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The Three Rules of C-Level PR Programming:
Research, Language and Counsel
“If I deliver results in PR-speak, I get blank, bored stares. I need to talk the same business language with the same business focus as my company’s senior management team.”
— SVP, corporate communications
BY EPHRAIM COHEN
n today’s economic environment, public perception can be the greatest asset — or the greatest liability — of any company. But while reputation may be one of the first considerations during the corporate decision-making process, PR professionals may not be leading the discussion. The reason boils down to this: When it comes to reputation, the C-suite needs to talk business, not public relations. Those PR professionals able to lead business discussions are the ones who will play the central role in managing a company’s reputation. All others will likely be relegated to a reactive mode where we are only able to communicate the decisions that others have finalized. This leads to some important questions. How can a PR department switch from the common reactive and tactical modes to actively providing counsel during the decisionmaking process? Furthermore, how can public relations move from merely talking about media relations to managing reputation risk and espousing the economic value around major business decisions such as customer-service investments? An active strategy for public perception management requires that a company view its relationship with PR representation as a partnership. The PR team should be involved at multiple levels of the company and should be viewed as a critical component in decision-making processes. Instead of simply offering counsel when requested, the PR team should be a valuable resource that is engaged at the
earliest stages of business planning through the final stages of measurement and analysis. Maximum effectiveness requires that the PR team be placed in a position where it can truly understand how the company is seen by core audiences, primarily customers, prospects and investors. The team must be able to project how company actions will affect those perceptions and measure any changes in audience opinions. This is a major strategic shift; however, it is one that PR departments can facilitate through the implementation of three crucial actions. 1. Introduce opinion-survey and market-analysis tools into the departmental skill set Understanding the influences of audience perceptions of a company and what changes the company can implement to spur positive action, such as investing in or purchasing from the company, are fundamental to any strong and effective strategic PR program. In current PR practice, professionals search for correlations and analyze data to determine how messaging and tac-
the image bank
THE STRATEGIST/FALL 2008 PAGE 34
tics affect the audience’s opinion. But what if we simply asked them? Instead of establishing program recommendations on how tactical output ( i.e., media) might drive sales, base them on what audiences say would actually increase their purchase intent. PR professionals could then use this research to recommend specific actions to positively impact audience perceptions or to gauge how actions recommended by other departments would have an impact on audience perception and actions. The latter can be likened to a lawyer providing legal counsel or an accountant similarly offering tax advice. A company’s PR team should always be positioned to provide insight about the reputation implications of any suggested action or have the ability to contribute suggestions themselves. Skills in areas including risk management, opinion research and business analysis, which are critical to active PR management, are in short supply. Not only do too few have these skills, but the profession also underestimates its need for these skills. It’s easy to find a PR department searching for someone with media contacts. One is far less likely to find one searching for someone with risk-management and opinionresearch analysis skills. Politics is one domain in which such tools and strategies are hard at work and highly valued. Politicians keep pollsters around precisely because pollsters provide critical information about what people are thinking, what influences their thinking and what needs to be said. Pollsters can then follow up, finding out if the program changes worked. Campaign managers don’t read clip books; they read survey results. CEOs may get clip books with fancy graphs, but those don’t provide the bottom line — which is whether we effectively altered opinions. 2. Change from PR-specific language to high-level business language A company’s executive leadership is interested in how reputation drives bottom-line metrics, including sales and valuation. While the PR function may drive these metrics on a daily basis, PR language doesn’t always make that clear. Switching from PR to business language can both increase the company’s understanding of the importance of the PR function and elevate the level of counsel itself. Instead of just talking about brand and corporate reputation, talk about reputation risk management and economic value. For programming, it’s about the reputation impact of business moves as well as the risk and economic values of that impact. When it comes to measurement, metrics should focus on audience opinion surveys with an emphasis on the opinions that impact the
bottom line most. This information can also concretely demonstrate how output like media coverage can drive audience opinions. The important point is that PR professionals should be speaking at the same level at which the senior management team is operating. 3. Provide business — not PR — counsel Similar to the switch from PR to business language, PR counsel should become overall business counsel. Communications is simply one means to having a better-run business. This strategic move can be accomplished in two stages. First, counsel should address how business moves will impact reputation. Not only should PR professionals indicate how specific business moves affect opinion, but they should also recommend alternative moves. Instead of simply showing how cutting customer service will negatively impact consumer opinions, counsel should suggest strategies such as improving customer-service scripts and lowering online response times to neutralize those negative effects. An active approach should measure awareness and opinions as well as impact on reputation. It should make forwardlooking recommendations for the business. In the example above, this would mean not only measuring communication around the changes in customer service but also explaining how additional changes in customer service could continue to impact reputation. Management may not always act based on PR recommendations, but the smart leaders understand that reputation (the bottom-line measurement of public relations) is the result of a combination of business decisions and communication. They’ll also realize that the job of the PR department is to watch, recommend and manage the company’s reputation at the highest strategic level, not just at a tactical level. A shift to a financial, value-focused effort is a major move, but it is not without reward. Benefits include bigger budgets, greater respect, more influence and the lead communications role. PR practitioners can truly take charge of a company’s reputation and prove their program’s economic value. I
Ephraim Cohen is executive director of leadership strategy at MWW Group as well as the principal consultant of the communications consulting firm Fortex Group. His articles and posts can be found at the Seat at the Table blog.
THE STRATEGIST/FALL 2008 PAGE 35
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