The medium is not the message: How PR can create better business value

Value is in the eye of the beholder Value is in the eye of the beholder

For an industry skilled in the art of argumentation, why is it that our own industry’s business case is so unclear?

I’m talking about the protean and often-muddled way our sector presents the strategic role that communications fulfils in and for companies.

Yes, we are increasingly present in the boardroom, but unlike our counterparts in accountancy, law and management consultancy, PR counsel is far being from seen as part of the essential plumbing.

We have only ourselves to blame. We define our role with language that is inconsistent, oblique, and two steps removed from the bottomline.

“Promoting and protecting reputation”, a phrase often used, is self evidently important but imprecise. “Building engagement”, another common one, means everything and nothing. “Increasing trust” is certainly addressing a key indicator but omits others. “Storytelling”, a frequent descriptor, makes our work sound fictional.

This is compounded by the fact that when it comes to evidencing our worth, evaluation of what PR delivers (apart from in times of crisis) has tended to fall between inexact science and pure sophistry.

Linking “soft” comms to hard commercial data is only half of a better answer, and one that’s been attempted before. There is another way. It lies in excavating and owning the sweetspot between what matters to business and what strategic communications has the ability to influence. It’s not about trust, reputation, engagement, advocacy. It’s about what all these things add up to: increasing perceptions of value, whether of a single product or an entire company.

The language of value is the language of core business. Companies don’t sell products and services. They create and sell value. When two brands or businesses offer what is seen as equal value they compete on price and availability. They become commodities.

The reality of value is perceived. Now more than ever the value we expect companies to produce is changing as the views and evolving values of customers, governments, employees and wider society interact.

Communicators operate at precisely that nexus of interaction. We are world interpreters, equipped to bring the outside in and contour companies to a shifting social landscape. For millennials like me, how well companies are seen to do this will determine how relevant brands are viewed as well as affecting their abilities to recruit the best talent.

All this goes beyond our industry’s age-old emphasis on the medium. It goes beyond messaging. Positioned at the point where business ambitions collide with external needs and expectations ought to project communications into the heart of addressing the most fundamental questions a company can ask of itself: what drives perceived value? Is our purpose as a business distinct from our competitors? Compared to our rivals and peers, are we seen to be creating more or less value for customers, employees, communities, the economy, wider society? How much do we matter as a result? Where is there alignment and divergence between what we do as a business and what is expected of us by stakeholders? What risks and opportunities do these gaps present?

These questions are not to overlook the creative, pragmatic, tactical side of public relations or our limitless ingenuity when it comes to boosting companies’ visibility and gaining greater share of voice. But it is to say communications can play a critical strategic role too as the builders of business value, not merely the gamekeepers and broadcasters of brand values.

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