We just completed 58 in-depth interviews with members of the PRSA College of Fellows and Arthur W. Page Society for a book about public relations ethics, and, as you might imagine, the results were rich with lessons and insights from these senior executives. One of the most important lessons emphasized the priority public relations executives should place on building relationships with colleagues inside their companies and organizations so that their advice is sought out and valued as public relations counselors.
Since we were discussing ethical challenges these professionals had faced on the job, we agreed not to publicly identify our participants. While we can’t share their names and employers, we can share the lessons and advice they provided based on their personal experiences.
These senior executives acknowledged that creating these internal relationships was a considerable challenge, and a process that requires constant and consistent attention. At the same time, relationship building is our job, and the internal relationship building we invest in produces trust among our colleagues that can lead to vital information sharing, what scholars like to refer to as social capital.
Social capital provides three major benefits for public relations executives: 1) access to information, 2) timeliness, or receiving information sooner than others, and 3) referrals by personal contacts who, by mentioning a colleague’s name at the right time and the right place, create new opportunities for that colleague (Burt, 1992).
Similarly, Conger (1998) writes that one essential ingredient in negotiation or persuasion is credibility based on expertise and trusting relationships. Credibility develops with a track record of successes in your area of expertise, and a reputation is built over time as colleagues learn that they can trust you to listen and act in their best interest (Conger, 1998).
One of the Page Society members we interviewed had experienced this personally. “I had a relationship with them previously… it really came down to know you, like you, trust you… you’d seen them in action, so you knew what their character was …or that they had a strong sense of right or wrong” (Neill & Barnes, 2018).
In our study, the executives talked about their intentional efforts to build and maintain these relationships, such as a getting to know colleagues from the first day on the job, making an effort to learn about others’ departments and areas of expertise, and scheduling informal discussions at the coffee shop. As one PRSA Fellow said, “It’s part of our job anyway to understand this business and learning about their challenges they face, the issues they face, the triumphs that they experience. …We have to take the time to do that, and then when people feel like you understand their business … then the relationship just gets stronger” (Neill & Barnes, 2018).
We found that public relations executives were strategic in the way they sought and built internal relationships, often focusing on colleagues working in legal, finance or other areas that often have a strong voice in organizational decision-making. As a PRSA Fellow said, “You may not have access but they darn will and if they can bring you along great,” (Neill & Barnes, 2018).
While this may sound time-consuming and even disruptive to your daily routine, in reality many of these relationships are built while working together on cross-departmental projects for the company or organization. For these reasons, we list networking and maintaining relationships among 10 essential practices that you should make a part of your routine to effectively provide ethics counsel or any strategic counsel. Other priorities related to internal communication that we highlighted in our book included the importance of regularly promoting your organization’s core values and being alert in order to ask questions to identify ethical concerns.
It is impossible to sum up more than 40 hours of insights from in-depth interviews in a blog post, so for additional lessons and recommendations, please check out our book, “Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job.”
Note on Book Availability: The e-book is now available and the printed copy will be available on Jan. 18, 2018. Please visit the publisher website for updates: http://www.businessexpertpress.com/
Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor University. Follow her on Twitter @neillpr.
Amy Barnes, M.A., APR, is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communication at University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
Burt, R.S. (1992). Structural holes: The social structure of competition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Conger, J. A. (1998). The necessary art of persuasion, Harvard Business Review, 113 (3), 84-95.
Neill, M.S. & Barnes, A. (2018). Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to
Speak Up and Keep Your Job, New York: Business Expert Press.