Public Relations: A Leadership Function

FrankWilliamsby Frank L. Williams

My previous column, entitled A Few Misconceptions About Public Relations, ended with the following statement: “Effective public relations does not begin with tactics like writing a press release or a speech; it is a strategic function that begins in the boardroom, where organizational strategies are developed and leadership decisions are made.

Many in the PR world refer to public relations as a management function. I agree in principle, but take a slightly different view: I consider public relations to be a leadership function. As the late Stephen Covey said in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”

The idea of public relations as a strategic function is lost on those who adhere to the common misconception of PR as nothing more than “spin” or “free publicity” through news coverage.  When they hear the term “public relations,” they think of technical aspects such as writing press releases or organizing press conferences. Organizational leaders who desire to excel would be well served to incorporate a broader view of public relations into their leadership philosophies.

At its heart, public relations is about relationships.  The official definition of public relations, as adopted by the PRSA board of directors, is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

Publics are stakeholders, those groups of people whose opinions may have an impact on an organization’s ability to achieve its goals. If an organization is to build mutually beneficial relationships with its key publics, it must understand what matters to them.  The organization’s leaders must know who their critical publics are and what makes them tick.  This requires research.

Additionally, organizational leaders must understand the communication environment within which they are attempting to relate to their publics.  This involves monitoring the environment to gain understanding of public opinion and current issues that have the potential to impact the organization’s activities. This is easier said than done.

As a small business owner, I know how easy it is to become so consumed in the “busyness” of day-to-day operations that you tune out issues and trends that affect the ability to build relationships with key publics.

So how are you doing when it comes to incorporating public relations into your organizational leadership philosophy?  Consider the following:

– What are your communication goals?

– More importantly, what research led you to adopt those particular goals?

– Who are your organization’s stakeholders (publics)?

– Which of these are your target publics, the ones you need to prioritize in your communication plan?  Why?

– What issues are currently on the minds of your target publics?

– What are the key, core values held by each of your target publics?

– What is the primary motivator for each of your target publics?

– What current trends could impact your ability to communicate with your publics?

– How do you anticipate each public would react to any policy decisions or courses of action your organization is contemplating?  What is the research basis for your opinion?

Leaders who have effectively incorporated public relations into their management philosophy pro-actively consider questions such as these. To again touch on Stephen Covey’s analogy, the answers to these questions help organizational leaders ensure that their ladder is leaning against the right wall.

Public relations is a strategic function of leadership. A thorough, research-based understanding of your publics and the communication environment in which you operate will strengthen your ability to build relationships and communicate with those publics. This will increase your capacity to achieve your organizational goals.

Frank L. Williams is president and lead strategist with Pioneer Strategies.  Follow Frank on Twitter (@FLWilliamsBiz) or connect with him on Facebook (/FrankLWilliams10) or LinkedIn (/flwilliams). 

Frank L. Williams

Frank is the founder and president of Pioneer Strategies.