Sunday, March 08, 2009

Domians of PR practice and influence

We are constantly being asked to describe what the PR sector does in the context of its role in influencing opinion and decsiosn making.

Last month I needed a lecture to to put this into context and, in the process, describe PR in its wider role.

I was helped by a paper I prepared some years ago about the domains of PR practice. 

My attempt to introduce this area of PR practice is reproduced below.

The Range of Practice

There are a number of ways one can identify the nature and scope of public relations practice.

One is to view practice from the perspective of the publics that influence organisations.

In Chapter 2 of Exploring Public Relations[i], (pp19-22) Tench and Yeomans explore the environments that influence the practice of public relations. This perspective is very important in explaining the role of public relations from a perspective of influencer publics.

This public relations view has counterparts in Freedman’s[ii] stakeholder theory and subsequent papers[iii].  This concept examines the nature of relationship management from the perspective of the organisation and seeks to manage relationships with stakeholders that the organisation perceives as having influence. It is a common management practice and has its problems mainly because of the numbers of publics the organisation ignores in its analysis of its stakeholders.

We can see this effect easily by searching for an organisation using Google’s advanced search capability to find pages published in the previous 24 hours and  then assessing the extent to which the organisation had control of the publication of the content, and thus, its online reputation.  It quickly becomes evident that most organisations have a very modest influence, and conduct their business from a stakeholder perspective (there is an extensive bibliography about stakeholder theory at

Another view might be from the perspective of PR practice. Basically: what do PR people really do? My unpublished paper [iv] seeks to answer this question.

It shows that there are many types of PR practiced and many of them are focused on limited areas of activity.

What this demonstrates is that, with a grasp and understanding of the range of activities that fall within the broad church of the profession, entrants can be informed as to their choice of career and, in addition, as their career progresses they have a grasp of fundamental principle that will, in time, allow them to manage other specialist in PR and organisational management  with  specific and specialist roles.

The nature of affective publics

To be effective in practice we have seen that the practitioner needs to be able to understand the nature of relationships that are affective.

It is important to note that organisations are not always companies. They can be voluntary organisations, associations, pressure groups, religious organisations and many more.

All organisations can, and most do, have someone with a PR role.

There are many groups that influence organisations. Some are internal (management – the dominant coalition, employee groups – including organisations departments, cross discipline/departmental working parties, informal clubs and interest groups, Trades Unions etc), some are part employed on contracts (accountant, advisors and consultants, contractors), some are part of the value chain (suppliers, wholesalers, retailers etc), some are regulators (local, regional, national and supra-national government), some are regulatory (trade and professional associations, standards authorities, government agencies etc) and then there are consumers and consumer groups including informal recommenders often family or social groups providing word of mouth recommendations.

There is a new form of group emerging. They are of the nature of publics that form round issues as described by Grunig and Hunt but have evolved since their writings 20 years ago[v].  

What we see is groups of people who cluster round tokens. The tokens can be an issue, interest brand, or a set of common values, a feature that has always been part of human interaction, but which is now much facilitated by the internet (see the work of Bruno Amaral) . They are commonly (if narrowly) described as ‘user generated groups’[vi]

This array of influencers is considerable and all are potentially the specialist interest of managers and notably public relations managers. In senior posts, PR practitioners may have responsibilities for relationships with many such groups and in some cases all such groups.

The nature of interaction between organisations can be as between two PR practitioners each representing different groups.

The practitioner in an organisation needs to know about those organisations that affect the workings and long term effective survival of the organisation.


The influences on organisational direction

To be effective in development of relationships between organisations the practitioner needs to know how organisations are constituted; how they make decisions and what influences their decision making. In addition, the practitioner will need to know how to access the influences on decision making.

Organisations are different. Decision making in a company is very different from decision making in a cricket club or county council.

What we need to be able to do is find out how to influence the decision making process.

It is important in this sphere of PR practice that one examines the nature of organisations.

There is considerable literature but Elizabeth McMillan has  some excellent papers[vii] that explain the nature of organisational structure.

To interact effectively with organisations there is a need for transparency. John C Havens and Shel Holtz cover organisational transparency for organisations showing that to build trust there is a need for transparency and that because organisations disclose information to its publics, it can and does spread to third parties[viii].

For this reason, they come to the same conclusion and Phillips & Young (2009 ibid). 

It is important to be transparent. It is important to manage transparency and it is important that the presentation of intellectual properties (trademarks, patents, copyright content, know how, processes etc), should be in a manner and time suited to the publics involved and knowing that at some time more than one public will have access to the information provided to a third.

The conclusion we then come to is that changing relationships to maximise short term organisational success and optimise long term survival, organisations need a coherent strategy across all domains of public relations.

The PR manager needs to know about the range of organisations and social groups (including ‘user generated' groups) that affect the organisation.

Why organisations like to be influenced

At first glance one could be squeamish about wanting affect the decisions of an organisation.

In fact, for an organisation to be effective, it needs external influence over its decision making processes.

If one takes, as an example an organisation like a County Council in the midst of a once in 20 year crisis brought about by a snow storm.

In 2009, this happened. After a cold winter, stocks of salt for keeping roads clear of ice and snow were depleted. Then in February snow storms covered roads and paths to an unusual extent. The council has a responsibility for keeping roads clear and paths passable. But stocks of salt were depleted. What was to be done?

The councils across the country tried to get supplies but their normal vendor was out of stock and there was no one nearby who could help out.

Then, the council heard about using table salt. They also found out that stocks were in good supply. This information affected their decision making. They could buy table salt for roads and paths.

In this case the influence of the media, prompted by an initiative by the Gloucester County Council, became a solution across the country.

Here we can see quite clearly that an influence on decision making helped solve a problem. 

However, the council will not have made such a big decisions without taking advice. Some of that advice will be about the suitability of table salt on roads (it has to be mixed with road salt); some will be about cost, transport and the amount needed. Such information will come from third parties, internal expertise and then, with all the facts, the council officers and relevant council committee can make a judgement and come to a decision.

Organisations, welcome influence to help them make better decisions.


How practitioners influence decision making

In many cases the role of the practitioner is to influence publics. This may be a two-step process such as encouraging press coverage to offer a point of view and which is read by the target public. In other cases, the process will be one of convening meetings between parties and on yet another occasion it may be the production of publications for circulation to key audiences.

Often, the practitioner will be involved in many activities all aimed at achieving the same end.

This is helpful for the target organisation. A press article may alert the organisation to a possibility; a brochure or paper, will provide detailed information and a meeting can provide the opportunity for an exchange of questions and answers.

This kind of approach works as well for inter-organisational relationship building in its many forms and is the lubricant of much wealth creation.

The process of planning and managing public relations campaigns outlined in chapter 10 of Exploring Public Relations (ibid) provides the basis for identifying the mythologies that are applied in influencing decision making.

Any such plan will have clear objectives; has to be strategic in concept; is often multi-public in nature and frequently will use an array of tactics.

In many instances, this area of public relations work will involve a number of two step processes.

For example a key public may be influenced by the media, its suppliers, public bodies (councils, regulators, professional associations etc) and by some very influential individuals inside the organisation.

The role of the practitioner is to recruit such third parties as ambassadors, persuaders and influencers and a persuasive case has to be put to each.

However, sometimes an individual practitioner may not have the skills, knowledge or experience to do all this work. This is where the diversity of PR practice and the capability of specialist practitioners comes into its own. They can be approached to help by deploying their expertise on your behalf.

The nature of PR consultancy is that it offers such capabilities. These people are readily found as members of the Public Relations Consultants Association ( or the CIPR (, The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC -

While there are many reasons for joining and attending local meetings of such organisation, one of the key ones is to be on good terms with these many different practitioners locally and to find out what they do and how they go about it and, indeed, how they like to be briefed.

In conclusion

This paper set out to show the wider diversity of practice there is in the discipline of PR.

We have seen that there are a number of approaches to understanding the kinds of PR practice available to organisations including Stakeholder Theory and the Excellence Model.

 We have discovered that the usual forms of planning public relations between organisations is applicable to inter-organisational PR.

To be effective in inter-organisational PR it is important to understand how organisations are constituted and how they make decisions.

We also explored reasons why organisations want to change perspectives between each other and that they like to be influenced.

One of the things we noted is that this kind of PR often involves a multitude of opinion formers and influencer organisations who can act as ambassadors and influencers on your behalf.

Finally we discovered that the range of PR disciplines available provide resources and expertise that you can call on to assist in planning, managing and implementing and inter-organisational PR programme.

[i] Tench, R. & Yeomans, L. (2006) Exploring Public Relations Prentice Hall

[ii] Freeman, R.E., & Reed, D.L. (1983). “Stockholders and stakeholders: A new perspective on corporate governance.” California Management Review, Vol. 25 No.3, pp.83-94.

[iii] Freeman, R. E. & McVea, J. (2001). “A Stakeholder Approach to Strategic Management” Darden Business School Working Paper No. 01-02

Freeman, R. E. & McVea, J. (2001). “A Stakeholder Approach to Strategic Management” Darden Business School Working Paper No. 01-02

[v] Grunig, J, E. & Hunt, T (1984).  Managing Public Relations.  Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

[vi] Phillips, D & Young, P. (2009) Online Public Relations Kogan Page London

[vii] McMillan, E. (2002) 'Considering organisation structure and design from a Complexity Paradigm Perspective' in Frizzelle, G. and Richards, H. (eds.) Tackling industrial complexity: the ideas that make a difference. Institute of Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.

[viii] Havens, J.C. & Holtz, S (2008) Tactical Transparency: How Leaders Can Leverage Social Media to Maximize Value and Build their Brand. Jossey-Bass