The C-level/Value Debate

Front view portrait of a businessman and a side view of a businesswoman whisperingIt’s one of the most defining questions facing the PR profession: How do we ensure our voice, our insight, our expertise, is given its proper place among C-levels in our company/organization? In some cases, this very question can define a professional’s entire experience with a company.

So big, in fact, is this question that the PR profession has been debating the topic for years. A recent interview series on public relations ethics from PRSA’s Public Relations Tactics magazine shed some light on how some industry thought-leaders view the balance professionals face between being an internal adviser/counselor and an external communicator. One point, in particular, I was motivated by came from Keith Mabee, APR, vice chairman of Dix & Eaton:

We have to be organizational boundary riders with one foot in the inner sanctum of the C-suite and the boardroom and the other foot out there in our constituency environment. A lot of it has to do with having the courage of your convictions, adept interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate your breadth and knowledge of the business and the industry you’re operating in.

“Organizational boundary riders,” while reminding me a bit of a 1970s-era made-for-TV movie about a motorcycle riding gang of PR professionals, is an excellent summarization of the balancing act many of us feel on a daily basis. We find ourselves caught between two interconnected, mutually-beneficial worlds (internal organization and external audiences/constituencies), yet the goals, values and desires of these two worlds can often be vastly different from one another. And we’re charged with counseling one audience (internal) on communicating broad values and organizational goals to both internal and external audiences, while engaging and listening to the other side (external) and figuring out how to take its desires and concerns to the people in charge.

It’s a very delicate balance; one I think cannot be underestimated. A professionals’ success in achieving that balance will have major implications on how strategically important his or her role is viewed within the company throughout their tenure.

This back-and-forth balancing act helps explain why it’s so difficult for executives in many organizations to immediately give PR professionals that proverbial seat at the boardroom table. More so than any other high-level executives within a company, PR professionals—whether a CCO (Chief Communications Officer), VP of PR or someone similar—split their time between two connected, yet disparate, areas of an organization.

And for some, that can create confusion about where our true value lies. Should we be seen as a high-level executive counselor, with a direct ear to the CEO, as well as legal and marketing teams? Or, do we fall somewhere in between, having the CEO’s ear only when necessary, but with more of our time and energy devoted to outside audience listening and engagement?

This debate is far too individualistic and nuanced to attempt to answer by the broad stroke of an entire profession. The onus will ultimately fall on each individual PR professional to prove their strategic counsel and expertise places them squarely among other C-levels a CEO utilizes at their company/organization. As a profession, we can, and should continue to, provide the tools, messaging and support to back up these efforts. But ultimately, it’s up to the individual who will be providing that counsel to ensure their spot.

What are some strategic points you use to demonstrate your value among organizational executives?

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  • G’day Keith, I’m intrigued by this notion that the goals, values and desires of internal and external stakeholders “can often be vastly different from one another.” Surely the definitions of organisations, stakeholders and relationships all revolve around the notions of shared values, goals and desires. While they will have many additional values, goals and desires that are not shared, it is the ability to create a vision based on those that are shared that creates organisational alignment, identity, and in a very real way “brand” or reputation.

    I don’t believe PRs are charged with “communicating broad values” but communicating shared values. I do strongly agree that PRs are an organisation’s hearing aid, as Peter Drucker said, and that they do need to counsel their organisation when it is being asked to share new or changing values, such as CSR and environmental concerns in recent years. Their ability to do this is part of their strategic value.

    As an area where PR people can definitely demonstrate practical strategic value to the senior levels of an organisation, I’d suggest the environmental analysis of any strategic planning process is ideal. By nature, PRs are fascinated by the world around them and major consumers of media in all forms. As such, they have much to add to any environmental analysis, along with issues and critical success factor identification

    Cheers, geoff

  • Geoff – Thanks for chiming in and providing some insight into this discussion. I agree with you that organizations and their audiences/shareholders/customers more often than not have shared values and goals, but I’m not sure this is all lining up quite as cohesively or as often as we would often like to think they are.

    One only has to look at recent corporate issues, from BP, to Foxconn and many others to see that the goals and aspirations of the corporation to see that as communicators, our jobs are increasingly becoming more difficult to advise and counsel our employers when they are competing in a truly global marketplace.

    For example, Foxconn exists from a corporate standpoint to produce electronic components at an incredibly cheap price and in an extremely efficient manner. Yet, its rather cavalier reaction to the human toll this has take on its employees surely wouldn’t be shared by the very customers (e.g. Apple and many others) who contract out work to have their products produced by Foxconn.

    I see this being a defining issue for PRs and communicators in the years to come. As both internal and external forces and audiences continue to align in some cases (as you say, for shared corporate/constituent goals and values), while also being pulled apart by market forces, PRs, IMO, are going to continue to find themselves playing a delicate balancing act between effectively communicating between the two.

    Though I strongly agree with you that it is largely the job of PRs to counsel executives and other internal audiences to more closely ensure the company’s goals and values are aligning with those of key audiences and external constituents. As you say, it’s only when those values and goals are shared that organizational alignment, identity and brand/reputation will be sustained.

    OK, so long response from me, but I really appreciate your thoughtful comment.

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