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Public relations’ role now at the top table: Survey



I HAVE admittedly been on a long hiatus, and it was not entirely my fault. Apart from taking the time to recharge my waning batteries, rather odd for this time of the year, a terrible strain of flu struck me down. Before I hear any of you shout “Long Covid!”

I can assure you –and myself – that it was not it at all.

While I was away, a lot has happened in the communications sphere. The usual foul ups, bleeps and blunders have dominated headlines both here and abroad. You get that sinking feeling each time dung happens and ask yourself whether they will learn.

For instance, Elon Musk, the bane of the public relations (PR) profession (he gives the impression that PR is useless by not engaging in it for any of his operations) has had a stuttering debut as the new owner of Twitter. I do not know if I am the only one who feels that his takeover of the social media platform is leaving a foul taste in the mouth? Let’s watch this space for more drama from that direction.

In other news, the PR function has never been in a better position to flex its influence across multiple facets of an organisation. This is according to the fifth collaboration between the influential PRWeek and Boston University that portrays an industry that has the ear of the C-suite but faces new expectations to deliver value.

This bodes well for the argument that PR is of strategic significance in organisations, having an ear or a seat at the C-suite. The most comprehensive annual review of the industry acknowledges this, especially post Covid-19, where communication took centre stage in ensuring that organisations kept afloat during the most disruptive occurrence since the dinosaurs’ extinction.

The 2022 PRWeek/Boston University Communications Bellwether Survey offers a wealth of data-backed insights to inform this theory, from in-house comms functions, PR agencies, educators and tech suppliers.

From the changes in skill sets required for the profession to prosper, to how organisations approach pressure to speak up on social and political issues, the fifth annual survey benchmarks where the industry stands and where it is going. 

Nearly 1 500 comms professionals who took the 2022 survey. PR pros report feeling valued, both by their organisation and executive leadership, which is a relief for many in the profession. Two out of three participants agreed the comms function is involved in important business decisions. An almost equal amount, 65%, said their advice was valued in making these decisions.

Arunima Krishna, assistant professor of PR at Boston University’s College of Communication, says that the function capitalised on the pivotal moment the pandemic provided in 2020.

“The latest results show comms has continued to grow in importance, and this shows that its influence is here to stay,” she says.

Another measure that has steadily risen since the fielding of the first Bellwether Survey in 2018 is that almost three out of four client-side respondents show the function is today seated at the top management table.

People like Jennifer Smother, senior vice-president and chief communications officer at UnitedHealth Group, say that the seat before her arrival was not there. She joined the healthcare and insurance company in March 2021.

“Demonstration of business acumen, understanding of external forces on our business and focusing our team not just on performance measures but also on effectiveness, has allowed me to be at the table. We have to show our worth as business leaders with communication expertise to keep it,” she says.

PR coming to the decision-making table and staying there will depend a lot on what it brings. Its increased expectations and accountability are what will count.

Because, based on the main data, one interesting result from the survey suggests the function is not yet weighing in on some matters. Respondents reported not really being involved in management discussions about crucial business issues such as supply chain, inflation and those affected globally.

Like I have stated in past articles, it is difficult working your way to being recognised and accepted by top management.

Torod Neptune, in the survey, says it requires hard work to take your seat and exploit it to its full impact, especially when you historically have not had it.

“We’re making very tough decisions to prioritise high-value work within our function, which is creating tension because leaders in the company are used to seeing us prioritise things I would suggest are of lesser value,” says Neptune.

He focuses on how they use the seat at the table to influence, guide and course correct for the organisation, and not just sit. It is a paralysing situation I found myself some years ago as senior PRO at the City of Bulawayo, where I could sit in their executive meetings, but not once was I allowed to open my mouth, except to yawn or drink tea.

One role communications should play at the highest level is keeping the organisation accountable, on behalf of all its stakeholders. This is difficult, particularly where the organisational culture is literally set in concrete where the comms office is there to generate content sourced from other departments. Accountability, in many organisations, resides in the corporate affairs office that handles legal issues.

“We’re poking, prodding and trying to be drivers of that in conversations across the enterprise. It’s not easy work,” Neptune says.

“But a barometer of how well we are deploying the influence we have gained is the degree to which we’re involved in very tough, challenging conversations about the business.”

PR agency leaders are also being asked to improve their roles as counsel.

“Our clients very often have large, strategic roles, but today they are in the spotlight with their management teams and boards as never before,” AnnaMaria DeSalva, global chairperson and CEO at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says that the role of PROs as advisers is evolving.

“Today, we address the convergence of opportunities and issues that span commercial growth, risk management and reputation,” she says in the study.

The big plus from the survey is the acceptance that communications is firmly in the room with other C-suite leaders. However, the work has just begun to show the room how much more value it can offer.

About the wroter: Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga is a communications strategist with 20 years’ experience in the profession and counsels organisations in the private, public and civic society as well as political actors. He has worked for the Word Bank and is adviser to local and regional PR agencies. Contact him on: Mobile  +263 772 400 656 and Email: [email protected]

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