The Stockholm Accords, ratified in June 2010, set out to identify where and how the public relations and communication management profession adds value to the organisation. The value of public relations especially at a time of recession and public sector cuts has never been more important. Introduction Good communication is a vital ingredient for maintaining a healthy organisational reputation during a time of recession. Naturally the UK’s economic woes has had a dramatic impact on UK businesses, as demonstrated by the scale of cuts and the number of established high‐street companies descending into administration (Kollewe, 2009). In this time of widespread uncertainty the Stockholm Accords have sought to affirm the importance of strategic PR by reinforcing its value as an important management tool to effectively govern stakeholder relationships. A recent study of CEOs from leading UK companies, which investigated the value of public relations to their organisation, Stephen Carter of Ofcom commented: “We should not look for a return on investment (ROI) for public relations…it is simply a necessary cost, the cost of doing business – you really just need to do it” (Carter cited in Murray and White, 2005, p. 349). This view, although accepting the need for strategic communications, marginalises the PR function as being non‐strategic. However, during times of change and uncertainty it is suggested that public relations practitioners are better equipped to manage the movement of messages out of the organisation to its publics, explaining policy modifications or actions (Grunig and Hunt, 1984). The Stockholm Accord endorses this view by asserting the PR practitioners role as: “bringing the organisation’s voice and interests into stakeholder deliberations” (Stockholm Accord, 2010, p.10). Due to the downturn in the economy and ensuing realignment of organisations’ priorities, it is increasing important for PR practitioners to be more aware of their role in organisational leadership, as well as their impact to the triple bottom line and business sustainability. The quality and effectiveness of communications are increasingly determined by the ability of PR to interpret stakeholder expectations and
communicate change effectively. This is achieved by creating a listening culture that allows the organisation to adapt and respond to the external environment. It is only when the top communicator possesses strategic change management knowledge and engages in communication with all stakeholders that public relations can be considered to be value‐generating especially during challenging economic times. This essay argues that to work effectively, particularly at a time of recession and public sector cuts, an organisation needs good PR. Furthermore, a senior PR manager should be part of the dominant coalition and must fully understand all aspects of the organisation. The section headings are inspired by key themes outlined in the Stockholm Accords.
Stakeholder Governance Through Relationship Management It is widely accepted by PR practitioners that relationships are one of the most precious assets an organisation possesses. As a key management practice primarily concerned with understanding and directing stakeholder relationships, public relations is concerned with the communication of perceptions and strategic relationships between an organisation and its internal and external stakeholders, for mutual benefit and a greater social order. Grunig and Huang’s (2000) expands on this view of PR as a relationship practice: “Public relations makes organisations more effective by building relationships with strategic publics” (Cited in Phillips, 2006, p. 212). The quality of an organisation’s relationship and exchanges with it publics will impact on the brand reputation in a competitive marketplace. Mutually beneficial relationships will affect brand equity, loyalty to products and services, assist in stimulating empathy during crisis, while with internal publics it will affirm loyalty and staff moral (Heath, 2005). Ledingham (2003) provides a pragmatic approach to managing relationships between an organisation and its publics by suggesting a process of scanning through environmental surveillance; setting goals and objectives; developing and pre‐testing initiatives; rolling‐out and putting programmes in place; evaluating the success of the initiatives; and monitoring and maintaining relationship quality (cited in Heath, 2005, p.741). A stakeholder is any group or individual who can affect or is affected by organisational behaviour. It is important that stakeholders are identified and assessed in terms of their engagement level with the organisation. The key to stakeholder relationship management is to ensure that PR practitioners recognize and link‐in with all stakeholders. Sincere engagement is the first step towards enhancing two‐way communication excellence. Strategic relationship building with stakeholders is key to the successful management of announcements around cuts or other changes to an organisation. Grunig and Hunt (1984) defined stakeholders as: “a group whose collective behaviour can directly affect the organisation’s future, but which is not under the organisation’s control” (p.297). Stakeholder pressure is undoubtedly one of the most challenging issues facing organisations as they try to adapt to the current austere climate. The role of the public relations practitioner is
to ensure that the leadership of the organisation communicates effectively with all of the stakeholders, both by coaching management into a better communications performance and also by helping to articulate only the messages that matter (Murray and White, 2005). Both internal and external stakeholders need to be part of a two‐way communication model, forming part of a larger strategic management process during times of change. This is vital to negate the possibility of dissonance while ensuring a licence to operate.
Engagement with Publics A public forms from a group of people who stand to be affected by an organisation’s behaviour: “They can instigate change in the wider public mood and bring their concerns to the attention of the organisation, at worst forcing unplanned and expensive changes” (Campbell, 2003, ch9). At a time of recession or during public sector cuts, many previously latent publics can form a new public, which in turn has consequences for the organisation. It is important to recognise that the term ‘publics’ does not refer solely to people outside of an organisation. Organisational publics can also be made up of people within it. An individual can also belong to more than one public at a time: “There is an increasing diversity in society...individuals have many roles and may belong to more than one public” (Varey, 1997, p97). An example of this is a group facing redundancy, those who feel their jobs are undervalued, users objecting to cutbacks, or strong media opposition to policy. A public sector employee can also be a union representative, member of a local community, customer of other public services and a member of an activist group, all at the same time. “Public relations practice is the management of communications between an organisation and its publics” (Grunig and Hunt 1984, cited in Tench and Yeomans p5). Through his situational theory, Grunig developed a classification tool to allow the PR practitioner to identify publics, establish their character and formulate a clear communication strategy in response. Grunig theorised that consequences create the conditions necessary for a public to develop. That is, when an organisations behaviour has a consequence for people, it creates an issue around which a public forms. Grunig noted that not everyone affected by organisational consequences detect them. Of those that do, not all proceed to discuss the problem or galvanise to respond. He theorised that the factors that differentiate these groups were the extent to which they recognise the problem, the degree to which they feel they can do something about it, and the level to which they feel affected by organisational behaviour (Grunig and Hunt 1984, Varey 1997). Deep recession, subsequent public sector cuts and the social effects on communities due are wide and varied. In this arena a diverse group of publics are created around
a myriad of issues who must all be identified, communications objectives established and strategy initiated. The PR practitioner can bring the organisation’s voice to its varied publics to engage in deliberations. A public forms from a group of people who stand to be affected by an organisation’s behaviour. Recently we have witnessed widespread chaotic scenes of student protests over the announcement of increased tuition fees and cuts to education spending now exacerbated by the trade unions pledge to join in with coordinated industrial action to build a ‘wider anti‐cuts campaign’ and in their own words: ‘declare war’. This domino effect of creating publics forming around a central theme and all requiring different communication is an arena where strategic PR practice becomes a vital function (Taylor, 2010). For example, following the Coalition Government’s determination that public services are to be drastically cut, local authorities have been preparing themselves to address their share of reduced spending. Across the country, councils are investing heavily in public consultation, which encourages its respective residents to make their suggestions as to where the cuts should fall. This has the effect of making it clear that spending must be reduced but includes various publics in the decision‐making process.
Coordinating Internal and External Communication Managed communication should be a critical component of any organisational change and the PR practitioner is pivotal to the managerial function of crafting and delivering effective communication strategy. Well‐known management academic, John Kotter (1996) has observed that 50 percent of companies fail during the early stages of change, which he suggests is attributed to ineffective communication (Tourish and Hargie, 2004). Dawson (2004) echoes this view, suggesting they usually fail because communication around any change is often limited. It may be restricted to just a few memos followed by the head of the organisation making speeches, while everyone else remains silent. Also, the behaviour of some highly visible individuals may conflict with the message being communicated. Change management requires strategic verbal communication, which is consistent with the actions of an organisation ensuring consistency and an accurate presentation of the issues. Communication with internal stakeholders will be most effective when employees are kept informed and where feedback and consultation is encouraged consequently positively affecting staff moral. Resistance to change is largely associated with natural anxiety, ignorance and misunderstanding and opposition can be reduced if PR practitioners ensure a thorough understanding of the key issues (pp.61 ‐ 62). For change communication to be effective the message tone and pitch must be set to an appropriate level for the intended audience or adjusted where necessary, the communication has to be a two‐way process and an appropriate medium of communication must be utilised (Paton and McCalman, 2000 cited in Dawson, 2004).
Boundary Spanning The concept of boundary spanner provides the context into which the PR practitioner can approach their role in modern PR: “They function at the edge of the organisation, serving as a liaison between the organisation and the external groups and individuals” (Grunig and Hunt, 1984, p.9). This theoretical concept is succinctly explained by Tench and Yeomans: “Taking a systems perspective, it can be seen that PR professionals have a boundary spanning role…working with all the internal subsystems by helping them communicate. They also help…with their external communications by both providing expert advice on what and how to communicate and by helping them with implementation” (Tench and Yeomans, 2006, p.27). In discussing the relationship between PR and the strategic role it plays in organisational effectiveness, it is vital to establish what role the senior public relations practitioner plays within the organisation itself. Research by Broom and Smith (1979) categorized the function of PR into two roles, communication technician and manager. These roles and the subsequent practise of the role of the communication manager working as a ‘problem solving facilitator’ has become the basis for organisations to see the PR function as a valued part of the strategic process. In this role, the senior PR practitioner acts as the boundary spanner – gathering information, defining and solving problems, helping the dominant coalition formulate the right strategy whilst bringing excellence to communication of the mission. Many academics argue that this role can only truly be seen as effective if the senior public relations manager is a member of the dominant coalition: “Public relations is most likely to contribute to organisational effectiveness when the senior public relations manager is a member of the dominant coalition where he or she is able to shape the organisational goals” (Grunig, et. al. 2002. Cited in L’Etang, 2008, p.162) Sung (2007) expands on this view: “PR benefits the organisation because the members of the dominant coalition often do not see the organisation’s environment with an objective viewpoint…PR can contribute to strategic management by helping the organisation enact the environment of which they may not be aware” (Sung cited in L’Etang, 2008, p.163). In the 2001 UK census 48,000 respondents identified themselves as being employed in public relations. However even with
unprecedented growth in the number of practitioners, in the last decade the occupation of PR has found that professional status remains elusive. Despite its popularity, practitioners remain largely communication technicians, focusing on tactical matters. A viewpoint endorsed by Grunig (1990) suggesting that: “they tend to remain ‘outside the door’ when those top‐level decisions are being made…rarely ascending to the managerial level that would make them part of the decisional process.” This brings about unique challenges when communicating with stakeholders during uncertain times, as the communication is one‐way, since the PR practitioner is not present when significant issues are being debated and conclusions are being reached. This limits their input to simply explaining and justifying others’ decisions. Taking a systems perspective, this should affect and influence organisational decision making and communication strategy: “When functioning well, it acts as the anvil against which managements moral problems can be hammered” (Finn, 1959. Cited in Newsom and Scott, 1981, p.421).
The Networked Environment The Chartered Institute of Public Relations defines PR as: “the determined, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics” (CIPR, 2010). This definition endorses the systems theory view that an organisation co‐exists in a symbiotic relationship with its publics and is inevitably influenced by it. In order to achieve their objectives, it must be able to listen and adapt to changes in its operational environment, thus ensuring its survival. As L’Etang and Pieczka (2006) argued: “The role for public relations practitioners is effectively to limit this external influence and control that the environment is able to exert and place the various relationships into a state of harmony, which allows the organisation to pursue its goals with minimum interference or obstruction.” Cutlip, et. al. endorses this view: “…The public relations staff is charged with keeping the organisation sensitive to environmental changes, anticipating as well as reacting to change pressures” (Cutlip, Center and Broom, 2000, p. 232). The concept of systems theory outlines that an organisation (and the actions it undertakes) does not exist or operate in isolation. They are affected and must adapt to changes in the political, economic, social and technological environment in which they operate. At a time of the most crippling recession in living memory, the Royal Bank of Scotland incited public revolt with their announcement that £1.3 billion in bonuses would be made to 22 of their investment bankers. This was despite reporting losses of £5 billion and receiving a £54 billion payout from the taxpayer. In contrast, when hundreds of aircraft were grounded at UK airports due to inclement weather, last Christmas, the CEO of BAA, Colin Matthews tried to appease critics who said snow should not have forced airports to close. He announced he would not accept his bonuses for the year as a means of showing empathy for the disrupted travelling public. This was a good example of excellent PR practice as the organisation demonstrated sensitivity to its environment by listening and adapting (Swinford, 2010).
Conclusion Wilson (2001) states that when public relations is managed strategically, it itself becomes a valued part of the strategic management process: “helping practitioners to join the ranks of those whose efforts make strategic contributions to the organisation.” This type of PR practice can only serve to elevate the PR function to one that truly contributes to the realisation of organisational goals. A view echoed by Grunig (1990): “The public relations practitioner with the potential to contribute to the organisational goals would be more effective as a member of the dominant coalition than as an independent actor in the organisational system.” This essay has examined the various functions of the role of public relations. Whilst all of these topics and themes exist in the day‐to‐day business arena, at a time of recession or during public sector cuts, it is even more vital to bring excellence to internal and external communications. Recession, cuts, ensuing uncertainty and increasing dissonance are all factors that require any organisation to not only communicate well, but to be able to listen and adapt to the task environment. It is often said that the test of any organisation is during times of crisis, which is when a well‐run, well‐funded PR department often comes into its own. Whilst ROI may not be specifically measurable in terms of hard data, PR as a so‐called ‘soft’ impact during recession may prove invaluable to an organizations very survival. Word Count: 2750
Bibliography and References Campbell, A. (2003) Putting the publics into public relations. In IPR Diploma Resource Pack, chapter 9. Cutlip, S and Centre, A and Broom, G. (2000) Effective Public Relations. 7th ed. New Jersey. Prentice‐Hall. Dawson, P. (2004) Managing Change. Edited by Tourish, D. and Hargie, O. (2004) Key Issues in Organisational Communication. London. Routledge. Finn, D. (1959) Cited in Newsom, D. and Scott, A. (1981) The Realities of Public Relations. 2nd ed. USA. Wadsworth Publishing. Grunig, J. and Hunt, T. (1984) Managing Public Relations. 1st ed. New York. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Grunig, L., Grunig, J. and Dozier, D. (2002) Cited in L’Etang, J. (2008) Public Relations, Concepts, Practice and Critique. London. Sage. Grunig, L. (1990) Power in the Public Relations Department. Cited in Public Relations Research Annual. Volume 2. New Jersey. Lawrence Earlbaum. Heath, R. (2005) Encyclopedia of Public Relations. Volume 2. London. Sage. Kollewe, J. (2009) High street casualties timeline. Guardian.co.uk. [Online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2008/dec/29/high‐street‐retailers‐administration. [accessed 20 December 2010]. L’Etang, J. and Pieczka, M. (2006) Public Relations: Critical Debates and Contemporary Practice. New Jersey. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Phillips, D. (2006) Towards Relationship Management: Public relations at the core of organisational development. Cited in the Journal of Communication Management. Vol. 10 No 2. Emerald Group. Sung, A. (2007) Cited in L’Etang, J. (2008) Public Relations, Concepts, Practice and Critique. London. Sage. Swinford, S. (2010) Calls to deny Heathrow chief his bonus. [Online]. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/weather/8218553/Calls‐to‐deny‐Heathrow‐chief‐his‐bonus.html. [Accessed 22 December 2010]. Taylor, M. (2010) Unions warn of massive wave of strikes in battle to halt cuts. Cited in The Guardian. 20 December 2010. Tench, R. and Yeomans, L. (2006) Exploring Public Relations. 1st ed. Harlow. Pearson Education. Varey, R. (1997) Public Relations – The External Publics Context. Cited in Kitchen, P. Ed. Public Relations ‐ Principles and Practice. London. Thompson Learning.