Strategic and Corporate Public Relations
“For much of its history PR has been defined by the tactics used to deliver it, yet today Public Relations is increasingly recognised as a strategic function of corporate bodies.”
Illustrating your answer with at least one, but no more than three corporate case studies, describe how strategic public relations differs from the tactical use of PR and, with reference to the Global Capability Study from the Global Alliance, discuss how the shift towards a more strategic role might differ globally and how it will affect recruitment into the profession in the future.
Public relations is a profession dedicated to the effective use of communication with key stakeholders, both internal and external. According to Grunig and Hunt (1984), public relations is about “the management of communication between an organisation and its publics”. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, also known as the CIPR, expands on this definition; public relations is the “planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics”. Here the definition identifies a strategic role for public relations by using verbs such as ‘planned’ and ‘sustained’. These definitions also highlight how public relations is a diverse profession that differs in meaning globally but seeks to ensure that organisations manage their relationships with key stakeholders. In order to manage these relationships with stakeholders, public relations practitioners use a variety of tactics, such as press releases, social media content, events, annual reports and other resources. Yet it is important to explore how although PR has been defined by the tactics used to deliver it, public relations is becoming increasingly recognised as a strategic function of corporate bodies. Strategic public relations planning and research techniques have evolved into the most powerful tools available to public relations practitioners and now the success of any corporate company depends on the well-planned strategic function of an organisations reputation.
A strategic plan clarifies an organisations objectives and desired outcome, how it is intended to be achieved and how success will be measured. Johnson, Scholes and Whittington (2008) suggest that strategy is “the direction and scope of an organisation over the long-term which achieves advantage in a changing environment”. This definition implies that corporate strategy is essentially taking a long term view of the changing nature of an industry and building a strategy upon an understanding of a company’s current situation and positioning. Strategic decision making is therefore a proactive and planned process which has a purpose that contributes towards meeting an organisations end goals. An underpinning strategic plan provides coherence and focus as it can help to determine the appropriate tactics that can be used, dependent on the intended audience and an organisations aims. Strategic planning can be described as a systematic approach that consists of six main processes which include; defining the organisations aims and measurable objectives, the story and background of the organisation, tactics (which takes into consideration their target markets, key messages and budget), risks, evaluation and supporting delivery plan. This can be achieved by conducting SWOT analysis, identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of an organisation. SWOT analysis is considered an important tool for strategic planning as it can help to identify a company’s current position and their capabilities. This will help an organisation to implement a plan which will be most effective in the long-term.
It’s often common for there to be confusion regarding objectives with the tendency of practitioners describing their tactics or activities rather than their intended objectives (Cutlip et al. 2006). The Barcelona Principles state that “goal setting and measurement are fundamental aspects of any public relations program”. PR strategy is about deciding the best approach, and the most common term associated with objective setting is ‘SMART’ (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and time-based). A strategic plan becomes meaningful when there’s an effective message planned and resources are allocated to meet the stakeholder’s needs to understand the organisations aims and objectives. A strategic plan has little meaning and value until tactics have been selected and implemented. On the other hand, it could be argued that without an effective strategic plan, there is a lack of meaning behind the tactical actions and activities of an organisation.
When exploring the term ‘strategy’, it’s important to understand the differences between ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic management’. According to Thompson and Martin, strategy is “the means by which organisations achieve (and seek to achieve) their objectives and purpose” and strategic management is “the process by which an organisation establishes its objectives, formulates actions (strategies) designed to meet these objectives in the desired timescale, implements the actions and assesses progress and results”. Strategic management is the process for formulating and implementing a strategy. These definitions emphasise the importance of strategic planning as one of the key roles that the public relations function can fulfil effectively on behalf of organisations. However, whilst strategic planning takes the practitioner through a systematic process, they must consider the fact that a level of flexibility is required in order to respond to any crisis.
Tactical decision making, on the other hand, focuses more on day-to-day actions and therefore tends to be short-term and adaptive as they are more response orientated. Tactics are the ‘events, media and methods used to implement the strategy’ (Cutlip et al 2005). It is often argued that tactical decision making can often allow public relations campaigns to drift aimlessly, lacking direction or purpose. Successful tactics are part of a written, approved public relations plan that is tied to an organisations value-based mission (Guth & Marsh, 2005). They are also based on research about the targeted public’s values, interests, and preferred channels of communication in order to communicate effectively with their intended audience. Whilst it’s difficult to create a list of standard public relations tactics to fit every situation, there are traditional tactics that are commonly used including; news releases, events, news conferences and annual reports. The range of communication tactics is extensive, and it is continually growing due to changes in technological advances. Whilst there is both strategic and tactical PR planning, a strategic plan is goal orientated and guided by an organisations desired future goal whereas a tactical plan must be developed to assist a strategic plan and therefore focuses more on the short-term goals of an organisation and the day-to-day developments of an organisation. According to the Office of National Statistics, copywriting/editing (73%), PR campaigns (68%) and media relations (65%) comprise the top three most commonly undertaken activities, suggesting PR professionals spend the majority of their time on tactical delivery rather than strategic.
The importance of strategic decision-making as a public relations function can be illustrated when organisations face a crisis which may threaten their position within the industry and as a result can have a significant impact on their reputation. Organisations can often find themselves exposed to both intensive media and public scrutiny, with every move they make being subject to critical examination by different stakeholder groups, such as employees and customers. Recently, Topshop was in the news after reports that they had dismantled a pop-up in their Oxford Street store which was used to help launch the book ‘Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies)’. After making the decision to remove the pop-up, a spokesperson for the high street retailer apologised and said it would make a £25,000 donation to the ‘Girl Up’ charity, a tactical decision made by Topshop.
Topshop is part of the Arcadia Group Ltd, and on their website they clearly define their values which relate to all their activities; integrity, transparency, excellence and innovation. Their vision is to produce fashionable products in an ethical way and demonstrate a responsible attitude towards people and the environment. However, they avoided to give a clear explanation as to why the stand was dismantled which shows a lack of strategic planning. Their actions in response to the crisis, is an example of their tactical approach to the situation, for example; the high street retailer responded by changing their cover photo and profile photo on their Twitter page to a plain pink background in response to the negative media coverage. They stated on their Twitter page that their decision was “from a production and creative standpoint” and that this did not reflect the brand’s stance on feminism. A spokesperson also said “We continue to fully support the sentiment of the book, Scarlett Curtis, feminism and equality” yet the removal of the pop-up in their store does not demonstrate that they are in support of the book which aims to empower women and to essentially position girls to be leaders in the movement for gender quality. This goes against their stated values as they have not followed a clear strategic plan which has incorporated the companies’ key objectives and fails to recognise that their consumers are young teenage girls. Topshop has in fact distanced themselves from their customers despite stating that their vision is to demonstrate a responsible attitude towards people.
As a result of recent events, the negative media coverage has had a significant impact on Topshop’s brand perception, with YouGov and BrandIndex showing its Buzz score (based on the difference between positive and negative mentions) dropping to -4.4, further reflecting the negative sentiment around the brand during which the events unfolded. Scarlett Curtis, the author of ‘Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies’, began using the hashtag #PinkNotGreen to gather support and a larger following after her book launch at a Topshop in London was cancelled. There were also further hashtags circulating after it was confirmed that Philip Green was at the centre of The Telegraph allegations with hashtags #BoycottGreen and #FeministsDontWearTopshop trending on Twitter with reports stating the English billionaire had been named as the subject of sexual harassment accusations. It is believed that as a result, Beyoncé was under pressure to pull her Ivy Park sportswear line from Topshop in light of the claims against Green, a high-profile collaboration which has been running since April 2016. Beyoncé’s ethos about empowering women does not align or agree with reports regarding the alleged issues at Arcadia and with the allegations against Green.
The Global Alliance’s aim is to create a conceptual framework which can be used globally to reflect the cultural variations in meaning for public relations as a profession. The members of the Global Alliance are interested in the global meaning of PR as theirs currently huge disparity in the development of the PR profession. The Global Capability Study explores the way in which Public Relations has been changing from an activity which mainly focused on the tactical approach concerning an organisation, yet today Public Relations is becoming increasingly recognised as a strategic function of a business. The study revealed that each country has its own framework and this demonstrates that there are some variations between countries regarding the capabilities of the profession. Public Relations practitioners around the world believe that they will be expected to deliver more strategy, content, channels, creativity and measurement – over the next five years. Despite these changes, the profession will continue to grow as it becomes more aligned with marketing and more vital to business. Whilst degrees in English studies and Media studies are beneficial in order to become a public relations practitioner, the future of PR will also be looking at degrees such as psychology or business and management which will offer skills needed in order to perform a strategic function in public relations.
In order to excel, a PR professional should have a basic knowledge of; research, planning, implementation and planning; ethics and law; crisis communication management; communication models and theories; use of technology and business literacy. However, it is evident that the future role of PR is developing and although these roles are not considered universal yet, this will change future recruitment into the profession. For example; research, planning, implementation and evaluation will explore more closely analytical skills and strategic thinking and management of a business. This shows how PR isn’t just about setting goals and objectives but essentially gathering relevant information to determine what is needed to position an organisation in its market, especially with regard to changing business, political or cultural climates. Bernay’s describes your ‘typical’ PR professional as someone who knows ‘how to supervise and direct the carrying out of plans that will make his client understood’ and uses ‘the printed and spoken word and graphic media through which public attention may be reached’. These addresses both the tactical approach and strategic thinking needed in order to succeed in the PR industry.
The Global Alliance realises that not every part of the world practices public relations in the same way. The Globally Accepted Alliance Study (also known as GAP) examines the perceived role and contribution of public relations and is a framework being built through partnership with Global Alliance for Public Relations. The GAP study highlights that many companies are increasingly using strategic thinking and planning over tactical decision making. In the research, it identifies that in the USA 77.5% contribute to an organisations strategic direction whereas in Brazil the percentage drops to 40%. It’s also important to recognise that in the USA 90.5% develop communication strategy whereas in contrast to Brazil this again drops to 40%. Why is this the case? It’s important to identify how less developed countries use far less strategic thinking due a number of reasons including; lack of facilities and resources, lack of adequate recognition and support from the government and also relatively low funding of public relations programmes. In relation to Brazil, with the country experiencing a great deal of economic turmoil due to unprecedented social, political and ethical instability, this has generated a serious crisis in communication because of the impact that these issues have on the country’s identity, image, reputation and its people. Public relations professionals in Brazil need to change the perception of the country and the actions they are taking to restructure and modernise the State rather than exposing the corruption in Brazil. This will help to strengthen the country and rebuild the reputation and credibility of the country. For the moment, less developed countries are using early career skills which consists of more tactical approaches (oral, visual and written communication) in comparison more developed countries such as the UK where there is evidence of more senior career level skills and abilities (for example; managing issues and crisis communications) which can be applied.
Although there are different degrees of development within the industry, it is evident that the profession is globalised. Public Relations Society of Kenya (PRSK), established in 1971, state on their website that the societies objective is to ‘advance excellence in Public Relations in Kenya’ but to ensure that the practice of public relations continues to thrive within the ethical framework defined by the profession. PRSK makes sure that they affiliate to regional, continental and global PR bodies. This year, the government of Kenya has pledged support to transform the Public Relations Society of Kenya into a professional institute by creating a five-year strategic plan to enhance the delivery of professional Public Relations services in Kenya. The PRSK has identified that the profession is becoming increasingly accepted as an integral part of how an organisation operates in many parts of the world. However on reflection, it is important to note that whilst the industry is developing and there is a shift in the way in which public relations is delivered, Kenya is still a developing country and therefore the rate in which public relations is changing can be different in various parts of the world.
It is important to explore how strategic and tactical PR has evolved to focus on more technological and internet-based communication. Bridge (2013) explained that the reason for the rapid growth of social media channels is because they are much cheaper than ‘old forms of marketing’ channels, and when social media goes viral “it can change a company’s future outlook within hours, either positively or negatively”. Therefore, PR professionals must keep up with technological advances and must not become complacent with their knowledge of technology as it is changing the way we communicate with both internal and external stakeholders. However, it could be argued that these technological advances are not happening at an equal rate globally and so these changes means that the skills set are narrower and basic, as a result, and whilst the PR profession will evolve and develop
The CIPRs 2018 plan outlines Sarah Halls (CIPR President) mission to maximise public relations standing as a strategic management function. The plan states that practitioners need to break away from tactical communications and assert wider influence over the organisation they work in or for if PR is to thrive as a strategic management function. Sarah Hall explains that “Practitioners remain predominately tactical. The CIPR’s role must be to equip them with boardroom skills’. According to the Office of National Statistics, the public relations workforce has grown by almost a quarter (22%) over the past four years with currently more than 71,000 PR practitioners employed in the UK. Despite there being a considerable growth, the report also shows that PR professionals spend the majority of their time on tactical delivery rather than strategic and there is evidence to suggest that there is a skills gap between the industry’s entry level and senior level. Nine out of ten (88%) recruiters value strategic thinking as one of the most significant attributes in senior practitioners.
In conclusion, it is evident that PR is now used as a wider management and business function with a greater importance placed on the strategic function of PR rather than tactical function. Some people would question ‘What’s the point of doing something tactical if it is not creating strategic value for the organisation?’ Jim Lukaszewski states that ‘Strategy is a driving force in any business or organisation. It’s the intellectual force that helps organize, b prioritize, and energize what they do. No strategy; no energy. No strategy; no direction. No strategy; no momentum. No strategy; no impact.’ (Broom et al., 2013, 287-288). This essay demonstrates that public relations is about understanding exactly what a company wants and this can only be achieved by putting in place a long-term plan that ensures an organisation aims and objectives are obtained. A strategic role will be important in the future of the PR profession because when companies and organisations use a strategic approach they have a clear goal which they can implement into all of their campaigns and tailor them to their different audiences. This can help an organisation meet their aims, and to meet the expectations of key stakeholders. On reflection, it is evident that PR as a profession is evolving with statistics (as shown in Figure 1) demonstrating that in five years PR professionals believe their jobs will become more complex (76%), challenging (61%) and strategic (67%) – driven by new technology and changing media. There will be a greater scope of services provided by a PR firm or agency, while the skills required to be a successful PR practitioner will also grow. It’s important that public relations evolves as Grunig stated that public relations must “continually evolve as a strategic function and continually reinstitutionalize itself to adjust to changes in organisation, communication technologies, and societal expectations”.
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