PR as a management function

Posted on: September 16, 2008

After visiting Harare, I traveled south to Johannesburg and on to the Southern Africa Institute of Management Scientists’ conference at Misty Hills near Pretoria, which was wonderfully hosted by the University of Pretoria. (Congratulations to Prof Ronel Rensburg and her team).


I was one of three keynote speakers alongside Prof Leyland Pitts of Simon Fraser University (Canada) and Prof Philip Kitchen of Hull University (UK). It was especially welcome that my speech on PR research priorities was presented at a management rather than communication conference.


If you think about, public relations has always been defined as a management activity, although often operationalised as a communication delivery process. The most widely quoted definition, “The management of relations between an organization and its publics” (Grunig & Hunt 1984) exemplifies this as does the paradigm of PR as relationship management proposed by Ledingham & Bruning (1999).


I was pleased to point out to the SAIMS audience that the top priority in the PR research priorities study was “public relations’ contribution to strategic decision-making, strategy development and realization, and efficient operation of organization”, and fourth ranked was “public relations as a function of management”. Also in the top ten were “management of corporate reputation” (7th) and “management of relations”(10th). These also confirm PR’s place in management functions.


The discussion of my speech led on to questions as to where PR education should be situated in universities – in a business, journalism, liberal arts or communication/media school or faculty. If PR is to gain continuing recognition as a management function, programmes need to either be situated in business schools (separate from marketing programmes) or have a strong managerial focus if placed elsewhere.


4 Responses to "PR as a management function"

Totally agree, Tom.

This is (still) one of the frustrating things (most frustrating?) about PR: that we continue to discuss its place at management level.

Trouble is, many university faculties and schools are run by people with no business experience.

I just left an institution where PR was part of Arts and Education. What has that got to do with business? Across town, another uni places it in the School of Business, where it belongs, as you point out.

Academics jealously protect their fifedoms (yes, we have them Down Under, too). They don’t see the big picture: that students need exposure to business, not “basket-weaving”.

Our future business leaders in commerce, marketing and law need to be exposed to their PR counterparts at university, otherwise how on earth will they ever know what PR is about?

Conversely, PR students need exposure to business practice, otherwise they’ll just end up writing media releases and organising events.

Wonderfully timed post.

Of course PR cannot be anything but a management function (all the rest is execution). It must have the regulatory oversight of marketing but much else beside including its contribution to strategic corporate value explication, corporate and operational decision-making, strategy development, realisation, and policing of corporate responsibility if it has a writ in relationship management.

But we have to be wary of what we mean. If PR is a management function then the financial turmoil we are witnessing today is in part (mostly?) caused by poor public relations.

Lack of transparency (notably of the value of paper) poor corporate responsibility (is the organisation able to stand by its responsibilities – if this not so CSR is not a PR responsibility) and spin instead of conversation blind relationships and undermine trust.

These are PR issues. Issues that are hard nosed and at the centre of good governance and public relations practice.

What then were/are the responsibilities of the in-house practitioners in the financial institutions?

The role of PR would be able to strategically develop and deploy radical transparency to enhance trust (especially in derivative bundling and holdings – the very products of the organisations).

The role of PR would also ensure that corporate responsibility would entrust employees and commercial partners with responsibility for their actions and the extent to which transparency could be deployed to underpin trust – and thus deserve the rewards and – importantly – severe penalties.

The role of PR would also apply downward pressure on over-claiming and spin to ensure that obfuscation was culturally unacceptable.

Finally, the role of PR would develop interactive relationships (mutual understanding in Grunig’s world) through effective engagement using tools of internal and external communication.

PR, then, as a management function is pervasive. Its role is at leasts as deep in the organisation as finance or IT. It reaches into every conversation, transaction and relationship.

This pretence to be a management discipline is all very fine, but are the Universities up to the task? Can they show students how to manage boards and senior managers who have been brought up on hype as a habit and can they show the contribution that trust offers in delivering sustainable development and profitability? Can they then also teach those multiple disciplines that can help students deliver as practitioners?

I subscribe to the PR is a management discipline school and, as a practitioner, have been through the bruising experience of taking on executive boards as a result. Its a very tough job. Its a job that entails close working (and not always agreeable) relationships with board chairmen and a very straight relationship with the CEO and the other members and, in passing, it means that marketing has to answer to PR.

Is this, Tom, what you mean by being a management function or is it something more fluffy like teaching PR as part of communication – or worse – marketing.

It remains to be seen whether the Masters courses will pick up on the failure of PR in the financial sector as a case study. Will they use this experience to help other sectors where, right now, the practice has to be able to deliver trust between organisations and their constituencies as the effects of the credit crunch works though into the ‘real’ world where trust will also determine corporate survival.

I am a member of the South African Institute of Management Scientists (SAIMS) and am very sorry to have missed the conference at Misty Hills near Pretoria. If I had known that Tom was going to be there, I would have tried extra hard, if only to see a PR academic as guest speaker in the hallowed halls of management science! We have truly come full circle.

The PR/Communication profession in South Africa owes much to Prof Gustav Puth, a visionary who convinced U of Pretoria’s (UP) top management in 1992 to position Communication Management together with Marketing in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences. I was the first student to enrol in the new Honours in Communication Management and then again in the Masters. How fortunate we were to have studied and researched the strategic contribution of PR/communication at that time already.

But even more important, in my opinion, is the fact that, at undergrad level, at least 300 final year marketing students per year (and some from related disciplines) had to enrol in the subject Communication Management and studied the strategic role of PR/communication together with the mainstream students (by then, I lectured it). At the same time, the PR/Com students had to study 3 years of marketing plus electives such as HR. Now what could prepare PR students better for leading their management function. (In some organisations they are ending up leading the marketing function).

This situation is also playing itself out in academic management as exemplified by Ronel Rensburg, who came into the Dept as head of PR/Com, became HoD, then Chairperson of the School of Management Sciences (and then President of SAIMS).

So I listen to no nonsense that this situation is ‘utopian’ and that PR will never get there (there is a discussion on PRConversations right now with some saying that ‘Excellent’ Communication is pie in the sky–Jim Grunig got involved). Of course PR students/practitioners can get there–but they need to be trained in the management sciences.

If they are, there are no limitations to where they can go. They can hold their own anywhere. I had many examples of such students at UP and where I now teach (webbased masters in PR Management at the Cape Peninsula U of Technology). Our students are snapped up, increasingly in positions titled ‘Stakeholder Manager’.

[…] PR as a management function September 2008 3 comments 3 […]

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