This blog post is a summary of “Everything is not Pleasantville: Reframing Public Relations Encroachment as Work Group Autonomy in Higher Education,” by Christopher Wilson, Ph.D., Brigham Young University; Mark Callister, Ph.D., Brigham Young University; and Melissa Seipel, M.A., Cornell University. For the full study, please visit the PR Journal.

The relationship between the public relations function and its counterparts in similar departments of an organization has been researched in the past. In higher education, the function of fundraising most often overlaps with public relations responsibilities, as they both use strategic planning and communication techniques to build relationships. Past literature defines “encroachment” as a structural outcome where the public relations function reports to a senior fundraiser rather than the organization’s CEO. The senior communicator is distanced from the management and a holistic public relations perspective is not included in organizational decision-making.

The purpose of this study is to build on previous research on encroachment by rethinking it in terms of work group autonomy in colleges and universities. It has not been demonstrated empirically that public relations encroachment produces negative organizational-level impacts like decreased effectiveness and disruption of operations. This is because public relations departments can still have significant influence even when they operate under fundraising.

Therefore, encroachment should be considered beyond the context of who reports to who. This study examines encroachment by taking a look at the dynamics of interdepartmental relationships between public relations and fundraising that exist outside of their reporting structures. Additionally, how these relationships among work groups have an impact on the autonomy of public relations departments is investigated, since reporting structures do not necessarily guarantee departmental autonomy.

Researchers conducted qualitative interviews with 23 senior public relations officers at public and private colleges and universities ranked on the Philanthropy 400 from 2012 to 2015. Respondents were selected based on their knowledge and experience in dealing with issues between public relations and fundraising at these institutions. Their titles ranged from Strategic Communications Lead to Director of University Communications.

The results showed that senior public relations officers at top fundraising colleges and universities actually have positive working relationships with the fundraising departments. Although it runs counter to the idea of encroachment, findings indicated that the positivity in this relationship is due to mutual respect and understanding and recognition of the need for these departments to be more aligned to ensure the success of their institutions. Some public relations officers pointed out that when they prioritize fundraising, their departments and institutions benefit.

Results also indicated that senior public relations managers felt the public relations-fundraising relationship was influenced by university administrators’ views on communication. If the administrators understood the value of communications, it allowed the public relations function some authority since they can provide strategic counsel to top management.

Due to situational factors specific to each college or university, such as organizational culture, size and complexity, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the way public relations and fundraising departments should work together. Some respondents indicated that under certain conditions, integrating public relations and fundraising makes sense. This conclusion refutes the notion presented in past literature that encroachment is always a negative consequence.

External pressures from the outside world also dictate the position of public relations relative to fundraising within the institution. Interviews from the study show that the rise of the internet and social media have magnified the importance of public relations to these colleges and universities. Meanwhile, economic pressures faced by institutions that rely on fundraising have increased collaboration between public relations and fundraising departments.

Results also showed 10 respondents felt that the autonomy of public relations departments is affected when there are cooperation problems in the public relations-fundraising relationship. Senior fundraisers’ tendency to misunderstand the role of the public relations department, lack of a shared vision and competition over human and financial resources impede cooperation and threaten public relations autonomy. Additionally, 10 of the respondents observed pressure to prioritize fundraising over public relations. They explained that fundraising’s focus on donors created expectations that would sometimes conflict with public relations efforts to communicate with a broad range of stakeholders.

To achieve more effective collaboration with fundraising through mutually beneficial relationships:

  • Senior public relations officers should ensure their department has all the necessary specialized knowledge and expertise to meet the needs of the fundraising function and university management. This can lead to an increased autonomy for the department.
  • Senior public relations officers should adopt a relationship building approach based on a shared vision with internal departments, especially fundraising, in order to clear up misunderstandings over the role public relations plays in a college or university.
  • Senior public relations officers should educate university administrators on the importance of communication to the institution.

Although the results of this study suggest everything might not be “Pleasantville” in the working relationship between public relations and fundraising, the results do indicate that public relations departments don’t just function as victims of encroachment under fundraising’s shadow, but as interdepartmental relational partners with influence over relationship dynamics and outcomes.

For the full study, please visit the Public Relations Journal.

Martha Paz-Soldan is a public relations and English student at the University of Florida. She is a copywriter for The Agency, a strategic communication firm housed in the College of Journalism and Communications.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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