Building knowledge, trust are key to C-suite access

Among PR industry clichés, "earning a seat at the leadership table" may be the most overused. But while the phrase itself may need to be retired, the concept is as timely as ever.

Among PR industry clichés, "earning a seat at the leadership table" may be the most overused. But while the phrase itself may need to be retired, the concept is as timely as ever.

While the "seat" usually refers to corporate staffers, agency professionals need to ensure they capture the attention of C-suite executives to help their internal colleagues push the importance of the PR discipline.

Whether a client's communications director reports to the marketing manager or directly to the CEO, sadly some executives still think of PR as media relations and nothing more. But optimism is high among agency PR professionals for the opportunity to improve relations.

"I truly believe we communicators have an opportunity to be at the C-suite," says Kim Hunter, president and CEO of LA-based Lagrant Communications. "Corporate communicators need to [do things like] build a relationship with the CFO."

To help PR break out of that mold, "you have to come up with ideas so extraordinarily good and visible that they make marketing people happy and have larger repercussions that the CEO is going to notice," says Cindy Rakowitz, SVP and LA GM at 5W PR.

It's true that, at times, taking that route "may make somebody politically upset," Rakowitz warns. The marketing officer may want to be seen as the corporation's master communicator or perhaps doesn't want the executive team to know he or she needs outside assistance.

"If you're a good PR person, you have to be able think out of the box and make everybody notice," she adds.

"The best way to get at the seat at any table is to listen well and ask the right questions," says Steve Getzug, SVP and head of corporate and media services at Hill & Knowlton's Los Angeles office. "If you go in and try to offer solutions and try to up-sell without really listening, that's the quickest way to get kicked off."

But agency professionals can't merely rely on quick, revolutionary ideas to ensure PR gets proper respect within the corporation. Invites to the C-suite also involve understanding the financial side of a client's business, Hunter says.

"Many agency folks are not trained in that area" and don't have a solid grasp of balance sheets, income statements, and cash-flow analysis, he explains.

While it's not black and white, agencies with a communications liaison who has direct access to the CEO are more highly valued.

Regardless of reporting structure, "what we try to do as practitioners is to try to make the client look smart," Getzug says.

That means providing a framework to help corporate executives solve pressing issues, prioritize, and achieve their outreach goals.

By accomplishing these things, an agency will elevate its standing with a client and, in time, become a trusted adviser. "Once you've built that trust, usually the seat opens up," Getzug adds.

"At the end of the day, as budget cuts occur, it makes things a lot easier for all of us in the communications industry to be able to talk the language of CFOs and CEOs," Hunter notes. "It helps you have a leg up when things get tight."

"I feel like if I can make my client succeed, whether it's the marketing [director], director of corporate communications, or CEO, then I've done my job," Getzug says. "That is the kind of thing that leads to advancing reputation and referrals."

Key points:

To earn their seat at the leadership table, PR practitioners should listen first and offer solutions second

A solid financial background can help agency execs talk the C-suite talk

Big ideas and a little sensitivity go a long way in capturing executive ears

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