If Your PR Firm Isn’t Saying “No,” Start Looking For A New One


In most savvy and mature organizations today, the public relations function is accorded a prominent role in management decision making. Frequently, the senior public relations manager reports directly to top management; generally to the chief executive officer. The reason for this is simple: If public relations is to be the interpreter of management, then it must know what management is thinking at any moment on virtually every public issue. If public relations is made subordinate to any other discipline, e.g. marketing, advertising, legal or administration, then its independence, credibility, and, ultimately, value as an objective management counselor will be sacrificed. 

Whereas marketing and advertising groups must, by definition, be defenders of their specific products, the public relations department has no such mandated allegiance. Public relations should be the corporate conscience. An organization’s public relations professionals should enjoy enough autonomy to tell it to management “like it is.” If an idea doesn’t make sense, if a product is flawed, if the general institutional wisdom is wrong, it is the duty of the public relations professional to challenge the consensus. And, in absolute candor, if your company’s PR function isn’t saying “no” with great vigor from time to time, you’re probably not being well served and could well be headed for problems.

This is not to say that advertising, marketing, and all other disciplines shouldn’t enjoy a close partnership with public relations. Clearly, they must. All disciplines must work to maintain their own independence while building long-term, mutually beneficial relationships for the good of the organization. However, public relations should never shirk its overriding responsibility to enhance the organization’s credibility by ensuring that corporate actions are in the public interest. 

Public relations managers should function at the edge of an organization as a liaison between the organization and its external and internal publics. In other words, public relations managers have one foot inside the organization and one outside. Often, this unique position is not only lonely, but also precarious. 

As boundary managers, public relations people support their colleagues by helping them communicate across organizational lines both within and outside the organization. In this way public relations professionals also become systems managers, knowledgeable of and able to deal with the complex relationships inherent in the organization. They must consider the relationship of the organization to its environment: The ties that unite business managers and operations support staff, for example, and the conflicts that separate them.

They must work within organizational confines to develop innovative, solutions to organizational problems. By definition, public relations managers deal in a different environment from that of their organizational colleagues. The amorphous world of perceptions, attitudes, and public opinion, in which public relations managers dwell, is alien to the core empirical, quantitative, concrete domain of other business man-agers. Public relations managers, therefore, must be innovative, not only proposing communications solutions, but also in making them understandable and acceptable to colleagues.

They must think strategically. Public relations managers must demonstrate their knowledge of the organization’s mission, objectives, and strategies. Their solutions must answer the real needs of the organization. They must reflect the big picture. Business managers will care little that the company’s name was mentioned in the morning paper unless they can recognize the strategic rationale for the reference.

In managing an organization’s public relations system, practitioners must demonstrate a comfort with the various elements of the organization itself:

  • Functions, the real jobs of organizational components;
  • Structure, the organizational hierarchy of individuals and positions; 
  • Processes, the formal decision-making rules and procedures the organization follows; and 
  • Feedback, the formal and informal evaluative mechanisms of the organization.

Such a theoretical overview is important to consider in properly situating the practice of public relations as a management system within an organization, or using an external agency.

Planning for Public Relations like research, planning in public relations is essential not only to know where a particular campaign is headed, but also to win the support of top management. Indeed, one of the most frequent complaints about public relations is that it is too much a seat-of the-pants activity, impossible to plan and difficult to measure.

Clearly, planning in public relations must be given maximum consideration. Before organizing for a public relations program, practitioners must consider objectives and strategies, planning and budgets, and research and evaluation. The broad environment in which the organization operates must dictate overall business objectives. These, in sum, dictate specific public relations objectives and strategies. And once these have been defined, the  task of organizing for a public relations program should flow naturally.  

In order to develop a comprehensive, strategic communications campaign, it is critical to understand the responsibilities of the public relations function, whether it is internal or an external agency. The following is how Stern And Company sees it:  

Reaching the employees and/or strategic partners through a variety of internal means, including newsletters, television, and meetings. Traditionally, this role has emphasized news-oriented communications rather than benefits oriented ones, which are usually the province of personnel departments. 

Coordinating relationships with the media, which includes arranging and monitoring press interviews, writing news releases and related press materials, organizing press conferences, and answering media inquiries and requests. 

Coordinating activities with legislators on local, state, and federal levels. This includes legislative research activities and public policy formation.

Coordinating the institution’s printed voice to its key publics through reprints of speeches, annual reports, quarterly statements, and product and company brochures. 

Coordinating relationships with outside specialty groups, such as suppliers, educators, students, nonprofit organizations, and competitors. 

Managing the institutional, or non-product advertising image, as well as being called on to assist in the management of more traditional product advertising. 

Conducting opinion research, which involves assisting in the public policy formation process through the coordination and interpretation of attitudinal studies of key publics. 

Managing the gift-giving apparatus, which ordinarily consists of screening and evaluating philanthropic proposals and allocating the organization’s available resources. 

Management counseling, which involves advising administrators on alternative options and recommended choices in light of public responsibilities.