Public relations as strategic management

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and editor/co-author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

Public Relations has long aspired to be seen as a strategic management function, given the same respect in the board room as marketing and human resources.

However, in 2011 US scholar James Grunig argued that rather than being seen as strategic management, ‘public relations has been institutionalized as a symbolic-interpretive activity that organizations use to exert their power over publics and to disguise the consequences of their behaviors from publics, governments, and the media’. This means that public relations is seen as a communication function, not as a management discipline.

Yet as a long-standing proponent of PR as strategic management, Grunig stresses that public relations is not simply a ‘messaging activity’. This illustrates the conflict between what some academics and leading practitioners believe PR should be and how it is currently practised.

This has led to many calls from industry bodies to re-focus attention on the role that public relations plays in organisational success, notably highlighted in the Global Alliance’s Stockholm Accords in 2010.  More recently the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has again put the focus on strategic management, working with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to champion the strategic value of PR.

But what does it mean for PR to be a strategic management discipline?

Like many business terms such as culture and leadership, there is no universally accepted definition of strategic management. However, Dutch communication scholar Joep Cornelissen suggests that there is a consensus on three points about strategy:

  1. Strategy formation consists of a combination of planned and emergent processes – in practice communication strategy typically consists of planned programmes as well as more ad hoc reactive responses that emerge in response to issues and stakeholder concerns
  2. Strategy involves a general direction and not simply plans or tactics – strategy concerns the organization’s direction and positioning in relation to stakeholders and its environment
  3. Strategy is about the organization and its environment – managers who manage strategically do so by balancing the mission and vision of the organisation – what it is, what it wants to be, and what it wants to do – with what the environment will allow or encourage it to do

The combination of planned and emergent processes is a common theme in the literature. According to Mintzberg and Walters an emergent approach is based upon continuously evolving organisational processes that result from ongoing and complex interactions between groups with diverse interests. It is an approach that may be more likely to lead to strategic learning and adapting and responding to contexts as they develop. Indeed, the complexities in modern, large organisations suggest that strategy-making is always likely to be at least partly emergent.

PR scholars have proposed numerous adaptions of strategy making processes for public relations. Danny Moss argues that a communication strategy ‘should spell out the purpose, form, focus and direction of the communication strategy – how it will contribute to achieving the organisation’s overall and specific goals’. Moss outlines a communication management framework to underpin this thinking which incorporates four steps:

  1. Communication Management Analysis (stakeholder and issues analysis)
  2. Communication Management Choice (priorities and objectives)
  3. Communication Management Implementation (resources and budgets)
  4. Communication Management Evaluation (outputs, outcomes and impact)

Cornelissen also focuses on stakeholders and explains communication strategies as ‘a process of bringing stakeholder reputations into line with the vision of the organisation in order to obtain the necessary support for the organization’s strategy’.

Anne Gregory and Paul Willis bring together much of the contemporary thinking on strategic public relations in their four-by-four model which maps different levels of an organisation to four attributes that characterise good communication within a stakeholder networked environment.

Four-by-Four Model (Gregory and Willis)Gregory and Willis stress the importance of a ‘deep understanding of the brand and what it means to the wide range of stakeholders who associate with it and believe they own it is essential for communicators to undertake their role effectively’. They also highlight the importance of internal communication as the more that employees are ‘active advocates and intelligence gatherers, the greater the communicative and reputational impact’. This focus on internal communication is an aspect that is often neglected in wider public relations theory and practice.

Planning is also central to the model, where it is described as ‘research, defining objectives, identifying stakeholders, developing a strategy, selecting appropriate channels, crafting suitable content, identifying issues and risks, deciding on the resources needed and monitoring and evaluating programmes and campaigns’. These core components of a strategic approach, or variations of them, are repeated in much of the literature although a critique of them is the weak consideration of organisational listening.

One well-known approach to business strategy and planning is the balanced scorecard developed by Kaplan and Norton. This incorporates four dimensions; stakeholder/customer (expectations), financial stewardship (financial performance), internal business process (efficiency) and organisational capacity (knowledge and innovation).

The balanced scorecard was developed as a way of balancing a financial focus with other important organisational factors. It emphasises three further key dimensions for organisational success: customer/stakeholder satisfaction, internal business process and organisational capacity. Kaplan and Norton’s justification for this is outlined as follows:

The balanced scorecard retains traditional financial measures. But financial measures tell the story of past events, an adequate story for industrial age companies for which investments in long-term capabilities and customer relationships were not critical for success. These financial measures are inadequate, however, for guiding and evaluating the journey that information age companies must make to create future value through investment in customers, suppliers, employees, processes, technology, and innovation.

According to the Balanced Scorecard Institute, the balanced scorecard has been reported as fifth on a top 10 list of the most widely used management tools around the world, and it has been selected by the editors of Harvard Business Review as one of the most influential business ideas of the past 75 years.

An alternative perspective on how the balanced scorecard could be used for corporate communication is to consider financial and customers/stakeholders as external communication activities, and internal processes and learning and growth as internal communication activities.

Ansgar Zerfass notes that academics have suggested the use of the balanced scorecard for corporate communications since 1997, and it has been applied by organisations such as Daimler, Bosch, Aventis and Siemens. At a strategic level, a corporate communication scorecard can be used to ensure coherence between the overall organisation goals and the communication objectives. However, it should be noted that adopting a scorecard approach to corporate communication planning is one of the many different methods that can be used.

Moss sees the balanced scorecard approach as one of a number of ‘decision support techniques’, including other methods such as decision trees and scenario building. Moss suggests that the balanced scorecard approach “allows alternative strategy options to be considered from multiple internal and external stakeholder perspectives. This creates a ‘scorecard’ that attempts to integrate and balance financial and other performance measures relevant to different stakeholder groups.” An example of how the balanced scorecard can be mapped to a range of corporate communication activities is shown below.

As the balanced scorecard includes an emphasis on internal processes and learning and growth it inevitably leads to more focus on internal communication as a core strategic public relations activity, especially when it is successfully embedded into change management. Indeed, it could be argued that internal communication is as important, if not more important, than external communication in reputation management as trust in the media remains low and employee trust in their organisations is reported to be relatively high at 72 percent in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer report. There is also a growing body of scholarly work that associates internal communication with employee engagement which is in turn associated with organisational success and employee well-being.

Drawing together some of the common elements highlighted in the literature and introducing organisational listening to the process, a strategic management approach to public relations can be summarised as follows:

  • Formative research to understand an organisation’s current situation including assessments of existing stakeholder group perceptions and the quality of relationships
  • Formulation of measurable communication and relationship objectives that support the corporate business vision, strategy and purpose
  • Content creation, content curation, storytelling and organisational listening that contributes directly to communication and relationship objectives
  • Regular measurement of outputs, out-takes and outcomes of communication and relationship building
  • Evaluation of communication and relationship building, reflecting on what’s worked well and what could be done differently

An observation that can be made about the frameworks and models discussed in this short essay is that they are far removed from day to day practice which is dominated by copywriting and editing.

This critique of strategic management can be dismissive of the importance of formative research and planning. Instead the argument is that practice need only be concerned with the content creation process. However, this is to misunderstand the strategic management process. Tactics are a strategic activity – if they are based on formative research and planning. If they are not linked to carefully researched communication objectives then organisations may well be wasting public relations resources on activities that merely create noise and make no difference to the achievement of corporate objectives.

There is some evidence that current practice does incorporate elements of strategic management. According to the CIPR’s State of the Profession Report 2018, more than two-thirds of senior public relations managers spend most or some of their time both on copywriting and strategic planning. However the report does not explore exactly how much time senior managers devote to strategic planning nor how far ‘strategic planning’ includes formative research, measurable communication objectives and measurement of outcomes.

The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) paints a positive picture of the industry, claiming in 2016 that it was worth £12.9 billion, up from £9.62 billion in 2013. This growth begs the question does PR really need to become more established as strategic management?

Answering that necessitates the identification of the cost of poor reputation management that could have been prevented through strategic public relations. This can be measured not just in share prices that suffer following poor issues and crisis management but also in brand and reputation equity valuations.

A case can also be made for more strategic internal communication positively impacting productivity which is known to be low in the UK compared to the G7 (a group consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States): output per hour worked in the UK was 15.9% below the average for the rest of the G7 advanced economies in 2015.

To conclude, public relations in the UK is highly respected and valued by many organisations. There is evidence that it is growing, both in terms of people employed and value. Frameworks for strategic practice have existed for four decades.

Despite this, as the CIPR State of the Profession Report 2018 cited above shows, one third of senior PR managers do not spend much time on strategic planning. Further research to explore why this is the case would be useful. And the key question is how much more could PR be contributing to productivity and reputational equity if it was based on higher levels of strategic practice?

PR Place essays

Public relations as reputation management

Public relations as communication management

Public relations as relationship management

Sources and further reading

Balanced Scorecard Institute

Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) (2018) CIPR joins CBI to champion strategic value of PR

Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) (2018) State of the Profession 2018.

Cornelissen, J. (2011) Corporate Communication: A Guide to Theory and Practice, 3rd Edition. London: Sage

Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 Annual Global Study

Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (2010) The Stockholm Accords. 

Gregory, A. and Willis, P. (2013) Strategic Public Relations Leadership. Abingdon: Routledge.

Grunig, J. (2011) Public relations and strategic management: Institutionalizing organization–public relationships in contemporary society. Central European Journal of Communication. 

Kaplan, S. and Norton, D. P. (1996) The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Macnamara, J. (2016) Organizational Listening. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Mintzberg, H. and Walters, J. A. 1985. Of strategies, deliberate and emergent. Strategic Management Journal, 6 (July-September), 257-72.

Moss, D. 2011. Strategy-Making and Planning in the Communications Context in Moss, D. and DeSanto, B. (Eds) 2011. Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective. London: Sage.

Moss, D. 2011. A Managerial Perspective of Public Relations: Locating the Function and Analysing the Environmental and Organisational Context in Moss, D. and DeSanto, B. (Eds) 2011. Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective. London: Sage.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2017) International comparisons of UK productivity (ICP), final estimates: 2015

Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) (2016) The value and size of the PR industry.

Ruck. K. (2015) (Ed) Exploring Internal Communication: Towards Informed Employee Voice. 3rd Edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Zerfass, A. (2008) The Corporate Communication Scorecard. In: van Ruler, B., Vercic, A.T., and Vercic, D. (Eds) Public Relations Metrics, Research and Evaluation. Abingdon: Routledge.