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IABC study shows CEOs value PR.

Four years ago, a team of researchers funded by the IABC Research Foundation set out to answer a critical question for public relations and communication management:

How and to what extent does communication contribute to the bottom line of an organization-to making it more effective?

We soon realized, however, that not all public relations departments make such a contribution. Thus, we added a second research question:

How must the communication function be organized and managed if it is to make an organization more effective-i.e., what are the characteristics of an excellent public relations department?

We designed a six-year research project to answer these questions and now are about to enter next to the last year of the work. Like all good scientific research, our project began with a thorough review of theoretical and research literature relevant to the research questions. In our case, we reviewed the extensive research that members of our team had done on roles and models of public relations, strategic management, power, evaluation and women in public relations. We reviewed literature from public relations, management, sociology, psychology, marketing, communication, philosophy and feminist studies. From that literature review, we are writing a book, "Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management," that will be published by Lawrence Eribaum Associates, publishers, in about a year.

We used the literature to develop a set of three questionnaires that we are administering to a sample of 200 organizations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The senior public relations person, the CEO and 20 employees complete questionnaires in each organization. That survey is under way in all three countries and should be completed in late 1990.

From the literature review, we have identified 14 characteristics of excellent public relations programs and three effects of such programs . We are measuring each of these characteristics in our survey. Like most researchers, we believe our results will confirm our expectations. But we stand ready to revise our theory should the results suggest the need for revision. Let's look, then, at some of the preliminary conclusions we have reached based on an analysis of data from about 35 organizations. I must stress the preliminary nature of these conclusions, and a complete analysis may force us to change them. The conclusions do seem reasonable, however; and they are suggestive for the field and for IABC.

The IABC research team began its work by setting forth a normative or prescriptive theory that prescribes how to do public relations in an ideal situation. The team argued that excellent public relations departments will practice public relations in a way that is similar to the normative model, in contrast to the way that public relations is practiced in the typical, less excellent, department.

Our normative theory specifies that organizational communication should be practiced strategically. An organization that practices public relations strategically develops programs to communicate with the publics, both external and internal, that provide the greatest threats to and opportunities for the organization.

Organizations strive for good relationships with the publics in their external or internal environment that limit their ability to pursue their goals. Building good relationships with strategic publics maximizes the autonomy of organizations to pursue their goals, which is important because the literature shows that effective organizations are those that choose appropriate goals and then have the autonomy to achieve them. When public relations helps that organization build relationships, it saves the organization money by reducing the costs of litigation, regulation, legislation, pressure campaigns, boycotts, or lost revenue that result from bad relationships with publics-publics that become activist groups when relationships are bad. It also helps the organization make money by cultivating relationships with donors, consumers, shareholders and legislators. With that conclusion, we arrived at an explanation of how public relations contributes to the bottom line.

The first conclusion is that the environments of organizations are ripe for excellent public relations. Nearly all of the organizations report pressure from activist groups, pressure that results in opposition, litigation, regulation or lost revenues. When the CEOs surveyed were told that 100 is the average level of activism for all organizations, they reported an average score of 175 for their organizations. Unfortunately, the public relations directors were somewhat less likely to recognize this activism: Their average score was only 150.

The second conclusion is that CEOs seem to understand the value of communication to their organizations. Later we will do extensive case studies of a few organizations in which we will try to get senior managers to estimate the monetary value of good public relations to their organization. In this survey, though, we asked both the CEOs and the public relations directors to compare the value of public relations to other organizational functions and to estimate its value as a cost-benefit ratio. The CEOs rated public relations more highly than did the public relations officials. When told that 100 was the average value of a department to the organization, they rated the value of the communication department as 200. When they used the costbenefit ratio, they estimated that public relations returns 235 percent of its cost.

These first two research questions, therefore, suggest an answer to our first research questions on how and to what extent public relations makes an organization more effective. The remaining conclusions address the research question on the extent to which communication departments meet the criteria for excellence set forth in our normative theory.

Our third conclusion is that public relations seldom is practiced according to the principles of strategic managementi.e., that programs should be developed for the most strategic publics. Once started, communication programs continue whether the publics at which they are aimed continue to be strategic. Public relations professionals typically are not involved in strategic management until an issue occurs; they are not called in to help anticipate which publics might create issues and to communicate with those publics before issues occur. Senior managers are preoccupied with the mass media, even though they generally are not the most effective way of communicating with strategic publics-especially at the stage of building relationships rather than responding to issues. And there is a surprising fragmentation of the communication function, especially in corporations. Many departments have responsibility for communication, and many organizations do not integrate the function. As a result, strategic planning for public relations is almost impossible.

Fourth, this preliminary analysis suggests the overriding importance of power for public relations. Public relations cannot be effective unless the senior public relations person has power to affect organization decisions, either formally or informally. Our data strongly suggest that public relations programs without power do not practice public relations strategically. Lack of power, therefore, seems to explain why few public relations programs are excellent.

Although senior public relations people typically lack power, the mindset that CEOs have for public relations seems to be progressing toward excellence-our fifth preliminary conclusion. Most of the CEO responses we have analyzed see public relations as a process of negotiation and compromise, what we call the two-way symmetrical model of public relations, rather than as a process of press agentcy, persuasion or manipulation. Yet the knowledge and skills of communication practitioners does not seem to have caught up with this organizational mindset. The communication techniques they use typically are suited more for press agentry. Research, if used, is designed more to persuade or manipulate publics, what we call the two-way asymmetrical model. This conclusion suggests the strong need for formal education in public relations, both at the university level and as continuing education. It suggests that IABC should support education in public relations and develop programs in continuing education for its members.

Our sixth conclusion relates to the role of the senior public relations person in an organization. Our theory of excellence states that public relations departments should be headed by strategic communication managers rather than communication technicians. Most of the CEOs we surveyed see the need for such a manager of public relations, but many don't seem to have one on staff. Many communication departments are headed by a technical supervisor-a technician manager-rather than a strategic manager.

Our seventh and final conclusion relates to the role of women in public relations. Two-thirds or more of the students in university programs in public relations are women. They are the practitioners most likely to have the knowledge to practice excellent public relations as they mature in their careers. Thus, we believe that excellent departments will take steps to enhance the careers of women. Our results show that organizations have eliminated outward vestiges of discrimination and sexual harassment. Few, however, have developed positive programs to enhance the status of women, such as mentoring or training to empower women. In a sense, then, many women in communication are being given the opportunity to fail.

These conclusions are both exciting and sobering. The demand exists for excellence in public relations. Evidence suggests that excellent public relations makes organizations more effective. Yet we have found several semi-excellent communication departments but few truly excellent ones. Most practitioners need to gain knowledge to rise to the challenge.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:International Association of Business Communicators
Author:Grunig, James E.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Aug 1, 1990
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