PR in the boardroom discussion

“What matters most is access to the CEO, not whether or not PR sits on the main board.” Simon Lewis

Gareth Wynn talked about how communications has changed. Historically, it was something that was considered after the decision. Now it is about contributing to developing the strategy in the first place.

Jonathan Chandler says that PR is about predicting outcomes and identifying the future impact on stakeholders.

“Poorer in dollars spent, but richer in terms of the return on investment” Gareth Wynn

Historically public relations was a subset of marketing

Simon Lewis told an amusing tale about how the perception of PR has changed. In 1981 his university careers officer advised him to get a graduate trainee position with a FMCG company such as Guinness. When Simon expressed an interest in a career in PR he was told: “Nobody goes into PR unless they have tried something else and failed.”

Contrast that with today with the popularity of PR degrees and the number of high caliber graduates looking to enter the profession/industry.

Gareth Wynn used an example of Kryptonite (but didn’t mention the brand) and the cost to its business of ignoring a disgruntled consumer. He was told the story by an advertising agency and from the way he told it I’m not entirely convinced that he heard the real story – it sounded more like a Chinese Whispers version that had become slightly garbled by repeated telling.

He also talked about how we should learn from other business disciplines and about the problem of the multitude of names that we are known by – PR, public relations, corporate communications, public affairs etc

Simon Lewis questioned if the PR should ever come of age because that would lose some of the spark and vitality that helps us to constantly change and innovate. Despite being a past president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (before it was chartered) he also said that PR shouldn’t be considered a profession but an industry, trade, business or skill set.

The first question was about journalists moving into public relations.

Simon questioned if journalists will have the required skills as PR is changing so rapidly. He used the example of Vodafone’s results which are due in a couple of weeks and how the Daily Telegraph has already asked to do an interview with the CEO. The twist being that this isn’t a print interview but will be recorded for a podcast.

Gareth Wynn thought it depended on the skills and caliber of the individual journalist while Jonathan Chandler talked about how valuable his experience in newspapers was in helping him to do his job today.

My personal view is that it is useful to have an ex-journalist as part of the team, but public relations is far broader than just media relations and many journalists will struggle with the other elements or put too great an emphasis on media relations.

Earlier I recorded an interview with PR industry veteran Bob Leaf who made some very interesting observations on how the PR business has changed. I’ll try to post it on the train journey home (assuming that GNER’s wifi will let me).

Bob made an excellent contribution from the floor to talk about how the role and status of in-house PR people has increased since he entered the business 50 years ago. But despite the advances he also emphasised that it still had a long way to go.

Simon Lewis responded by saying that one aspect that worried him was the career path and prospects for in-house PR people.

The next question was again about people moving into PR from other fields and if it would be beneficial for PR people to be licensed or accredited before they could practice (as suggested by Harold Burson recently).

The panel was unanimously against mandatory accreditation but also stressed the importance of professionalism, ongoing training and continuous professional development.

Don Sacks, program director for public relations and advertising at the University of Miami said that a more important question was how many delegates had received formal public relations training but that mandatory accreditation didn’t have to follow from this. He used the example of lawyers and how professional accreditation didn’t prevent wrong doing, ethical breaches or even breaking the law.

Andrew Morrison, senior communications manager of Coca-Cola Africa, asked for the views of the panel on the difficulty of measuring the value of reputation and the contribution that public relations makes to a company.

Gareth Wynn stressed the importance of relating measurements to business improvements and objectives, not simply communications ones. Simon Lewis reminded us that if we didn’t come up with appropriate measures then the danger was that others would create them for us, but based on a lack of understanding about what we do and what value it can add.

This was, in the words of Roger Hayes, a ‘terrific’ session.