It goes by many names: PR, public relations, media relations, strategic communications, corporate comms, publicity – there are many ways to describe the profession and the suite of competencies that involve the managing of a company’s external reputation and its dealings and interaction with press and media. It is a critical yet often overlooked function in just about every enterprise large or small, perhaps because it is also often the most poorly understood function among the occupants of the C-suite.
Generally speaking, public relations and strategic communications are not disciplines that are taught at the top MBA schools across the country. Many executives with MBAs, and in fact a good portion of CEOs, view public relations as nothing more than a specialized branch of the marketing function – like the role of a putty knife in a home toolbox – nice to have on hand but not absolutely essential as any number of other tools could do the trick in a pinch. But the truth is that very few MBA programs spend any time at all examining the public relations functions as part of the core curriculum. Even so-called “Marketing Concentrations” at top MBA schools spend little to no time addressing the subject of strategic communications.
The end result is that tens of thousands of MBAs join the work force each year with little to no understanding (or appreciation) of corporate communications despite it being a critical business function. Even deciding to have a non-existent, external-facing media presence does not save a company from having to occasionally deal with the media. (An approach that always reminds me of the famous Mike Tyson quip, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”) At some point in time, every company will face some sort crisis situation that will demand the steady hand of a seasoned PR and communications pro.
It’s not hard to understand why the Deans of MBA programs have been slow or reticent to embrace public relations as a core discipline. The mythos underpinning every MBA degree suggests that success in professional life is just one big algorithm, and that by mastering SWOT analysis, understanding US GAAP, and reviewing a number of core subject matters, anyone can unlock the door to a fruitful and storied career.
PR, in contrast, is messy. At times, very messy. Yes, you can have media contacts outlined and sorted on a spreadsheet, but which one do you turn to when you have big news and you want to offer an exclusive? How does the new product launch that the company has been working on for the past year feel given the moment the country is in? How do you talk down and assuage a reporter hell-bent on filing a challenging story? These are all soft skills. To be a successful communications professional requires a high-level combination of emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, room-reading capability, story-crafting, out-of-the-box thinking, and creativity plus the ability to deploy these skills effectively into a high-stakes business or political situation.
That’s why, in my 20-plus years working around the world and operating at the very highest levels of politics, entertainment, and finance, I can let you in on a little secret: public relations is equal parts Science and Art – don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.
Business executives need to understand that the traditional metrics used to chart and manage most of the other KPIs that might sit front and center on a CEO’s dashboard are largely irrelevant to the public relations arena. PR isn’t like sales where you can and should sell hard. Sales managers encourage frontline sales teams to cajole, nag – do whatever it takes as the entire playbook is pretty much open – to try and close a deal. If you fail to make a sale, you just move on to the next prosect. Love ‘em and leave ‘em, the saying goes.
This is not to say that company executives should not be able to hold their PR professionals – whether they are internal staff, consultants, or an external PR firm – to account. It’s more a question of trust. One of the hardest talks a communications professional will have with the CEO is the one where she will have to tell the top boss that the company or product is not ready for prime time. This is a message that can only be successfully delivered if there is a degree of trust between the CEO and the PR professionals. A communications lackey who agrees with everything the CEO says is doing a tremendous disservice to the company. If you have one chance to tell your story, how organized and prepared are you to tell it?
PR professionals are hired because of their highly attuned emotional acumen, their ability to predict human reactions and responses – often of people who they do not know well personally and with limited information – and their skill to design a message that not only meets the company’s objective but one that can find a home in the marketplace of ideas circulating around a newsroom.
For over 30 years, Tunheim has been helping clients navigate an increasingly complex media landscape. If you or your company would like to discuss your own media strategy or goals, I encourage you to reach out me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.