Should PR sell a brand, or build a brand?

As PR’s role evolves, the tension at the heart of PR is whether PR should be involved in selling a brand or building a brand. The difference lies in operations and strategy, between a corporate communications lead reporting to the CMO or the CEO.

Do Indian corporate communications leads report to the CEO?
The short answer to this question is NO.

Aman Dhall, who leads corporate communications for an online start-up says that, “PR is usually combined with the overall marketing portfolio in most of the companies in India, barring few MNCs and large corporate organizations.”

Subhash Pais, founder and business head, i9 Communications Pvt Ltd  says that while the short answer to the question of whether PR reports to the CEO or not in India is no, there are variations even within the same business sector.

Subhash explains that, “MNC's for instance take an international and professional way of structuring their communications department and more often than not the director of communications would report and liaise with the CEO and the board of directors. Some home-grown companies have also looked to structure communications in the same manner. In certain FMCGs the PR department reports to the CMO, while in the capital goods and infrastructure sectors where there might be a high number of publicly listed companies the PR department might liaise and report to the CEO and CFO.”

Jaideep Shergill co-founder, Pitchfork Partners Strategic Consulting LLP, has a different take on the issue asserting that, “It is rapidly becoming the case that the communications lead reports to the CEO. Most leading corporations today understand the need for this and have changed accordingly.”

Should PR be about sales or building brands?
PR professionals often chafe at the fact that the strategic significance of their role is not recognised and that they are reduced to the “sales function” of media relations.

Making a strong case for PR to report to the CEO, Aman Dhall explains that, “If the communication plans are more strongly aligned with the overall business strategy (rather than marketing strategy), CEOs are able to make better decisions based on the context of the market and not merely on the facts that are showcased. This is primarily because the corp communications are the ears and eyes of the organization. Their ability to listen, interpret and influence is far greater.”

Subhash Pais has a great anecdote to share about the business value of PR. He says, “I remember walking around Dalal Street around 15 years ago when there was no social media and the number of 24/7 business channels was just one. Information was in short supply and speculation at times drove markets. In such a place I overheard a broker claim, “Bhai market samne aake bolne wale ko premium deti hai” (The market gives a premium to the brand that communicates). These words sort of stuck with me for a very long time and I reminisce today as I think about building trust in a brand among various stakeholders. 

Why PR must report to the CEO
1) Communication becomes a strategic tool rather than operational.
2) Much better ROI on communications due to speed in making critical decisions.
3) Communications links the entire organization top-down and bottom-up leading to more dynamism and less slack in the system.
4) Builds trust among stakeholders as a clear cut leader and a face to the organization emerges.
5) Guards against any external risk and ensures an air of transparency.
6) Feedback actually helps the organization become more empathetic and ensures faster turnaround on critical matters.
7) Engulfs all its people and partners and helps create a competitive and healthy organizational culture.

Subhash Pais
Subhash adds, “CEOs these days live in more perilous and stressful times than at any time in history. Not only are they custodians of the organizational brand and have to create value for the stakeholders but they also have to make sure they do this while adhering to all social, organizational and ethical norms along with staying well within the legal framework of an ever changing, risk infested business environment. At such times and in such an environment, with the existing tools at his disposal the CEO absolutely must take the onus to communicate. There is ample data available globally to back the claim that a CEO who communicates and communicates effectively will help create a far more proactive and a dynamic brand for himself and his organization.”

Subhash is critical of those who try to confine PR to sales. He says, “Some believe that in these times PR should be restricted to marketing (gain leads, drive sales, gain traction for the brand blah blah). While PR has been known to achieve all of that, albeit at its own pace, I just have one question for those marketers and CEOs. 'If you had Virat Kohli playing for you would you bat him at No.11 or in a position where he has the best chance to be most effective?’ Square pegs don't go in round holes.

Earn the seat near the CEO
While PR professionals are quite clear about the role, Aman warns that, “The onus lies on the corporate communications lead – is the leader doing enough PR internally for the function? The communications lead has to bring the relevant insights, leadership skills and industry intelligence to command respect from all the functions. The lead has to act as an adviser to both the CEO and the leadership team.”

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