Management guru Peter Drucker once observed that there is no such thing as PR.
"There's publicity, promotion, advertising, but 'relations' by definition are a two-way street." His point: Most senior executives cared more about getting their message out than getting public opinion in.
That can be true of the C-suite until a colleague or a crisis prompts them to get outside communications counsel. When this happens, it can create a warm current or an icy chill down the professional spine of existing in-house communications counsel.
The opening line of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities can sometimes describe relationships with C-Suite-sponsored external consultants. It begins: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Successful in-house communicators find ways to ensure these two cities become one exemplary state.
A normal first reaction of in-house communications counsel is: "There's an intruder, and intruders either take things away or leave a mess." Move past all negative responses. Embrace outside PR counsel brought in by senior executives because that person is not going anywhere, keeping them close equals information, and the end product can be better with input from both external and internal counsel.
Seeking outside PR help is common. Several years ago, the PRSA reported that the larger the organization and PR staffs, the more external consultants are utilized. Ideally, the communications team directly manages these consultants. When it does not, interacting directly and confidently becomes crucial.
Mike McCurry, former press secretary to President Clinton and consultant to many top executives, says that providing an informed, calm, and unbiased voice is the ultimate positioning for senior in-house counsel. Second-guessing and lukewarm leadership is more tragic than whatever prompted senior executives to hire outside counsel. It's important to boost the CEO's and leadership team's confidence, and surprising to realize that one factor could be the lack of confidence that executives feel in themselves.
From a consultant's perspective, says Steve McMahon, advisor to Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and CEO of consulting firm Issues & Image, the best scenario is one in which the consultant works through the existing reporting structure and respects the protocols that everyone follows. Given the task, it would be difficult for the external consultant to accomplish it well without some input from staff. Stonewalling often leads to results in-house counsel doesn't want.
Effectively handling C-suite-sponsored external counsel boils down to the most important elements of a senior communicator's job: establishing trust and managing relationships. This must occur first with the CEO and senior leadership, second with staff employees, and third with the outside world.
In Drucker's 1998 interview with the PRSA, he also noted that "most institutions still look upon PR as their 'trumpet' and not their 'hearing aid.'" It's got to be both for senior communicators, no matter who is talking to whom.
Lisa Davis is a consultant and former communications director for AARP. Each month, she looks at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.