We’re told PR finally has a seat at the top table in business, so why doesn’t it always feel like that? To make an impact in corporate PR it is essential that you have the support and respect of your senior leadership team. So what can comms people do to get their attention and be consulted at an earlier stage in the business planning process?
It’s an issue that we’ve thought about a lot at Tyto; we are able to make a bigger impact and deliver better value when we have a strong relationship with our clients’ senior leaders. But making these senior connections and feeling like we have influence at the highest levels is something many PR and communications professionals struggle with on a daily basis.
And it’s a serious issue which affects not just to do our jobs well, but in some cases to do them at all. In fact, recent research has suggested that 37% of senior executives do not understand what the PR function in their business does and 40% do not think it delivers good value. 20% didn’t even know what PR stands for. However, there is hope. Of those executives who said they understood PR, 80% thought it delivered good value. So how can we make sure they understand?
In my new role as Chair of the newly reformed PRCA Corporate group, I recently invited some experts with different points of view on this issue to a panel discussion to share their experiences. I was joined by Dr Andrew Tucker from the Reputation Institute, Addy Frederick from Prudential, R3 CEO Emma Lovell and former journalist, crisis comms expert and author Dave Mason to help look at the challenge from different perspectives.
Here are the six top tips from our expert panel:
Think like a CEO
PR can be all-consuming, particularly agency side, where it is our bread and butter but we need to remember that there’s a lot more on the minds of your business leaders. The number one piece of advice across the panel was to start thinking more like a CEO. Make sure you understand the business strategy, the particular risks and concerns of your senior team. And if you’re not being given this information – ask! It’s all too easy to focus on your particular role, but unless you’re able to show you understand how it fits into the bigger picture, you won’t be taken seriously.
Show them the data and relate it to the bottom line
Following on from the first point, Dr Andrew Tucker from The Reputation Institute passionately made the case for finding and sharing the data that backs up your recommendations. The reputation of a CEO directly impacts the reputation of their organisation, which in turn has a tangible impact on the bottom line. CEOs respect and listen to the right data. Communications professionals often still have trouble finding and using meaningful data to back-up the impact of our work. Reach and share of voice metrics are all very well, but are not meaningful metrics when it comes to making top-down strategic decisions. It’s only by demonstrating the potential business value of your recommendations (or more importantly the risk of ignoring your recommendations), that your senior team will sit up and start to take notice.
Data is important, but from Emma Lovell’s point of view, building relationships is even more essential. PR after all, is about winning hearts and minds, and to do that you have to build human connections and show you understand each other. Addy Frederick agreed that finding advocates in your senior team can be key to unlocking their trust. Who in your senior team is most open to listening to your advice and involving you early on in business planning? Talk to them, ask their advice on the best way to showcase your expertise, and show them how supporting your case can benefit them as well.
Show them what they don’t know
PR looks easy from the outside when things are going well, and this can lead to it being taken for granted. But we do have opportunities to demonstrate to senior leaders where we have the expertise that they don’t. One effective way can be through media training. It’s a tangible skill that can be packaged up into a neat training session, giving a rare opportunity to highlight the benefits and risks of doing bad PR, or no PR at all. Whether you use it as an opportunity to highlight those CEOs who have lost their jobs after a bad media crisis or at the very least to demonstrate the ‘outside-in’ perspective that PR people should always bring. It can be an opportunity to open their eyes, and sometimes shock them into listening more closely to your advice.
Plan for the worst
And on the theme of crisis, business directors have a contractual responsibility to protect the reputation of their organisation, and they need communications to help them do this. In fact, according to Dave Mason, CEOs he’s spoken to say around 50% of their role is communications, even more for new CEOs. And even more in times of crisis. So make the case for carrying out crisis planning. Crisis planning doesn’t just protect your organisation’s reputation when the worst happens, it also helps build cohesive communications and a stronger brand when things are good. And there is data out there to help you make this case. It’s a win-win, and PR people are best placed to lead this process.
Don’t be a ‘yes (wo)man’
The panel was split on whether PR people are too reluctant to challenge senior leadership and find themselves saying yes too readily, even when they disagree. Perhaps predictably, Addy, with a senior in-house comms role felt that it is part of her job to challenge her senior team and get them to think about the communications risks of their decisions, whereas I, with more of an agency background have witnessed the constant pressures of keeping a client happy lead to PR people going against their own recommendations on numerous occasions. I’ve done it myself. The trouble is, you don’t do yourself any favours as it is still you who has to justify your decision to the client when it ultimately goes wrong (which it will).
We must be prepared to challenge actions by the senior team that could negatively affect reputation but have the evidence to back up our recommendations, and an alternative in mind. But none of that will even matter if we don’t hear about the senior team’s decisions until after they’ve been made. So arm yourself with the right data, find advocates who’ll support you, and get out there and make your case!