Will PR ever be consistently represented in the boardroom?

When disaster strikes a brand, news travels fast, and if it isn’t handled well, this could destroy the company. So it seems obvious that comms professionals need to be at the heart of any organisation, making sure that when shit happens it doesn’t get sprayed over the whole business. Yet PROs still struggle to get onto the board. We discuss why they should be there, how they are letting themselves down, and what they need to do to get the recognition they deserve.

 Why PR must be in the boardroom

Discussing why CEOs need the support of PROs, Alastair Turner, managing director of agency Aspectus PR, explains that being CEO of a large company is like being on the bridge of a huge cruise ship: “You are plotting a course and trying to steer clear of rocky waters. You have lots of levers to pull, all of which enable change, but take time to work. And you have a wide variety of stakeholders that you need communicate with. Just imagine the crisis that would ensue on-board if a captain couldn’t engage those stakeholders. Nothing would get done and the ship wouldn’t go anywhere.”

“I’d say having comms people on-board in today’s environment is vital. In fact, I’d go as far as to say not having a strong PR and communications function is a serious shareholder risk. How do you engage your stakeholders, increase your brand’s value, drive sales or communicate in a crisis without it? Rocky waters indeed.”

Why PROs are not on the board

As they are so vital, why are PROs failing to get recognition? Turner says it is because they are not shouting loud enough about why they are indispensible: “Accountants crunch the numbers, lawyers provide a legal safety blanket… the challenge for comms people is to demonstrate the value they can add. If their lever is pulled they need to show they can move quickly, truly engage and effect change amongst a stakeholder community and help build and sustain a brand.”

One problem is that PR does not have enough confidence in itself. Jessie McLaren Webb, head of PR at communications agency GK Strategy, explains: “Some of this comes down to our appetite for never-ending self-examination. Debating how to define what we do, how to measure it, how to prove its worth. Of course these things are important, but sometimes we get too wrapped up in it all. Individually we know the value of what we do; collectively it all too often feels like we don’t.”

McLaren Webb points out that marketers do not suffer from the crippling self-doubt that afflicts PROs: “Ever wonder why marketers seem to have no trouble getting into the boardroom, when the same doesn’t apply to PROs? And why is it so often assumed marketers can do PR, when it’s never assumed that we can do marketing? The difference all too often is that a marketer will think (rightly or wrongly) that they can do comms, and that they have a right to a place in the boardroom. PROs don’t always think this way. As an industry we are frustratingly self-defeating when it comes to things like this. Perhaps if we didn’t expect a fight there wouldn’t be one. Issues around measurement are a good example of this. Some of what we do, perhaps the most valuable things, cannot be accurately measured. Not yet anyway. This doesn’t make our work any less important. It doesn’t mean PR doesn’t impact the bottom line, of course it does. Just because we can’t give an accurate number doesn’t mean there isn’t one. If we want to get the CEO’s attention perhaps it’s time to embrace the immeasurable and be confident about our right to have a seat at the table.”

How PR should step up

To get into the boardroom, the first step is to get the CEO’s trust. Charlie Vavasour, managing director of agency Quantum PR describes how: “Comms professionals need to provide clear, sensible, relevant advice at the right time on key issues. It is a mistake to continually bang the comms drum – instead try to make your interventions powerful, persuasive and well presented. CEOs need to develop trust and respect for their comms advisors – once this is established, sourcing the opinion of comms advisors on major issues will become automatic in the CEO’s decision-making process.”

Vavasour says it is not enough to know that you deserve a place on the board, you have to prove you deserve it: “You need to build the reputation for their profession internally, demonstrating the clear benefits of having a communications contribution in every major decision, strategic approach or campaign. They need to make communications central to everything that their organisation does and demonstrate the added value this provides.”

PR is valuable, but it needs to be more confident about its value and then prove it to CEOs in order to get its rightful place on the board. As Vavasour concludes: “Our profession does not have a divine right to be at the board table – it is down to the practising individuals to earn that right, and consequently raise the reputation and perceived importance of the profession as a whole.”

PR industry body view

The PRCA’s PR and Communications Council is the think tank of the PR and communications industry. Earlier this year, the council identified PR’s relationship with senior decision makers as a key area on which it should be focusing on. The council felt that understanding the perception of PR and its professionalism among senior decision makers could be a key way to grow business and influence.

David Hamilton, chairman of the PR and Communications Council, says: “This year, we have seen reputation take the lead as the main role of in-house communications teams. According to the PRCA’s recent In-house benchmarking report, 96% of communications directors believe that their teams’ roles includes protecting reputation, while 93% believe their roles include building awareness. I was very pleased to see that 79% of communicators stated that the communications team is now represented at board level.

“From our work, there’s three clear success factors for building closer relationships with senior decision makers: First, understand the business inside out; second, understand the numbers – financial literacy was identified as a key development gap in PR professionals’ skillsets; and third, talk about the impact that PR has had on the business, in terms the board can understand. Ultimately, the board like numbers and evaluating your work and the impact you make is important.  

“This growing focus on reputation means we are becoming increasingly influential in the boardroom, but I think we still have some work to do to be as relevant at this level. I feel we are currently limited by a perception that PR people don’t fully understand the financial workings of an organisation – this is of vital importance to the board and generally we don’t have a good reputation for financial literacy. This has to change if we are to continue to grow our influence with senior decision makers.”