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
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
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'.