COMMENT: Thought Leader - Public relations' ever-changing role inthe 21st-Century global corporation

Back in 1994, I published a book, Corporate Communication. I wanted to destroy old notions of how corporations communicated. By choosing that title, I was purposely trying to distance myself from the PR agency world.

Back in 1994, I published a book, Corporate Communication. I wanted to destroy old notions of how corporations communicated. By choosing that title, I was purposely trying to distance myself from the PR agency world.

But I have since realized that corporations can't handle communications on their own, and I've watched agencies position themselves as more strategic by focusing on issues like globalization and branding.

But we must go further and reinvent ourselves to ensure that our field, (whether we call it PR, corporate communication, or public affairs) is seen as the central player in a company's quest to implement strategy.

Why the need for strategic PR firms? Simple. Corporations, academics, and managerial journals like the Harvard Business Review focus brilliantly on the development of strategy, but spend little or no time on how to implement those strategies.

Some consulting firms charge millions to help CEOs develop new strategies and ways to run their businesses. Investment bankers can charge even more to help these same CEOs look at M&As, IPOs, issuances of debt, and equities using graduates of my MBA school to do the bulk of the analysis with little or no regard for how to implement those strategies.

Most changes, like a repositioning or a downsizing, affect key constituencies both inside and outside the firm, like employees, customers, shareholders, and communities. And the media is often key in selling the ideas to those same constituents.

Look at a concept like strategic intent, developed by Praha-lad and Hamel.

The idea is to create a huge stretch goal, like sending a man to the moon, or British Airways' "world's favorite airline,

but they said little about how to get the job done. The same is true for concepts like core competence, hypercompetition, and reengineering.

Well whose job is that if not yours and your client's? Who has the ability to develop the communication strategy, analyze the audience, develop the messages, and measure the response if not those of us who work as communications professionals?

In order to take this position, however, agencies need to reinvent themselves.

If PR doesn't fill this space, someone else will.

This reinvention might be inspired by the past. The context in which the field emerged at the turn of the 20th Century was much like ours today.

Muckrakers writing for popular magazines were writing anti-big business articles. Many Americans began to see a dark side to unrestrained economic growth and the ruthless acquisition of power in the hands of a few. Trusts dedicated to manipulating prices and destroying competition were on the rise and popular literature, like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, attacked business ferociously. Who came to the rescue? Our forebears, those twin fathers of PR - Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays.

Think about how creatively Ivy Lee repositioned Pennsylvania Railroad in its attempts to resist government regulation, or how Bernays helped popularize Ivory Soap with kids by getting them to enter soap sculpture contests. At PR's core in its early days was the notion of the field as a creative source for approaches to implementing strategy.

Ad agencies and consulting firms are realizing the potential for strategic implementation business. The environment almost demands it: 85% of the public say business can't balance profit and public interest; CEO pay, estimated at 500 times worker pay, is seen as obscene; and the popular press is beating up on business with a new generation of muckrakers. In addition, the anti-globalization movement has American firms trying to decide what to do about their positioning in other countries.

Someone will come along as the savior, like Lee and Bernays, if you don't rise to the occasion.

As generalists, you can bring a broader perspective to the table than your more specialized sisters and brothers in advertising and corporate identity, and far more understanding about constituents than any strategy-consulting firm.

But it will require PR firms and corporate communications pros to take their generalist approach and marry it with a more rigorous research base and the development of frameworks culled from the best practices in a variety of fields.

And you will need to hire people with a greater understanding of business and reward them accordingly. The business elite come from business schools today, and PR people need to realize that they must not only be excellent communicators, but also must understand finance, operations, and marketing.

If we can get there, it is not just our firms that stand to benefit, but the economy as a whole.

Paul Argenti is professor of management and corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business. His new book, The Power of Corporate Communication, co-authored with Janis Forman, is due out soon.

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