Public Relations as Reputation Management: Beyond the Roles of Mouthpiece and Mop-up Crew

Back in March, I wrote a post about an experience I had as a speaker following the legendary Harold Burson at the Texas Public Relations Association’s annual meeting. Burson and I subsequently exchanged emails on the subject of reputation management and the future of the PR profession. Burson’s next post on his blog further developed his thoughts on the roles of PR professional beyond a narrow definition of communications, a theme he has spoken about for more than 30 years. This post on Force for Good picks up from those conversations.)

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The role of the corporate communications professional is rapidly changing, responding to the sea changes all around us: the rise of consumer-generated social media, globalization, the incredible personalization of information technology, greater expectations on corporations for transparency and social responsibility, and increasingly inter-connected stakeholder groups including often-adversarial activists.

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Corporate and agency public relations professionals must do more than merely adapt to these sweeping changes in the communications dynamic. Corporations need their PR professionals to move beyond helping them communicate to stakeholders (the traditional role of corporate mouthpiece); they need guidance on how to engage in fluid conversations (that means listening as well as talking, respectfully understanding the new rules of engagement). And they need their PR professionals to be an important input into the business, to participate “at the table” when business decisions are made rather than serving only as a mop-up crew called in to clean up a messy situation. Participation at the table requires PR professionals to understand the business thoroughly to be respected by the company’s operations as a full partner in making decisions that may affect the company’s reputation and the value of its brands.

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This evolution beyond passive corporate communicator to active reputation manager elevates the value and importance of our profession. That’s an exciting, if not wholly new, development. More than 30 years ago, Harold Burson began speaking about a role for public relations beyond the communications function. Here are some lifts from a speech of his entitled “Social Responsibility or‘Telescopic Philanthropy: The Choice is Ours” (forgive his exclusive use of masculine nouns and pronouns, bearing in mind this prescient speech dates back to 1973):

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The public relations executive provides a qualitative evaluation of social trends.  He helps formulate policies that will enable the corporation to adapt to these trends.  And he communicates – both internally and externally – the reasons for those policies.  Public relations, I’d like to emphasize, is involved in all the steps – from analysis through action to communications – a corporation must take to meet its obligations to the public.  And those obligations are numerous and constantly changing. 

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Burson then dissects his vision for this expanded role for public relations:

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In a sense, the public relations professional doing his job for the modern corporation fulfills a role that may be divided into four parts:

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First, he serves as the sensor of social change.  He perceives those rumblings at the heart of the society that augur good or ill for his organization.  In a way, he is like a radar man.  He gives early warning.  And, after detecting the yearnings and stirrings, he interprets the signals for the management team.

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His perceptions, of course, cannot be founded on intuitive judgments and guesswork.  He must be objective and analytical; he can bring the insights of the social sciences to bear upon his conclusions.  In analyzing change, he must have a strong sense of reality.  He must identify the situation as it really is, not as he imagines it to be.  He must be able to separate enduring social changes from current fads….

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The second role which the public relations man must fulfill is that of corporate conscience.  I trust you will not infer from this that a person must be a public relations professional to be sensitive – or that public relations people behave in ways that are either more moral and ethical or more in the public interest than executives with different titles.  There are others in the corporate hierarchy who may possess the same amount or even more of these attributes than the individuals responsible for public relations.  But the fact is that being the professional corporate conscience is not part of the job description of other executives.  It is part of the job description of the chief public relations officer.

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The third major role of the public relations professional is that of communicator.  The tendency is to think that communications is his only role.  That is hardly the case although it is an important function.

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Communications relating to social issues moves in two directions – internally and externally.  Most often, the emphasis is placed on external communications.  Although external communications is important, it is, in many respects, secondary to and dependent upon an effective internal communication program.…

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The fourth function of the public relations professional is to serve as corporate monitor.  I am tempted to use the word ombudsman here, for I think it is in the spirit of an ombudsman that the public relations officer should regard his job. Obviously, he can’t be an ombudsman in the strictest sense of the word. But since public relations is involved with public issues, there is a need for constant monitoring of corporate policies and programs to make sure that they do, indeed, match public expectations. If the programs are not functioning or if they fall short of expectations, it is his job to agitate for new programs and new policies. It seems to me quite natural for the public relations practitioner to adopt this posture. If he fails to do so, he fails to live up to the requirements of his job.

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Perhaps what we are saying is that social accountability is just another management art that corporations are going to have to learn.  In the long run, the corporation which does the best job of managing its operations will also do the best job of adapting to social needs.

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That’s a lot to chew on – and amazingly as on-point today as it was during the time of the Vietnam War and Watergate. In my next post, I’ll add my thoughts and take it a step further yet – moving beyond the “seat at the table.”

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- Jon Harmon

Comments

  1. Liam says:

    Really enjoyed this – my background is mainly in Internal Communication where we’ve been debating this issue and our relationship with broader PR. The trend is increaslyly to think in terms of relationships rather than reputations.
    Seen through the lens of relationships, a lot of the threads of Harold Burson’s thinking have a very different implication.
    Liam

  2. Great blog! I was in the corporate news media for 30 years. I watched as PR firms took over the information flow. What we’re seeing now is the continuation of the progression from the obsessive control of corporate PR in the 1980s to the concept of bypassing the mass media as much as possible to talk directly to “people” through the internet. Works for me.

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