Influence v Performance: The neglected flip-side of PR professionalisation
“Don’t tell my mother that I’m working in public relations, rather tell her, I´m playing the piano in a nightclub!”
With this witticism, famous German PR-professor, Günter Bentele, leads a study of public relation in the year 2005, with the title: “The image of the image-designers” (2005). It´s main outcome: the image of public relations is as bad as can be…
This dubious image of public relations goes hand in hand with a public impression that depicts prototypical representatives of the field as friendly smiling but naive »PR-ladies« or so called »earls-of-sandwiches« on one side and on the other side as reckless and sleeky spin doctors of public opinion. This negative public image might be something you just have to accept, when your first aim is, to hone the individual’s interest in your own company.
But the real challenge is that even in their own organisations, PR-people are assumed to have poor competences to solve organisational problems. The phenomenon we are facing – in its worst form – is called »encroachment-effect« (Röttger, 2000/2010, p. 21). This effect means that we see more and more organisations shift their PR-tasks to colleagues who are experts in one of many other fields such as legal or engineering, but have no substantial education in the field of communication. This has been shown via different surveys all over the world.
Several other studies conclude that PR-practitioners are struggling for access into, what Grunig and Hunt called, the »dominant coalition« (1984, p. 120). Public relations departments have a hard time to realise their ideal mode to act as a strategically oriented management function. So the authors of the European Communication Monitor, Europe’s largest survey in the field of communication: “The profession is striving for a strategic position at the decision-making table in order to become a part of the strategic management of an organisation (…).” (Zerfass, Tench, Verčič, Verhoeven, & Moreno, 2014, p. 83)
Following the »Comparative Excellence Framework« (Zerfass et al., 2014, p. 134), excellent PR-departments, are by far better than others across two dimensions: »influence« which is based on advisory influence and executive influence on the one hand and »performance« on the other, which means that they are solving problems more successfully and show more competence in terms of communications and conceptual skills.
Talking about professionalisation, I like the picture of a medal with two inseparable sides. On one side there is influence, as we said: the dimension where we gain power within the organisation and are established as a welcome voice in the strategic decision-making process. On the other side we have performance, which is based on countable results based on actual communicative work.
According to all the surveys (at least in Europe), over the last decades, we see an interesting development: public relations is trying to develop its competences by mainly focussing on the influence side of our medal. It´s about gaining presentation- and negotiation skills and being fit for the competition in the inner management game (Simcic Brønn, Romenti, & Zerfass, 2016). Whereas the performance-side of this medal is hardly considered. Reaching better communication and conceptual skills is still a matter of learning-by-doing, something that is done by chance and on the run.
This might explain the surprising results of a large survey, I recently undertook in Austria (Dietrich, 2018). I analysed over 600 submissions for the Austrian PR-State Award. It offered a good view of the problems PR-practitioners deal with and what their most successful dominant strategies and tactics are. This really gave me a good opportunity to take a closer look at the proper modus operandi and allowed me to draw a solid picture of what the real performance dimension looks like and how it developed over the years.
Here are the main results: Public Relations is established as a »buffering«-function and realised mainly via one-way-communication (or better to say: it´s more about information than real communication and dialogue). Its rather short-term than long-term oriented with very little continuity in terms of objectives and strategy. All in all, Public Relations is pretty much based on a symbolic-interpretative-approach, a paradigm, we all have wanted to leave behind since the first publications of James E. Grunig (Kim, Hung-Baesecke, Yang, & Grunig, 2013). Unfortunately, this normative and functional vision has not let to any noticeable effect. In a nutshell: Public Relations professionals still rather act as communicative vicarious agents than as managers with strategic responsibility. (As said before: my research didn´t show any significant developments of the dominant mode of public relations over the last 30 years!).
So, what´s my conclusion? Neglecting the performance-side of the PR professionalisation medal means to ignore the fact that the two sides share a strong reciprocal relation and are able to increasingly push each other.
The dynamic is: High influence can create greater possibilities to affect the corporate strategy. This then creates opportunities to set friendly frame conditions which enable higher communicative performance. And it doesn´t matter where you want to set the starting point of this circle! It is of course necessary to act smart within the organisational management game; at the same time, it can´t be denied that an outstanding performance – in terms of solving communicative problems – is essential to increasing trust in the PR-department.
Facing the challenges of an instantly faster developing world full of disruptions, it´s high-time to speed up PR professionalisation and to pay more attention to the performance-side of things.
It´s about understanding the logic of digitally constituted environments and communities and providing ideas, strategies and tools to deal with those opportunities and threats. Therefore, we urgently need to expand our knowledge and know-how of the communicative process.
This might also bring about the overdue change and repositioning of Public relations as a crucial management function within the organisation.
About the Author:
Prof. Dr. Peter Dietrich
Professor of Strategic Communication & Stakeholder Management at FH Kufstein Tirol (University of Applied Sciences). When not teaching or otherwise thinking about the field of communication management, he spends his time with his family and likes to do sports such as skiing and tennis or enjoys sitting on the couch reading a good book.
To find out more go to: https://www.linkedin.com/in/peterdietrich75/