Lessons from the PRSA College of Fellows & Arthur W. Page Society
Senior public relations executives have learned by experience that no two senior executives prefer to receive strategic counsel in the exact same way. So many of them have developed a tool box of different approaches catered to the preferences of their bosses.
Several experts have developed ways of categorizing these strategies such as informational, structural or relational approaches (Berger & Reber, 2006). Examples of informational approaches may include using case studies or research; structural may involve codes of ethics, core values or policies; and relational approaches might include recruiting allies or forming coalitions.
We examined all of these approaches and others in our new book, “Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job.” The insights are based on in-depth interviews with 58 members of the PRSA College of Fellows and Arthur W. Page Society and survey research.
As an example of their customized approaches, one female PRSA Fellow said:
I could use a chapter from a book with an HR business partner, because I knew she was a little more academic and intellectual, and she would see the picture that I was seeing. Case studies have been helpful in again situations like I was describing when I was kind of dividing and conquering another higher level of leadership was what helped me to convince the woman who headed up a global organization. I shared case studies/articles that talked about communicating effectiveness and again, the research in terms of employees. …I think for me, it’s been knowing who it is that I’m trying to influence, what’s going to resonate with them, and what’s not going to resonate with them (Neill & Barnes, 2018, pp. 52-53.
Other techniques discussed by the senior executives include engaging in dialogue with other members of the C-Suite, the headline test (which involves considering potential media coverage of the pending decision), providing viable alternatives, and raising the concerns of stakeholders who may be impacted by the decision.
Perhaps the most complex strategies involved recruiting allies and forming coalitions due to the trust relationships that needed to be established over years of working with colleagues. While choice of allies may vary based on the issue, public relations executives often worked with risk management, general counsel, human resources and finance.
Relationships are necessary for public relations professionals to gather the information they need for their jobs in general, but are especially critical for providing strategic counsel. A member of the Page Society said he made relationships a priority from day one:
Anyone in communications immediately upon arriving in your job, it’s all coalition building…I came out of a political background, so I knew that if you wanted to get something done you had to have a grassroots strategy. I would go into every organization saying who’s in senior management. I may be too junior to know who the chief legal officer is, but I guarantee you that she has direct reports that I can find ways of working with. So I would seek out opportunities to network. I would make sure that if for instance there was something to be written…find out a way to go meet with that person. My philosophy being if they know you, they can’t distrust you. You immediately build a relationship bridge when you meet the person (Neill & Barnes, 2018, p. 61).
All of these strategies are discussed in more depth in the book in the context of specific examples of times when they were utilized. They also discussed mistakes to avoid such as embarrassing a senior executive in front of his/her peers or through a group email. While these mistakes may seem obvious to experienced managers, young professionals can learn from these words of caution. In addition, young professionals should talk to more senior executives to learn about their use of these strategies in practice and determine the best ones to use in their organizations based on executive preferences and organizational culture.
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.
Berger, B. K., and Reber, B. H. (2006). Gaining influence in public relations: the role of resistance in practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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.