In the opening chapters, we provided an overview of public relations, including definitions, a brief history of the profession, and a description of the models and subfunctions common in the profession. In these chapters, public relations was defined as a unique management function that uses communication to help manage relationships with key publics. In this chapter, we will expound on this management function, explaining why companies need public relations and how the public relations function is comprised of specialized roles.
Organizations usually have several management functions to help them operate at their maximum capacity: research and development, finance, legal, human resources, marketing, and operations. Each of these functions is focused on its own contribution to the success of the organization. Public relations’ unique function is to help the organization develop and maintain relationships with all of its key publics and stakeholders by effectively communicating with these groups. Communication is key in maintaining a satisfactory, long-term, trusting relationships with publics and stakeholders.
As described earlier, public relations provides the greatest value to an organization when it is used strategically. But what does this really mean? Think of it this way: In an effective organization, all the major functions are linked together by a common set of strategies that tie in to an overall vision of the future and an underlying set of values. Perhaps a computer company has as its vision, “To become the low cost provider of computing power to the developing world.” From this vision, senior management develops a set of strategies that address areas like sourcing, the manufacturing footprint, marketing, design, human resource development, and product distribution. When all the elements are in sync, the company grows in a steady, profitable manner.
An important component of this set of strategies is a communication strategy. For example, it will be critical that all employees in the organization understand that strategy and their role in executing it. Many business failures are ultimately attributable to the confusion caused by poor communication. How many times have you received poor customer service from an employee in a restaurant or retail outlet? In all likelihood, the organization that employed this worker intended for him or her to deliver good service to you. But somewhere along the line the communication flow broke down. Perhaps the employee’s direct supervisor or the store manager was not an effective communicator. Whatever the cause, the end result is a dissatisfied customer and diminished loyalty to the relationship.
In addition to reaching employees, a successful organization must also communicate effectively with its customers, its suppliers, and if it is a public company, its shareholders. For each key public, a set of messages must be developed as well as a plan to reach the public in the most efficient way. If the company is targeting young people with its message, a high-impact article in the Wall Street Journal is going to completely miss the mark for this strategic public. If instead the public is high net-worth investors, a clever YouTube video may also not be the right answer.
Although public relations has a unique and important function within organizations, it is often practiced differently depending on the role the top communicator plays within the organization, as we discuss next.