Platform: Is in-house PR a victim of its own success? - As executives have learned the value of PR, the in-house PR department has found itself at a crossroads, says John Williams

It may be an odd time to worry about the in-house department when it seems to be coming into its own: corporate communications directors are making it to the boardroom table; budgets are increasing; staff numbers are growing; more and more companies are not only recognising the impact of their image and reputation on the bottom line, but doing something about it. But is the in-house PR chief in danger of being too successful?

It may be an odd time to worry about the in-house department when

it seems to be coming into its own: corporate communications directors

are making it to the boardroom table; budgets are increasing; staff

numbers are growing; more and more companies are not only recognising

the impact of their image and reputation on the bottom line, but doing

something about it. But is the in-house PR chief in danger of being too

successful?



I could paint a doomsday scenario. Directors are getting better at PR

and journalists want to talk to senior managers, not PR executives. PR

is now sufficiently important that marketing directors feel they should

control it. Corporate cost-cutting may hit central expenses such as

group communications departments, as divisions win more power from the

centre to be ’closer to the customer’.



There is, arguably, an insufficient pool of top level PR executives who

can earn a seat at the top table. So, PR may end up being too important

to be left to the PR department, with the function divided between the

chairman’s office, marketing, and the operating companies, with

consultants used to fill in the gaps. It could go further. Managing all

your PR through consultants sounds old fashioned until you dress it in

management-speak like ’outsourcing’ and ’the virtual organisation’.



I don’t wish for this scenario, but it may happen if the role of the

head of communications is not clearly defined and the right candidates

selected. In filling the post, there is an increasing array of choices:

a specialist (say in investor relations) versus a generalist; a

strategist versus a good implementer; a manager or a practitioner;

someone who knows the market sector intimately, or the best

communications expert available.



It will always be impossible to find people, no matter how experienced,

that can meet all aspects of the headhunter’s brief. Yet companies, as

they recognise the value of PR, are raising their expectations

increasingly high. This could explain why we are seeing a greater

turnover of people at the top of in-house departments and why we will

see more. The very rate of turnover of in-house practitioners will

weaken the role and management may be more tempted to divide up the

cake.



How to respond? The key is to make the case to management, not just

about the seniority of the role, but its scope. The debate about

boardroom representation may be a red herring. The real danger of

splitting the PR role between departments or divisions is not loss of

status but loss of the big picture.



If PR has done anything in the last few years, it has moved companies

from a focus on just customers and shareholders to the whole range of

stakeholders whose good opinions are increasingly influential on

performance.



If companies split up the PR roles, or focus too much on specialists,

then the management of the overall company reputation will, in time,

suffer.



To realise the full value of PR, strong, valued and expert

communications belongs at the heart of organisations. Companies that

resist this should be challenged, otherwise the stay at the boardroom

table will be short-lived.



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