Review: Strategic Public Relations Leadership (Second Edition)

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Strategic Public Relations Leadership (Second Edition)
By Anne Gregory and Paul Willis
Routledge, 2023, 227 pages

This book has been a favourite recommendation of mine for the past decade. It’s that rare thing, a book by academics written for senior practitioners; as a result it’s the closest I’ve found to a textbook for the CIPR Professional PR Diploma course and it’s a pioneering book, as I’ll explain.

For decades, academic textbooks followed the lead of two US milestone contributions: Cutlip and Center’s Effective Public Relations (first published in 1952 and still in print) and Grunig and Hunt’s Managing Public Relations (its one and only edition appeared in 1984).

Both these books made claims for the emerging professionalism and strategic contribution of public relations, but the focus of one was on technical competence and the other took a managerialist view of the role of public relations within organisations.

Since then public relations scholarship has shifted its gaze away from the organisation-centred approach of these US texts and has taken a ‘socio-cultural turn’. In other words, rather than asking how public relations contributes to organisational success, academics have been asking what effect it has on society. I’d thought this would have created an even greater gap between academics and practitioners, but I’ve been proven wrong.

In recent years, talk of purpose and values and the emergence of ESG as well as AMEC’s challenge in the latest iteration of its Barcelona Principles that we should measure impact on society as well as on the bottom line means that the interests of academics and senior practitioners are once again aligned.

So where can we look to be guided through this complex landscape? This is where I recommend Gregory and Willis above all academic texts.

The main reason for the recommendation is that it provides a broad and accessible overview of the challenges facing the public relations leader. A secondary recommendation is the use of endnotes in place of academic referencing. This sends a strong signal that the book is written for senior practitioners and senior executives more broadly, and not just for academic peers. It also means that this remains a slim book, though somewhat expanded from the 164 pages of the first edition.

The book’s first section looks at the strategic contribution public relations makes to organisations. This is where the authors introduce their ‘all terrain’ 4×4 model to conceptualise strategic public relations. 

4x4 model Gregory and Willis

This versatile model is applicable to the private, public and third sectors. It shows organisations relating to their stakeholder networks at four levels: societal (where organisations seek legitimacy); corporate (where business and financial decisions are taken); value-chain (embracing key groups such as investors and employees); and functional (where public relations integrates with other functional areas within the organisation).

Set alongside these four areas, there are four attributes of the public relations leader. A deep appreciation of context; an excellent understanding of the brand; leadership; and public relations as a core organisational competence – and not just within the public relations function.

The 4×4 model embraces legitimacy, trust, relationships, purpose and values.

Emerging from this, the authors suggest that the public relations leader should undertake four roles within the organisation: as an orienter, ensuring legitimacy is maintained by seeking broad stakeholder and societal support; as a navigator ensuring stakeholder perspectives are considered; as a catalyst to ensure organisational reality matches the rhetoric; and as an implementer, skilled at planning, managing and delivering public relations programmes.

The second section of the book covers the preoccupations of public relations leaders (eg values and ethics).

The third section drills down into the responsibilities of public relations leaders (eg the planner, the expert technician, the internal educator, the consultant).

The authors have been colleagues at Leeds Beckett and Huddersfield universities. Now retired though still very active, Anne Gregory is widely known as a longstanding public relations professor and the author of Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns who is also a past president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (indeed, it was during her presidential year and following her leadership that the institute was granted its royal charter). Both authors have backgrounds as practitioners before becoming public relations scholars.

One change I noted between the two editions is the very assertive defence of the term public relations from 2013 has been softened in the second edition. There’s a paradox here: the authors argue that public relations thinking is needed more than ever given the complex context for organisational-stakeholder relationships and societal expectations; yet they acknowledge that many, especially those working in the public sector, describe themselves as communicators rather than public relations practitioners.

Indeed, public relations is still struggling to shake off its association with external publics generally, and the media specifically. And that’s before discussing the challenge of presenting a practice that undeniably emerged from propaganda as an ethical force for good in society.

But I can think of no better book to make the case than this one (‘our aim’, the authors write, ‘is to provide a leadership framework that is unique and empowering for public relations’). Ambitious practitioners should read it for themselves, and should pass a copy to their senior leaders too.