Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Public Relations Strategy (2nd ed.)
Article Type: Suggested reading From: Strategic Direction, Volume 24, Issue 5.
Sandra Oliver, Kogan Page
Reviewer: Kirk Hazlett, Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts, USA
First, what Public Relations Strategy is not: It is not written for the entry-level practitioner looking for tips on writing a winning news release. Nor is it a compendium of all that is public relations … the history, the theory, the tactical, the practical.
Public Relations Strategy, one of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ “PR in Practice Series,” written by Sandra Oliver, PhD, Emeritus Professor at Thames Valley University, London, UK, is a handbook for the CEO or senior business manager. It is an analysis of “public relations” as it relates to managing issues impacting overall corporate policies and planning.
In eight chapters, Oliver combines insights, academic and professional references, tables and charts, and comprehensive case studies to lead the reader through all the aspects of public relations that delineate the profession’s crucial role in corporate success. “At the practical level, most in-house specialists are aware that they can carry out the tactical requirements demanded of them … Yet many struggle with main board directorates who … ask questions that assume knowledge and apprehension of business strategy” (p. ix).
Oliver offers guidelines for strategic public relations management. What endeared this reviewer was the author’s emphasis that public relations strategy formulation is … and should be … a management-level function. Public relations is not the same as sales. “Strategy is essentially longer-term planning while bottom-line sales tactics … often demand short-term, if not immediate, results … Strategic public relations is concerned with managing the relationships between an organization and a much wider variety of stakeholders or audiences and range of priorities at any given time” (p. 13).
Chapter 2, “PR’s place on the board,” provides solid rationale for Oliver’s assertion that public relations must have a seat at the management table, a sentiment echoed by public relations professionals worldwide. The paradox lies in the fact that while “the public relations director is unlikely to be the CEO’s favourite colleague … ” (p. 25), by the same token, “it has been reported that CEOs spend between 50 and 80 percent of their working hours on average communicating with stockholders of one sort or another … ” (p. 26).
Clearly public relations can and should play a key role in advising and preparing the CEO for these communications activities. In areas ranging from risk management to crisis management to reputation management, the public relations professional is uniquely positioned to assist the CEO in navigating the murky waters.
The bottom line, in the argument for that crucial seat at the table, is that “strategy in its classical sense is a competitive model which aims to enhance the value of an organization to its stakeholders” (p. 42). That “enhanced value” can be realized with the carefully-honed skills of the public relations professional.
Chapter 3, “Reputation management,” should be bronzed and placed in the cribs of all future business leaders. Communications today ensures that information is readily available to everyone regardless of location, regardless of social status, language, and cultural differences. “The technological era has made people everywhere aware of, if not educated about, the roles of government and big business in society” (p. 49).
Unfortunately, business leaders time and again either overlook or ignore warning signs that they are being viewed with suspicion by their stakeholder publics. And why, one might ask, is this important? A simple phrase “public perception” what the public believes the company either is doing or is capable of doing. “Belief systems play a part in people’s attitudes. Unfavourable beliefs can lead to a drop in sales or a lowering of share price” (p. 49).
Moreover, says the author, a company’s stakeholders, external and internal, want to feel they understand the company’s goals and its plans for the future. This is where the public relations professional, again, plays a key role in guiding corporate strategic planning. “Corporate communication is only effective if it conveys a message of strength and substance based on sound and accepted corporate values and objectives, both internally and externally, based on best practice” (p. 53). Further, “In today’s climate of corporate accountability, no organization can afford to take … an arrogant or complacent view of communications nor fail to address its public relations implications” (p. 56).
Chapter 4 explores an area often overlooked by senior management in spite of years of history, that of “internal communication and PR: employees as ambassadors.” While it has been documented time and again that leaving employee stakeholders “out of the loop” in corporate strategic planning can be the organization’s downfall, the landscape is littered with the shells of those who simply have not learned.
“The role of public relations in helping organizations to change and to sustain new behaviours is nearly always underestimated … given that change is a permanent scenario in many organizations, communication managers need all the public relations skills at their disposal to ensure that staff contribute to decision making, ownership of the outcomes and subsequent supportive action for any change development plan” (pp. 63-64).
Chapter 5 focuses on the functional relationships between public relations, advertising and marketing. “In blue-chip companies, marketing, advertising and public relations functions are linked autonomously to the corporate and business plans but managed overall as corporate communications” (p. 76).
The author devotes a good amount of time to comparisons and contrasts, concluding that “traditionally, even though the communication tools and techniques may be drawn on by all three functions of marketing, advertising, and public relations, the dominant strategic force remains with public relations” (p. 77).
Public relations’ strength, says Oliver, of establishing and maintaining relationships, is evident particularly in business-to-business or industrial markets where “relationship marketing is critical to success … A public relations service must be able to articulate and prioritize any or all attributes offered by the service or organization in order to target customer value and to position the company for competitive customer advantage” (p. 82).
Chapter 6 discusses the role of the mass communication media in the public relations program. Oliver cites characteristics ranging from “power resource this is highly relevant to organizations given that the media are the primary means of transmission and sources of information in society” (p. 94), to “benchmark for what is normal this is particularly important for organizations where ethical issues are concerned” (p. 94).
Oliver ends the chapter with an overview of the impact of modern technology on public relations, observing that “the full potential impact of the internet cannot yet be assessed, but there is clearly strategic potential for using it as an information and transaction channel for distributing news and for building communication channels” (p. 99).
No text on public relations would be complete without a chapter on research, an area in which the author maintains the profession still faces challenges. “Most management disciplines that are well regulated and well regarded are founded in established practices that are rigorously researched. Given that public relations is a management discipline, the lack of a reliable, generic research base in public relations has been a hindrance to the profession” (p. 104).
However, she does feel the situation is improving. “A more scientific approach to evaluation is emerging based on developments from media studies, market research, and more specifically from both audience and social psychology research, tools such as MRIs, eye-trackers and other high tech developments” (pp. 104-105).
This change is evolving, says the author, in large part due to the rapid growth of internet-based technologies. “Most practitioners are familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of internet-based research methods, not least in terms of environmental scanning or monitoring of media and other information sources” (p. 107).
The final chapter, “The ethical dimension: a moral imperative,” addresses the role of ethics in communications. “Increasingly, communication experts and public relations practitioners find themselves involved in mediation, conflict resolution and relationship or personal communication development programmes” (p. 119).
Oliver makes it clear that corporate public relations is not propaganda, in spite of the public’s propensity for confusing the two. Unlike propaganda, “public relations must be transparent, free from bias and demonstrate a two-way dynamic process where the aim is mutual understanding of the facts even if there is no subsequent agreement on policy or ideology … The best intentions can lead to improper aims and methods, along with unrecognized conflicts of interest” (p. 121).
Ethical practice, says Oliver, does not imply less than stellar organizational performance and results. “There is no reason why strategic thinking cannot be both logical and creative so long as it is ethical” (p. 122).
Public Relations Strategy is a “must-read” for the senior professional who is seeking an understanding of the myriad ways in which public relations supports and promotes the organization in its drive to success. It should be used as a primer for introducing those who have only a vague realization of public relations’ power and as a “memory-jogger” for those who, on a day-to-day basis, find themselves faced with the challenges and the opportunities that public relations brings to the business mix.
This review was originally published in Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 24 No. 4, 2007, pp. 251-3.