Are PR pros ready to align PR strategy with business outcomes?

West Wing fans will be familiar with CJ Cregg, the US Government press secretary who eventually become chief of staff at the White House. Beyond fiction, closer home, Prashant Kishor, the high profile political communications advisor is now much more than that; he is both advising and implementing political strategy.

In corporate circles, increasingly PR executives are widening their role to include core business functions. A 2015 survey, of CCOs in US based Fortune 500 companies, by Korn Ferry Institute found that “the influence of the CCO continues to grow, and with that, so, too, do the expectations from the C-Suite. The scope of the CCO is broadening and the mandate is to be a business strategist and advisor. Increasingly, leaders of this function are expected to not only have a full command of all the related functional disciplines, but also greater leadership capabilities that will allow them to work across the enterprise in helping to shape strategy, manage reputation, and problem solve.”

While in India too there are examples of PR professionals enjoying a broader strategic mandate, the examples are still few and far in between. The core issue, is the emerging generation of PR leaders equipped to understand business imperatives?

Girish Huria, head of corporate communication, eBay India, points out that, “If a PR / communication professional is able to articulate in simple English (free of jargons) a response to the question – “Which lever of business needs to be impacted through PR?” then they don’t need to understand any other aspect of business goals. We have to appreciate that businesses are operating in a dynamic environment and there are several unknowns which businesses need to adjust to. Therefore, the ask from PR can be diverse and not static. If we as PR professional continue to drive better perceptual value and deliver what businesses need, I think we would have far better appreciation from businesses on delivering business goals than what we have now.”

One of the key struggles between corporate communications and their PR consultants is the feeling that business goals are not being understood by the latter.

Indu Anand, head of communications for the defense manufacturing giant, India BAE Systems admits that, “The responsibility for this lies both at the agency and the client-side as fully integrated, synced-in teaming is rare. Moreover, agencies may win business on their understanding of client business objectives but retention is on speed and accuracy of execution.”

Anand adds that, “A periodic conversation with members of the communications and business leadership is a very useful way of keeping abreast of changing business goals. Also agency personnel are execution-oriented, and often clients, to their own disservice, presume both when and how much they need to know.”

The PR consultancy often ends up bearing the brunt of the charge that PR pros don’t understand business objectives. Huria says that It would be unfair to conclude that PR professionals (agency side) struggle with business objectives, while agreeing that there is a bit of “May when we woo, December when wed” issue on with maintaining the quality of engagement with the client.

He points out, “Agencies are unable to maintain a level of engagement consistency which becomes quite stark when the dialogue is with the owner / promoter / CEO vis-à-vis an account lead. While, it is for agencies to ensure that they bridge this gap by investing in learning and development or hiring the right resource, but I think corporates (corporate communicators) also need to learn to de-sensationalize this gap and look at establishing guidelines on who from the agency needs to be engaged for which dialogue.”

Solving the PR - business gap

But is the gap insurmountable?

Sushmita Bandopadhyay, communications and identity advisor, Becton, Dickinson & Co says to begin with, “PR pros in agencies must speak the language of business, not just PR or social media! They could articulate the value in terms of improved reputation, behavior change, cost savings or increased engagement.”

Dhwani Tandon, manager, brand & communications, Ramboll India. says, “Out of the many (knowing your client’s business, USP, competition, industry, sustainability agenda, brand objectives, social media rating, influencer perception) aspects, the key one is keeping an absolutely sharp focus on the alignment of PR strategy with budgets and business objectives. Even the best PR plans run the risk of being torn apart if they do not attack the business challenge and/or are not feasible in terms of budget. Push the envelope; show me the business benefit in the calling for all CC professionals across industry.”

While the above are in a way technical learning that can be acquired, Huria feels the answer to aligning PR with business lies in a more important area – the development of independent account leads and an appetite for failure.

Says Huria, “If we turn back the clock to a decade ago, promoters / owners who ran agencies were fearless and allowed their employees to fail, which therefore enabled them to understand businesses better. These are the same employees who are today running successful businesses or excelling in their pursuit to be better corporate communicators.”

Adds Huria, “Maybe such luxuries aren’t possible today, but there is still a possibility for PR agencies to allow account leads to run their own P&L and make them accountable. This will not only allow account leads to have better appreciation of businesses, but will also enhance the quality of engagement between the agency and the corporate.”

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