PR's True Value Mirrors Its Values: Professor, Author and Veteran Researcher Grunig Advises on Getting a Seat at the Management Table-and Keeping It

Bulldog Reporter
December 6, 2006

This week's spotlight: James E. Grunig, Professor Emeritus, Department of Communications, University of Maryland

December 6, 2006

What is the value of PR? "I've been working on that question since 1984," says James E. Grunig, professor emeritus in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland.

"If we truly want metrics that show public relations has value to an organization, the measurements required are deceptively simple," asserts Grunig, who has edited, authored, or co-authored 11 books and 225 other publications on the topic. "We should measure the nature and quality of relationships to establish and monitor the value of public relations. And we should evaluate public relations strategies and tactics to determine which are most effective in cultivating relationships."

How does that translate to the bottom line? "Accountants say there are three ways to show value: to show an increase in revenue, a reduction of costs or a reduction in risk. Much of the focus these days is on focusing on revenue, because we know good relationships with consumers drives future purchasing behavior," says Grunig. "But PR's greatest value comes in reducing costs and risks. Specifically, primary costs are litigation, regulation, legislation and encounters with activist groups, or negative publicity. Most of those costs to relationships are caused by poor management decisions-those that don't take into account interests of stakeholders."

So, Grunig says, underscoring PR's need to actively drive corporate decision-making versus simply communicating them: "PR has a huge value to any organization by providing a public perspective on decisions before they're made. This approach makes PR more strategic than merely tactical-and underscores the need for PR practitioners to have a seat at the management table," he asserts.

Easier said than done, right? Read on for Grunig's tips on making the jump:

Most readers will agree with your thoughts on PR as a strategic function-but how do they actually get a seat at the table?

Education, professional development and embracing research-those are the keys. That includes things like attending conferences on strategic public relations, studying PR at the university level, and even helping and paying staff to do the same. Many agencies have had their own programs-like the "Ketchum College." And when I worked at AT&T, we had our own continuing education program. Those are good things and a great start-but it's also a good idea to bring academic researchers into those efforts. Accreditation can be another important element in this. But accreditation essentially tests people on entry-level textbook information. To get a strategic seat at the table, we need to go beyond that. You must have knowledge about the latest research.

How do forward-thinking PR practitioners gain that research perspective?

You can't, unless you support the idea of public relations education-and don't bad mouth it as many do. Similarly, research your own work, instead of just engaging in it tactically. Expect it, and practice it. Also, consider serving on boards, associate with universities and lend your support-be a guest lecturer and open your doors to researchers, for example. Researchers need access. We don't want ideas in isolation. We get ideas by talking to PR people. We take theoretical concepts and test them through access to you.

Let's get back to PR being valued as a "strategic" function-how, more specifically, can readers make that happen?

Most important is to step back and think about what you're doing. It's conceptualization. I don't think we have a shortage of measurement in PR today-but I do think we have a shortage of conceptualization, where practitioners ask themselves: Why am I doing this? How could I be more effective? How does this drive my organization's goals? That is the researcher's mentality, and getting a seat at the table means embracing it. It's a zero-based budgeting approach to PR. That's part of the answer here. Don't accept what you're doing on faith. That means you need to throw the budget out every year and start over, where you justify everything in the budget based on whether or not-and how-it moves the company's goals forward. Most people only do that kind of evaluation once every five years or so.

Another key is to focus on what you're doing as it relates to relationships-not just in getting projects out the door tactically. Finally, you need to not only have an understanding about the latest research in PR-but you also need a strategic understanding of your organization. Many in PR don't have this because they're trained as communicators and journalists.

How do we get that strategic "understanding" of the businesses we work for?

You have to really immerse yourself in it. Learn as much as you can-talk to your colleagues, set up committees across disciplines at your company and dig into its business model, products and how it makes money. Without that perspective, you're not part of the management team-or what has been called the "dominant coalition" within business organizations.

That group fluctuates. It's not always the same people. Your involvement depends on your level of knowledge about the company and the relevance of your expertise to the decisions being made. So recognize when your knowledge is relevant-and go to the people making the decisions when it is. Your goal should be to do that in everyday situations-not just when crisis strikes, which is typically when management first begins to see PR as having strategic value.

Why is PR undervalued outside of the profession?

I'm not sure that it is. In the excellence study [from 1985-95, Grunig served as project director for the $400,000 research project on excellence in public relations and communication management, funded by the IABC Research Foundation], we asked CEOs to give us a cost-benefit analysis ratio for PR. We asked, "If you spent X on PR, how much do you get back?" The average response was 180 percent.

This was done 15 years ago, and I wouldn't say that PR delivers a 180 percent return. But the exercise certainly identified value in the minds of CEOs as to the intangible benefits of PR. We also found that CEOs assigned a higher value to PR the more involved it was in strategy at their organizations. There were very few who assigned PR a value of less than 100 percent, which is where it would actually be losing money for them. The takeaway today is that organizations value strategic counsel from PR. They don't always value the tactical things, like media relations or things like better annual reports.

Beyond focusing on relationships, research and strategic PR, how can we strengthen the industry as a whole?

Well, we can definitely support professional associations and organization like PRSA and IABC to continue to make them a place where people go to share ideas and learn from each other. Learning and conducting research by yourself is one thing-but we have obligations to the entire profession, and getting involved in these efforts helps fulfill those obligations.

You're a member of both associations-which does a better job at elevating the profession?

I don't want to disparage either one. They both do a reasonably good job. But I do think they're both too focused on the tactical level and not enough on the strategic. I also don't think any PR organization focuses enough on scholarly research and bringing that into practice.

Why have you devoted your life and career to this field?

My mother had something to do with it, because she was in Iowa and was a do-gooder. My father was also a member of the school board, and was a 4-H Club leader. So it goes back to my upbringing. It's important to represent society and publics in the big organizations that impact their lives-organizations like companies and government. Much of my research focuses on the value of building and maintaining relationships, so that's the connection.

These organizations all affect each one of us. The public needs a voice, otherwise we have an oligarchy. So that's what I love about this work: representing the little guy-the people who suffer from lay-offs, pollution, highways next to their houses and so on. They need to be heard. It all comes back to understanding and valuing networks of relationships. If we promote and practice those values, we also deliver on our true value to management as an industry.