What is the board's language and how do we speak it?

For the first nine years of my career, I thought the PR function had a very good relationship with the board.

One of the biggest threats to the growth of PR is the CMO role, argues Richard Fogg
One of the biggest threats to the growth of PR is the CMO role, argues Richard Fogg
We put them on TV and they liked it. We beat their competition in coverage share of voice and they patted us on the head. We dug them out of trouble when crises hit and they thanked us in breathless tones.

Then about eight years ago, thanks to the global economic downturn, that changed. Almost any type of communications or marketing budget that wasn’t directly tied to sales was attacked by the CMO, a move cheered by the CFO and signed off by the CEO.

Our inability to make PR immediately relevant to the things boards really cared about when not in the midst of a crisis – lead generation, value creation, positioning for exit, etcetera – reduced, and in some cases removed entirely, our licence to operate.

Since that time, PR teams and agencies have become a lot better at tackling things that boards really care about. And also a lot better at talking about the things boards really care about.

I have a view that is spectacularly unpopular in PR circles: I don’t think that a 'chief communications officer' is necessary on most boards. I’d go further and assert that one of the biggest threats to the growth of PR itself is the chief communications officer. 

It’s a sweeping generalisation, but they tend to be less confident and more closed to new ideas that are aligned to board objectives.

As PR professionals we need to connect with the CMO. That’s where the budget and the power and the influence resides, in my experience. 

I’m honestly happier working for companies where PR sits within marketing. They’re more confident and open to new ideas, and integration is important to them. 

Understanding the language of marketing is, to my mind, more important to many of us PR professionals than understanding the language of the board. 

But even if we’re working into the CMO, we need to know what they’re dealing with in those dreary meetings. And we haven’t made it there yet.

I’ve got a theory that it’s linked to theory. Other professions – such as management consultants – use theory to underpin their research and their claims. 

Robust, academic theories provide best practice, frameworks and confidence to executives. There’s too much art and not enough science in the PR world for us to be taken seriously as a management discipline.

I also think it’s down to our comfort with financial terms, statements, markets, strategic plans etc. 

When I lecture to PR students I say that the most damning phrase that any PR person can utter is "oh, I don’t do numbers – I’m more of a words person". 

When PR fails to talk the language of the board, it hits us hard. It impacts our budgets, it impacts our licence to operate, it impacts our self-esteem and our confidence. 

So yes, I care (passionately) about understanding and speaking the language of the board.

Richard Fogg is the chief executive of CCgroup and a member of the PRCA’s PR and Comms Council

This is an edited version of an essay from the PRCA’s PR and Communications Council Yearbook, 2016

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