Successful PR doesn’t just rely on public perception, but on the company
values that underlie it, says Hilary Sutcliffe
Stakeholding - aren’t you sick of it? Behind the management speak it
seems like common sense, and it’s hard to see what the fuss is about.
In case you’ve been on Mars, it goes something like this: if you’re in
business, a lot of people matter to your success. It’s not just the
shareholders who can make or break you, but any of the people you may
deal with. So you’d better make sure you treat them responsibly and that
everyone is clear about what you do, where you’re coming from and where
you’re going. There. That’s it.
While many companies say it’s rubbish, many don’t. During my three
years’ work on the RSA Inquiry, Tomorrow’s Company, thousands of people
have come forward, saying: ‘at last, this is what we thought all along,
but no-one put a name to it’. There is a real ground-swell of support
for this ‘inclusive approach’ to business.
But how to convince the sceptics who think that if you’re concentrating
on these other people you can’t possibly keep your eye on the main man,
the shareholder? I like to talk to them, not just about the value for
shareholders in adopting this approach, but about the real risks
involved in not doing so.
Quite simply, if you ignore a relationship, or abuse it, it can cost you
money, your reputation, even your company. The price of repairing the
damage is far higher than the cost of nurturing the relationship in the
You might provoke your customers (like Gerald Ratner), your employees
(dare I mention London Underground?), or suppliers (Sunday Business?),
the community (Shell?) or even, no surely not, the media (where do I
Many great companies agonise constantly about building inclusive
relationships and still have problems. No company is immune from all
problems, after all. But some weather them better than others. The
difference comes down to the company’s values.
It’s the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. If the values
a company adopts and the way it behaves closely underpin the outward
perception then the damage is usually limited; if there is a yawning
chasm between what it says and what it does, one poor joke can undo
years of hard work.
So who guides the company on this journey to inclusiveness? It can be
the public relations professional. We have an overview of the whole
organisation and are able to offer a dispassionate view based upon a
real understanding of the risks involved in failing the rhetoric/reality
It’s our job to anticipate risk and advise accordingly. But we need to
broaden our focus from the media and the shareholder to look at every
aspect of the company. We should be asking questions about the
underlying values and how these are reflected in the way the company
does business and the way its relationships are measured.
So the next time your weekend is ruined by some article in the Sunday
Times and the client is on the phone in a panic, instead of simply
looking at how to correct the misperception, start to ask the difficult
questions, and persist until you get some answers, and some changes.
It’s our job, after all.
There is a lot of talk about the future of public relations and I can’t
think of a more fundamental, powerful or exciting role than this. It’s
there for the taking, so let’s get on with it.
Hilary Sutcliffe is joint managing director of Addition Public Relations