Now Is the Time for Public Relations to Have a Permanent Seat on the Board

About the author

Christine Bowles prepared this article for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy

Photo by Jo_Johnston on Pixabay
Photo by Jo_Johnston on Pixabay
Christine Bowles
Christine Bowles

Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer Special Report which polled 12,000 people across the world shows consumers are already changing their buying behaviour as a result of how brands are responding to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic – 65% who agree “how well a brand responds to the crisis will have a huge impact on my likelihood to buy that brand in the future” and 37%  who agree “I have already started using a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way they have responded to the virus outbreak” (2020).

The pandemic has made senior leaders more aware of brand, employee relations, crisis management and strategic communications. Now is the time for public relations to have a permanent seat on the board. 

Professionalising the Profession 

The UK’s professional body is the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). The Institute has nearly 10,000 members as of March 2021. The top two challenges facing the public relations profession are the value placed on practitioners’ work as reflected in the under representation at board level and how others view the profession, resulting in it not being seen as a professional discipline (CIPR Annual State of the Profession Report, 2019).

These same two issues have been in the top 5 of the annual report since it was first commissioned in 2010 and they are clearly linked. In Chartered Status and Public Relations’ Struggle for Legitimacy Gregory talks of the Department for Education and Skills challenging the CIPR’s application for Chartership in 2005 because of a lack of education, training and ethical standards as reflected in low levels of membership and professional development commitment, noting that these challenges still remain (2013). 

The assessment for CIPR Chartership covers ethics, strategy, and leadership and at the time of writing (March 2021), there were 400 Chartered PR Practitioners. This contrasts with over 3,000 Chartered Marketers in March 2019 (CIM) and is roundly eclipsed by 152,997 practising solicitors as of February 2021 (SRA), and more than 150,000 Chartered Accountants worldwide as of March 2021 (ICAEW). 

Whilst other professions strive for the highest level of achievement, in the public relations profession it still must be an important marker career-wise and a measure of professional legitimacy. The irony is not lost on Gregory as she notes other disciplines such as management consultancy are moving into the public relations space, not because of their expertise but because they are often attached to professional services firms who have achieved social closure and legitimacy, and therefore board acceptance (2013). There has, however, been an increase in Chartership interest. A new PDF on the website launched in September 2018 achieved 12,000 downloads and those already chartered are a strong advocacy body (Gregory, 2013).  2019 saw a 26% increase in the number of students completing CIPR qualifications at 2,241 (CIPR Annual Report, 2019-20). There were also 1,401 Accredited Practitioners, the second highest level of professional accreditation and therefore huge potential to convert onto the Chartership scheme (Gregory, 2013). 

Using Strategic Communications to Optimum Effect 

There is no shortage of theory as to how strategic communications can be used to optimum effect.  Grunig and Hunt (1984) in Managing Public Relations put forward the Four Models of Public Relations with their two-way symmetrical model considered communication best practice for an organisation and its stakeholders. In their subsequent pioneering Excellence Theory Grunig and Grunig note that ideal communications practice should focus on the strategic importance to organisations and influence on reputation, advancing public relations from a tactical publicity activity into an integrated management discipline (2000).

Gregory and Willis (2013) concur in their Four By Four Model that “public relations contributes more to an organisation than just programmes and campaigns” and outline the strategic levels at which public relations makes a contribution. Starck and Kruckeberg remind us that society is the ultimate stakeholder as evidenced in the global financial crisis of 2008 where banks were held to account by governmental and regulatory stakeholders (2001). Gregory and Willis agree that this “contextual intelligence” is one of the most important contributions that PR practitioners can make (2013). The public relations function is clearly seen as a corporate strategic discipline as opposed to operational and tactical.  

Crisis Management & Reputation Risk 

Griffin identifies a crisis as “not the nature of what has happened but what is at stake – reputation, the bottom line, the licence to operate and the future of the organisation – and the immediacy of the threat” (2014). 

Deciding to front the government’s daily briefings with Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England was well received and enabled the government to say they had been “led by science”.  However, the government’s communications strategy during the pandemic attracted strong criticism around strategy, messaging, and transparency. Formal tendering and open recruitment processes were seemingly not followed for – personal protective equipment, the test and trace system and top appointments, and issues around integrity centring on the Prime Minister’s unelected adviser, Dominic Cummings’ road trip to Bernard Castle during lockdown was said to have undermined trust. Evidence is now being gathered for an inquiry into the Government’s response to Covid-19. The Covid-19 Communications Advisory Panel (2020) report finds that communications professionals have been essential to the pandemic response and provides insights and learnings. 

survey by Deloitte in 2015 found that 87% of 300 company executives globally rated reputation risk as the most important strategic issue to face a company. Covid-19 has highlighted the social and governance aspects of ESG standards as businesses seek to protect jobs, help with efforts to control the spread of the virus and ‘do the right thing’ for employees working from home.  ESG has moved from a topic that needs to be talked about to one that is impacting business and is now a reputational risk (Lambay Group, 2020). 

Winners in the Pandemic (and Losers) 

Research by Reptrack, the reputation consultancy, finds that healthcare providers, pharma and telecommunications companies are the sectors with the highest levels of approval at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown with insurance providers, airlines and travel providers all facing the worst criticism (2020).

Pharma was rightly lauded for developing universally safe Covid-19 vaccines in record time. Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, wrote an open letter about the “speed of science” and published it on LinkedIn and, rather than a top tier outlet. It was a risk, but the direct communication achieved more engagement and coverage than if they would have gone to top-tier media (2020). The public health provider NHS came in top for approval ratings and millions applauded NHS workers on Covid-19 frontlines, but it was the country’s biggest ever inoculation programme led by the NHS which allowed the government to claim a pandemic success first, following the failure to deliver on a” world beating” test and trace system.

The UK Vaccine Taskforce led by the former Chair, Kate Bingham, created a comprehensive strategic communications campaign “to launch successfully the National NHS Citizen Registry for rapid trial enrolment; for public education to communicate simply the complexities of vaccine approach, progress and strategy; and to establish the UK as a global leader in vaccine R&D by encouraging international cooperation and to drive future economic growth” (2020). Telecoms companies also supported their customers widely, including BT, Vodafone, and Virgin Media.  All examples have communications representation on the board. 

The travel sector came bottom for approval ratings as many holiday companies and airlines continued to delay or deny refunds for Covid-19 cancellations. Norwegian Cruise Line’s decision not to pull an upbeat campaign shown during a CNN show featuring a piece about passengers isolated on a coronavirus-infected cruise ship was damaging reputation-wise. Likewise, insurance providers Zurich, RSA and Hiscock were amongst eight firms criticised for failing to pay out for disruption cover to businesses affected by coronavirus from a “notifiable disease” based on policy wording. Perhaps most eye-catching of all though was Virgin’s Chairman Richard Branson who was criticised for asking the government for a bailout and penning an open letter to the company’s employees asking them to take unpaid leave.  Branson is worth around £3bn.

A Seat at the Table

According to a survey by the specialist executive search firm Watson Helsby (2019), over three quarters of FTSE 100 companies have a corporate affairs director and of those, 75 per cent report into the CEO (a rise of five percentage points since 2013).

Membership of the Executive Committee (a standing committee that acts as a steering committee for the full board) is at 49% (a rise of 6 percentage points since 2013).

These increases however are still considerably lower than those of other corporate functions such as legal, finance, IT and HR, of whom almost all, sit on the board. A survey in 2016 of 120 corporate affairs directors however revealed that only one in five had considered progressing into a broader general management role (Broome Yasar Partnership, 2016).

Simon Redfern, Starbucks’ Corporate Affairs Director with a permanent seat on the board, handled the backlash over the company’s tax scandal successfully and the company has won praise for its pandemic handling. Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson posted an open letter to all its U.S. employees turning all cafes temporarily into drive-thrus. The company then paid all its employees for 30 days whether they came into work or not and said that all decisions on whether to reopen as cafes should be taken locally. As a benchmark, the Influence 100 2020 listing recognises “the most important and influential in-house communicators from around the world”. (PRovoke, 2020). 

Top companies ensure their star managers are exposed to all business operations as part of their career development, and functional leaders or CFOs are generally the preferred appointment. However, communications directors’ careers do not tend to involve large-scale, hands-on management roles across different parts of the business.

If you are leading or are part of a team that led a major transformation who happens to have communications experience then you are considered to have the right to be on the board, but it is not yet automatically the other way around. The role of the board is to be seen to represent all of the business on behalf of shareholders, not that of a democracy whereby all individual interests have a seat. Perhaps then all board directors should have exposure to communications as part of their career development to give additional authority to the principle that reputation and value are intrinsically linked.  

Now is the Time 

Whilst risk oversight for boards usually focuses on financial and operational issues, enlightened boards are now adding reputational risk metrics to a financial set of risks facing the company (Pfizer Board Audit Committee, 2017). The speed of digital communication and managing it for a company’s reputation, as well as younger generations entering the marketplace and putting more emphasis on ESG issues means that boards will have to take people’s environmental, social and governance concerns seriously. A report by Reptrak found that linking higher purpose to business is what matters most to global reputation leaders (2020).  

As Macnamara forecasts, just as CEOs moved from command and control to collaboration, so it will be the same for public relations directors (2014). The 24-hour digital media demands will necessitate a new model in which central control PR departments are replaced by collaborative professionals in the discipline, paving the way for a permanent seat on the board in the same automatic way as that for functional heads and finance directors. In the meantime public relations directors should endeavour to improve their board chances by emulating successful role models and seeking out board and non-executive roles outside work for experience; volunteer with professional and community groups to expand networks; expand  strategic experience to stand apart from other communications professionals with an MBA or finance training; revamp CVs highlighting community and professional leadership experience, and look out for opportunities on the executive team in their company. 


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