PR Playbook: Earning Your Seat at the Senior Management Table
While waiting for the PR profession-at-large to earn a place at the senior management table, current practitioners should develop their own company-specific strategies that will enable them to rub shoulders on an equal basis with their counterparts in finance, legal, marketing, operations or technology. The timeworn adage, “Think globally, act locally,” applies very well here.
Here are a few tactics to consider for your personal campaign to gain a seat:
Clarify PR’s Role – The most pragmatic answer to “What is PR?” may be: “Whatever your employer (or client) needs it to be.” Exploration of how the PR profession can be applied to achieve tangible benefits for your organization begins with frank and perhaps eye-opening conversations with senior managers to gain a first-hand understanding of their current perceptions and expectations of PR. You may be surprised at the depth of misunderstanding that exists within your organization regarding your activity and its value. This is an opportunity to clarify what PR does or can do for them, to identify their needs and establish expectations.
Get Quantitative – The nature of PR tactics can make it difficult to demonstrate a direct correlation between that activity and tangible business outcomes. Most senior executives accept that reality, and do not expect PR to be a profit center. However, PR practitioners who understand the bottom-line orientation of the business world make it a priority to connect the dots internally, by explaining and highlighting what role PR has played in helping to produce results – whether those outcomes are measured in lead generation, search engine page rankings, revenue growth, employee satisfaction or customer experience.
Speak Their Language – It’s not necessary to understand all the technicalities, issues or nuances related to various corporate functions, but you need to know what’s important. For example, your CFO does not expect you to be up-to-date on Dodd-Frank compliance, but does expect you to be well-versed regarding the company’s business model (how it makes and spends money), its competitive landscape, key legislation and enterprise priorities such as market share, acquisition or going public. Speaking your company’s language has less to do with knowing balance sheet terminology, and more to do with being tuned into what’s on the priority list of its senior team and your ability to adapt PR strategies to support those goals.
Get Strategic – As a staff function, PR is often viewed as corporate overhead, and expendable when times get tough. Making PR an essential element in line function strategies can build internal support as well as career longevity. To make PR indispensible within your organization, focus on activities that are valued by senior management. These are typically tactics that make the phones ring, or move the revenue needle. For example, drive a successful effort to get your company’s whiz-bang technology included in a respected industry benchmark such as the Gartner Magic Quadrant (ideally, without paying Gartner’s hefty subscription fee), and watch the PR department’s stature rise internally.
Act Like an Agency – Outside PR firms live or die by the level of service and results they deliver to clients. An agency’s motivation and enthusiasm are driven by an appreciation that if they fail to meet expectations or add value, they will likely be replaced. Corporate PR practitioners who adopt an agency mindset – treating each operational function as an outside PR agency might manage a client – can build internal support across the organization. From a practical standpoint, this means understanding what your internal clients need, developing tailored plans of action, being accountable for agreed-upon deliverables and maintaining a sense of urgency.
Be Fearless – You must serve as the PR function’s ambassador within your company. Keep the pom-poms in the file cabinet, but don’t be shy about discussing what’s working, as well as what’s not and why. If you don’t point out PR’s contribution to the top or bottom lines, no one else will. Conversely, if you don’t put shortcomings out on the table, someone else is likely to do that for you. And if you’re in an environment where honest conversations regarding success and failure are not fostered, then it may not be a management table where you want to be seated.
Get a Life – A PR practitioner’s internal reputation and stature are also shaped by professional involvement outside of the company. Your public relations skills can be of great value to civic, charitable and cause-related organizations, and regardless of the motivation for contributing your time, these affiliations represent 3rd party validation of your expertise. This experience also broadens your career horizons, sharpens your professional capabilities and can be personally rewarding and fun.
Best practices established by individual PR professionals – not PRSA lobbying, or PR courses in MBA curricula – represent the profession’s most valuable resource in its effort to move public relations from the management farm team to the big leagues. Over time, as more practitioners gain seats, including PR in the corporate decision-making process is likely to become standard practice, rather than the exception.
Bill Gates learned the “by invitation only” lesson the hard way when he was denied admission to the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club, because he publicly expressed an interest in becoming a member. Similarly, if you want a seat at your company’s senior management table, you won’t get there by asking for it; so take the steps necessary to earn yourself an invitation.