Does PR = Executive?

I recently attended a very successful trade show with several members of my company. Our booth was constantly overrun with people and I was able to catch up with an impressive amount of partners, customers, prospects, influencers and press. It was a very active couple of days as far as my long-term PR strategy goes. The connections and plotting that started happening there are small lynch pins in my master plan. This is the part about PR that I love, having a master vision of where you want to take the company and then gathering all the necessary pieces and putting them in place to take you where you want to go.

But this is not the side of PR that most people will ever be exposed to. Often times even within the organization. To ask someone who isn’t in the field to define PR (and even if they are…) is always an interesting experience with perceptions ranging from laughable to offensive. There is no consensus but there is a pervading theme that PR does not equal true business value.Instead PR, to executives, is often about “knowing where the parties are;” or for when you need to issue a press release to announce a new product, get an article, ya know, the fuzzy bullshit, the “air cover.”

I think a lot of PR people are very underestimated by the business execs they encounter on a daily basis, especially at the C-level. There were many executives I was introduced to or met at evening events while at the tradeshow who didn’t bother to hide their lack of interest in talking to the “PR” person. They wanted to talk to marketing or someone in business development about the company. Not the “PR” person. It was frustrating. I am a business person, not just some PR person. Business first, PR second. And I also happen to be the person you really want to know at my company to get the strong value out of a co-marketing partnership. It’s part of my job but they don’t see it that way since I’m “PR.” I don’t blame them. Our industry has done a poor job promoting its value.

After the show I got to pondering if one can truly be embraced as an “executive” by the C-level staff if PR is in the title. There are Chief Communications Officers but those seem few and far between and mainly reserved for large corporations. Chief Marketing Officers are far more frequent in large and mid-sized companies and a growing number of smaller established companies. The most common “executive” role for PR I’ve encountered is VP of Communications. But is that function appreciated as contributing to the organization with the same importance as the VP of Business Development or even the VP of Marketing? If there is an “executive” industry event, are PR people traditionally invited if not personal friends of the organizer?

Then I got to thinking about the insightful Paul Holmes and what he said at the recent annual PRSA-LA event that, “PR does not have a seat at the table,” which I completely agree with. When the “big boys” meet to talk business strategy and long-term vision, PR execs are traditionally not invited to the party. What really gets me lately about all this is that I keep reading and hearing more and more about Chief Social Media Officers.


Are Chief Social Media Officer’s going to beat those in charge of communications to a seat at the table? Does anyone else in the communications industry recognize that this runaway train is harming the understanding by business execs of what PR and even marketing should be used for?

Social media experts are being brought into organizations to teach them how to connect with constituents in an authentic and organic way and also how to use the information gained to build bonds and business. Isn’t this what PR, and especially, marketing people should be doing naturally? Staying on top of the growing avenues to connect with consumers?

In my opinion, if you have someone focused on PR and someone else focused on marketing and you need to hire a “social media expert,” then you should fire your PR and marketing people because they aren’t doing their job.

PR has not evolved into an industry that is known for fostering “connection.” It’s known for bringing “awareness” and this is, in part, why PR and social media are running in these parallel tracks instead of truly merging together.

The brilliant Jackie Peters and I will be joining Cathy Brooks on Tuesday May 5th at 10am PST to ponder this and other topics on Social Media Hour on Blog Talk Radio. Jackie tossed out this nugget through email as we began our discussions around what we’re interested in discussing.

“…As for what interests me as of late: de-compartmentalizing communications. Social media has become a silo when really we should be focusing on how to integrate the new modes and methods of communication that social media have made possible into the overall communication strategy.”

…back to the original stream of thought: Are you seen as a credible, business-contributing executive if you have PR in the title? If you’re in charge of said “communications strategy?” Are you brought in early for those off-site and long-term planning sessions or only after the decisions have been made and advice is needed on how to tell everyone? That’s not a seat at the table. That’s the secretary that ran out to get the coffee and bagels and is then called in to take the memo.

I know that no matter how smart I am, it’s going to be a serious challenge for me to get an industry thought piece published in one of my company’s trade magazines under my name with the words PR or communications in my title versus if I was a head of marketing. It will instantly be construed as spin or having an ulterior motive simply because I am the PR person. Won’t stop me from trying though…

I want a seat at the table but I’m not convinced that being in charge of “PR” is going to get me there. What do you think?


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