The management in many organisations seem stumped as to where to place public relations (PR) people in the organisational structure. This includes deciding on the numbers that should effectively go with a PR function and the roles they play and how much they will cost.
public relations with Lenox Mhlanga
I read somewhere that in an ideal situation the intent and desire of the senior leadership team in terms of the communications function generally guides the design or financing of a PR department.
The role of PR should be restated before we proceed any further.
“PR professionals are empowered with the task of growing, guiding, and managing the consumer/stakeholder perception of your brand/company and the message received about your brand by these groups,” says Pippa Holland, who works for a PR and marketing recruitment agency.
“PR professionals aid the marketing and advertising campaigns by adding an extra layer of substance to the message received by the consumer through articles, press releases, statements, events and comment through the media.”
That of course does preclude PR’s strategic role at top managerial level that includes issues and crisis management, managing reputation, advocacy, financial intelligence and perception management, to name but a few.
Many organisations have empowered and capable executive assistant layers. This I found to exist at Dunlop Zimbabwe, before I took up the lead corporate communications role.
The previous PR manager’s task involved the planning of staff parties, town hall meetings and other internal events, sponsored events or even executive holidays and excursions. Without taking much from her, she was incredibly effective in her role.
Sadly, reputation management was not among those critical functions and it was so glaringly apparent when media related issues spiralled out of control.
Other organisations have a talented marketing team that is capable of writing announcement materials, customer communication and sales presentations. The temptation is to mistake these for much-needed communication skills best provided by proper PR and communications departments.
Hence, placing PR under the supervision (and budget) of marketing is a huge structural and functional blunder. I am stating here as I have done before the only way to benefit from the effectiveness of PR is to give it due prominence and acceptance as an independent strategic function.
Organisations find out too late when they discover huge gaps in their reputational shield that cannot be patched up by unskilled personnel with little or no experience in PR. They learn the hard way that there is a world of difference between promotions and specialised communications.
Deciding on the number of staff required to drive a PR function is as much policy-driven as it is a budget decision.
“How many people you need depends on the activity of the function,” says Terry Flynn, of McMaster University’s Department of Communication Studies. “There’s no magic or central theorem to number of staff.”
Factors to consider include how big or small the company is, the scope of its strategy, the nature of its media relations and communications activity and, critically, its integration with the marketing function. The two, though closer than ever, are still not the same.
In all the organisations I worked for, we were forced to do more with less. PRs identify cheaper ways of achieving their goals because, put simply, there is little or no money thrown their way to achieve this. Their creativity is channelled more to squeezing blood out of a stone than to elaborate well-funded campaigns enjoyed by their marketing cousins.
At Dunlop Zimbabwe, I led a team of three to rescue them from a crippling reputation crisis that had plagued the company for years. Even after that success, we still struggled to get PR to be a budget item. At no point did we request outside help.
“If the PR department is also responsible for issues management and crisis communications, then the company should be eager to ensure that you have the resources you need,” says Graeme Harris, of Canadian financial services provider, Manulife.
The toss up for some companies is between maintaining a small in-house team to manage the usual issues while keeping a consultancy on a retainer for the more engaging work on a needs basis. Or building a robust department capable of handling any communication challenge thrown at it.
The functions served by communications staff differ and that also needs to be taken into account when deciding on the size of the PR team.
Deciding on who should lead the PR team depends on capacity and need. At the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, I was a one-man team because my role was mainly on media relations.
As senior PR officer at the Bulawayo City Council (BCC), the role required a bigger team that took care of events management, advocacy, campaigns and providing strategic communication advice to the town clerk and the executive mayor. To their credit, the BCC ensured there was a budget for these.
Staff budgets could also be dependent upon on the level of expertise required and the salary range in that area. Salaries are highly dependent on qualifications and experience.
Laurie Smith from the CNW Group cautions that while PR professionals are considered generalists, the temptation to pile too many diverse areas of responsibility onto a single person or a small team should be avoided.
“Just because they can do everything doesn’t mean they should do everything. PR is by nature a high-burnout role, and you don’t want to lose integral staff over the cost of an additional team member,” she says in her advice on PR spend.
A PR budget that covers the staffing, skills retention and financing of critical communications resources is a strategic decision that differs for each organisation, but it is a critical function.
Lenox Mhlanga is an associate consultant with Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants. He has worked with the World Bank Group as a communication specialist and is a part-time PR lecturer at the National University of Science and Technology. Contact him at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Mobile/WhatApp: 0772 400 656.