Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Nature of Strategic Public Relations

Strategic public relations should be a continuous, cyclical process which spans both internal and external boundaries.

Any discussion on the integrative approach to public relations will be likely to take notice of the historical development of the PR profession, both in terms of theory and practice. At best, the profession as a whole could be on the path to render obsolete the old notion of persuasion and publicity as the most prominent tools of the trade — bolstered by principles of relationship management and two-way symmetrical communication, PR is seen to increasingly assert its place at the management table of organizations. At worst, on the other hand, its dark tradition of deception and manipulation will continue to hinder it from earning the respect of business leaders and people in general.

As the 1985–2002, International Association of Business Communicators’ landmark Excellence study suggested, much in line with the findings of subsequent research: the majority of PR practitioners are generally not believed to have achieved an adequate level of understanding for realizing or establishing the true value and potential of strategic public relations (Cutlip et al. 2006; Grunig 2006; Grunig et al. 2007; Tench and Yeomans et al. 2007; Toth 2007).

One could argue that still-prevalent practices of spin and propaganda have long cast a shadow on the reputation of PR, effectively justifying critics such as Moloney (2000) in their exposition of an industry too frequently prone to less-than-excellent communication practices.

But what does the term ‘strategic public relations’ mean? Borrowed from military use where ‘strategy’ refers to making programs and plans of action designed to facilitate the achievement of goals and objectives, words like ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic’ have become highly popular in business and communication literature. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (2009), ‘strategic’ signifies something “of great importance within an integrated whole or to a planned effect.”

While experience would suggest that some degree of confusion must inevitably be linked to such a broad and popular usage, a somewhat similar trait seems to be true of ‘public relations’ as a term — hypothetically leaving ‘strategic public relations’ in an even more ambiguous light. Yet the central concepts of strategic PR become quite clear when related to what the profession ideally should be like — normative theory — as opposed to focusing on what the reality of the practice might be at the lower end of the excellence scale — positive or explanatory theory. In fact, studies of public relations theory and practice make it exceedingly clear that, over the past few decades, strategic public relations has been firmly established in its own right, both as an intellectual concept and as a business reality: any confusion, one may argue, should be attributed to lack of knowledge or awareness of the wealth of information available on the subject.

The term ‘corporate communication’ is meanwhile increasingly being used in reference to strategic public relations less consumer relations, and as a way to distance the practice from press agentry, propaganda, spin, and related negative connotations perceived as too closely associated with the history of PR (Wood 2006). The rise of corporate communication has established a management function that coordinates and integrates e.g. investor relations with media relations, internal communication and other PR specialisms (Argenti 2005).

The above mentioned Excellence study “sought to identify the key characteristics of excellent communication programs in organizations, and attributes of organizations that support such excellence. The research team, made up of top communication and public relations scholars and practitioners from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, combed prior research and theories from many disciplines to develop a comprehensive theory of excellence. What is excellent communication? What is the value of excellent communication to organizations? What kind of management support does excellent communication need?” (IABC 2009)

In a recent presentation of the findings of the study, summarizing main characteristics of excellent public relations found in a number of leading organizations, the following points were noted by Grunig et al. (2007, pp. 3–6):

“Public relations is a unique management function that helps an organization interact with the social, political, and institutional components of its environment. The value of public relations can be determined by measuring the quality of the relationships the organization establishes with its institutional environment. Public relations serves a strategic managerial role as well as a technical role. Public relations departments strategically plan, administer, and evaluate public relations programs. Public relations helps to shape the underlying conditions of organizational excellence — organizational culture and structure. Communication activities are integrated through the public relations department or a senior communication executive. Public relations is empowered by the dominant coalition of the organization. Public relations is not subordinated to marketing or other management functions. Public relations is two-way and symmetrical. Public relations executives are ethics counselors and internal advocates of social responsibility. Public relations departments have a professional base of knowledge. Activism and crises create demand for excellent public relations.”

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