either because they benefit from or are harmed by what Dewey
called the consequences of that behavior. Public relations has value to an organization because it
provides publics with whom it develops relationships a voice in management decisions that
affect them.

Quality relationships have both financial and nonfinancial value because they reduce the
costs of regulation, legislation, and litigation; reduce the risk of implementing decisions; and
sometimes increase revenue. They also have the secondary effects of improving the reputation of an organization (what members of a public think about it) and reducing negative publicity
because there are fewer bad behaviors for journalists to write about. The only way to “manage a
reputation” is through managing the organizational behaviors that are reflected in that reputation.

Some critics argue that the interests of organizations and publics are incompatible.
However, a great deal of research shows that organizations that interact with their publics
responsibly are also the most successful—based both on financial and nonfinancial criteria.

Cutlip and Chase identified a gap between elite practitioners and the mass of tacticians
and technicians who massage the media daily to make organizations and their products look
good. Some theorists might say that the elite practitioners have a theory of the nature of public
relations and its value and values whereas the mass of technicians fly by the seat of their pants or simply do what employers or clients ask them to do. I would say, in contrast, that both groups have a theory—just different theories. I believe there have been, and still are, two major
competing theories of public relations both in practice and in the academic world. I call these
approaches the symbolic, interpretive, paradigm and the strategic management, behavioral,

Scholars and practitioners following the symbolic paradigm generally assume that public
relations strives to influence how publics interpret the organization. These cognitive
interpretations are embodied in such concepts as image, reputation, brand, impressions, and
identity. The interpretive paradigm can be found in the concepts of reputation management in
business schools, integrated marketing communication in advertising programs, and rhetorical
theory in communication departments. Practitioners who follow the interpretive paradigm
emphasize publicity, media relations, and media effects. Although this paradigm largely
relegates public relations to a tactical role, the use of these tactics does reflect an underlying
theory. Communication tactics, this theory maintains, create an impression in the minds of
publics that allow the organization to buffer itself from its environment—to use the words of
organizational theorists—which in turn allows the organization to behave in the way it wants.
In contrast, the behavioral, strategic management, paradigm focuses on the participation
of public relations executives in strategic decision-making to help manage the behavior of
organizations. In the words of organizational theorists, public relations is a bridging, rather than
a buffering, function. It is designed to build relationships with stakeholders, rather than a set of
messaging activities designed to buffer the organization from them. The paradigm emphasizes
two-way and symmetrical communication of many kinds to provide publics a voice in
management decisions and to facilitate dialogue between management and publics both before
and after decisions are made.

Francesco Lurati of the
University of Lugano, distinguished between the strategic role of corporate communication in
defining organizational objectives and its tactical role in supporting organizational objectives. He
pointed out that practitioners of public relations are eager to assume a strategic role, but they
typically define strategic public relations as communication that supports the implementation of
organizational objectives that corporate communicators had no role in defining. In his words:
“From this perspective corporate communication is considered strategic when it pursues
objectives which are merely aligned with the corporate ones. The term ‘strategy’ does not change
the tactical nature of the task communication fills. In other words, the communication function
here makes no contribution to the defining of corporate strategy.”
If we truly want metrics that show public relations has value to an organization, the
measurements required are deceptively simple. We should measure the nature and quality of
relationships to establish and monitor the value of public relations. And we should evaluate
public relations strategies and tactics to determine which are most effective in cultivating
relationships. In his book, Corporate Public Relations, Marvin Olasky, a conservative critic of
public relations, argued that before the invention of “public relations,” corporate executives
engaged in “private relations” by being personally involved in the community and civic
organizations. With the advent of public relations, which he equated with the interpretive
paradigm, Olasky said that public relations practitioners intervened in this relationship to
manipulate the media and to participate in camouflage techniques of supposed social
responsibility to isolate executives from their publics. Olasky thus identified the importance of
relationships in public relations. Today, we must use social, mediated, and cyber relationships as
well as the interpersonal relationships of Olasky’s ideal time in the past. Relationships are the
key to effective public relations, however, and they can be measured to show its value.