ANALYSIS: Is there a place at the table for PR? - For those who believe the status of communications has never been so high, a report on 'the communications director's role in the 21st century' was hard to swallow, says Adam Hill

According to a recent set of focus groups made up of senior PROs,

the PR industry suffers from a lack of confidence. The participants

suggested that communications chiefs had little strategic input and

indicated there is ongoing scepticism about the role of communications

within companies.

Places on the board were rare and chances of improvement are apparently

not encouraging. Not surprisingly, these findings elicited a chorus of

disapproval when presented at the Communications Directors' Forum

earlier this month.

Perhaps mindful of the fact that internal disagreements about PR do

little for the industry's reputation, none of the communications

directors contacted for this article was prepared to criticise the

research per se. But most concluded that its results - at least on the

issue of status - did not conform to their own experiences.

Dominic Fry, ScottishPower group communications director, explained his

objections: 'It made me cross. When we get into this public

self-flagellating mode we're giving our critics the chance to lambast

us. They use either the "Ab Fab" route or the "spin" route to come at

us. This sort of research gives them the right opportunity.'

Chris Fox, Tate & Lyle head of group corporate relations, also found

some of the findings surprising. One part of the research concentrated

on areas of competency that were coming to prominence. Fox said: 'The

researchers evinced some surprise that IR was on that list. For me, it

is driving so much of communications already.'

Handwringing over PR's place at the top table was likewise misguided,

Fox says: 'There seems an unhealthy obsession with whether or not you

are on the board.' Job title is less important than the level of access

communications directors can enjoy, he concludes: 'People use being on

the board as a shorthand for this.'

The vehemence of delegates' reaction to the findings about status and

confidence surprised Opinion Leader Research CEO Fiona Stewart. Her

company, along with FRESH and Echo Research, prepared the report: 'It

was a relatively small part of what we were saying.' She believes the

main issues for the industry were twofold.

These were, she says: 'A slight concern about the role being less clear

than it might be, and the difficulty of demonstrating the benefit of

good communications.'

She surmises that the adverse reaction was down in part to the elevated

professional status of some delegates. 'There is a premier league in

communications where it is pivotal to the organisation. But you don't

have to go far below that to find examples where the chief executive

valued what they did, but there were territorial wars with peer

directors such as marketing and HR.' There was enough common ground

across the various focus groups to convince her that PR's status was a

legitimate worry, she says.

Inevitably, there was questioning from delegates on methodology. 'There

was an inference that we must have spoken to junior people,' says

Stewart. 'We didn't.'

The members of the focus groups were certainly senior. But were their

concerns an accurate reflection of the status of directors? 'Yes and

no,' says Chris McDowall, PRCA director-general. 'There are people at

the top of the tree. It's quite clear that one or two of the people (at

the forum) were saying "that's not how it is for us", but there were

others for whom it was a reality. There's a disconnection between where

we are and where we want to be.'

And he cautions that communications directors may never gain the

confidence of those they seek to influence. 'A lot of CEOs will never

trust any one person,' he says.

The idea that PR should always have a place on the board is therefore

unrealistic. 'It doesn't happen in 80 per cent of cases. But people

aspire to be on the board and it's a worthy aspiration.'

Graham Lancaster, Biss Lancaster MD, is unperturbed by the report. Loss

of corporate reputation is now more of a worry for CEOs than ever and

PR's role in maintaining it is well appreciated, he said. 'The corporate

affairs function has never been better understood and enjoyed such

status. There are very senior people now at board level from our

profession. It's a time for great self-confidence.'

Stewart's contention is that the flashpoint - centred on a relatively

small section of the research findings, set among interesting questions

about evaluation, qualifications and the future - has obscured genuine

argument about other findings. 'The conclusion was to say "This doesn't

reflect my view." But there was no constructive debate on the issues the

seminar was covering,' she says.

Fry concedes that complaining about the research findings is


'It is beholden on people at the top of the tree to get involved in this

sort of research. People who are really representative of the group

ought to step up to the plate. I genuinely believe the industry is in a

confident state,' he says.

Mind you, silver linings are always apparent. And as one communications

director wryly pointed out, 'at least the research wasn't anodyne'.

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