EDITORIAL: Surveying PR's general standing among major corporations as it looks for a 'seat at the table'

PR professionals routinely use terms like "seat at the table" to denote strategic input at the highest level of an organization. Perhaps that phrase is becoming something of a cliche, but the ideal is not.

PR professionals routinely use terms like "seat at the table" to denote strategic input at the highest level of an organization. Perhaps that phrase is becoming something of a cliche, but the ideal is not.

As the business community marks the first anniversary of Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, we continue to reflect upon the issues that challenge corporate America's credibility and viability. The question arises, how has the corporate communicator's role changed or evolved in this period? Are the CEOs and CFOs of these companies, keen to avoid problems they have seen others face, listening to the advice of PR counsel more than ever? This question cannot be answered within the confines of this column, and I will be tackling more specific aspects of this question in the coming months. But to start the discussion, it seemed natural to turn to the Arthur W. Page Society (AWPS) leadership for a look at some of the key trends. David Drobis, chairman of Ketchum and president of the AWPS, says that CEOs are increasingly viewing their PR chiefs as the organization's "watchdogs." Drobis explains, "It is the only position that can do this because of the overview PR has across the whole organization." Communications is as much about listening to the messages coming into an organization from each of its stakeholders as it is disseminating them from the C-suite. Sure, that's obvious to many of us, but details like that are consistent with a return-to-basics sensibility that prevails today. As Drobis points out, the so-called "Page Principles," which were distilled from Arthur Page's own professional philosophy when the organization was founded in 1983, focus on the ideals the entire industry is promulgating now, specifically "tell the truth" and "prove it with action." Given that perspective, it's not surprising that employee communications takes on an increasingly crucial role, as companies strive to match their words to their activities. Roger Bolton, SVP of communications for Aetna, maintains that internal PR is a key component to sustaining the principles of ethical practices. "Every executive communication, internal presentation, and even the internal website is constantly reinforcing our values," he says. Peter Debreceny, Allstate Insurance Company's VP of corporate relations, said that as companies like his are releasing more financial information than ever before, there is increased collaboration between departments, from PR to legal to the CFO's office. "The whole process now, rather than being something that happens once a quarter, is a continuous process," he adds. These observations, admittedly, come from companies where PR is (reportedly) highly valued by other senior executives. Many PR professionals do not enjoy that same level of confidence from their senior management. At PRWeek, we are trying to identify the specific attributes of successful companies where PR is important, as well as contribute to better practices across the industry. Future columns will tackle specific issues within that theme. The question of PR's relevance is not a new one. "Looking back over the years I've been doing this, everyone's always been talking about the 'seat at the table,'" said Steve Harris, VP of communications for General Motors. "Another question is, do we know what to do with it?"

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