In most organisations, PR acts as a boundary spanner. The key role of PR “appears to be that of a window out of the corporation through which management can perceive, monitor, and understand external change, and simultaneously, a window in through which society can influence corporate policy and practice". This role often means that PR finds itself the servant of two masters,
On the one hand PR serves the purpose of facilitating contact with stakeholders and meeting their expectations. But on the other hand PR must also serve the interests of the management, ensuring that business runs smoothly and without external interruptions.
Exactly how PR fulfils this role as boundary spanner has been analysed at Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences in Salzgitter, Germany. Our research into strategies of legitimation asked:
- Which party does PR serve first and foremost – external stakeholders or the company?
- To what extent is PR able or willing to adapt to the expectations of critics?
- How does PR translate these external expectations into company language i.e. how does it sell its issues internally?
To gain an insight into this balancing act, key assumptions were tested on German companies. Between April and June 2013 we analyzed when and how communication managers prefer to talk or take action. The link to the online survey was sent to PR and communication managers of major German companies within the IT, finance, retail, insurance and energy sectors.
Which party does PR serve first and foremost – external stakeholders or the company?
Research agrees that PR is a management function. It has to legitimise the company, thereby securing its license to operate. PR professionals’ own understanding of their role, however, is the real test of whether PR managers see themselves as bulwark of the company, protecting it against its environment, or as an advocate of external stakeholders.
Our survey participants were asked to rate eight different responsibilities of PR according to their importance. Those statements could be assigned to a “social orientation”, a “conciliatory position” or a “company orientation”.
A comparison of averages shows that the communication managers’ understanding of their role is dominated by their loyalty towards their employers (ø= 3,5). This average is followed by the conciliatory position with ø= 3,35 and the social orientation (ø=2,57 ). With these results it becomes evident, that PR and communication managers see themselves closer to their employer than to society.
Figure 1: Participants’ Understanding of Their Role as PR Managers
To what extent are PR managers able or willing to adapt to the expectations of critics?
If PR managers seek to legitimise a company, there are two strategies available: talk or take action. Through talking, PR attempts to change the opinion of stakeholders. If powerful stakeholder groups cannot be convinced, PR can suggest a change of policy to the company management.
“Talk” will always be the preferred method, as it avoids the costly process of changing company policy. However, change of company strategy may be the wiser choice in certain situations so as to avoid public scandal. Determining which course of action a company should pursue is the million dollar questions that neither PR practitioners nor researchers are able to answer: when should the company have revised a decision in order to prevent a public scandal and when should it have adhered to their communication strategy.
It is therefore even more interesting to ask how PR managers actually act when the company faces public criticism. PR managers that have been in such a situation report significantly more often that they would adhere to their position. Thus the results show that many PR managers’ actions are often different to their words. The reason can either be a lack of internal influence and assertiveness regarding their advice to the management or they suggest a change of direction less often than they would have assumed before.
Figure 2: Influence of Open Criticism on Company Decision
How does PR translate these external expectations into company language i.e. how does it sell its issues internally?
In the role of boundary spanner, PR is a mediator. On one hand it listens to the demands of stakeholders, which calls upon corporate accountability and ethical behaviour. On the other hand, it is responsible for making decisions based on economic principles and considerations. Ethics meet money. The fact that PR can only suggest major adjustments to company management further complicates matters.
We therefore asked how PR justifies their suggestions towards company management. For this the PR managers rated different strategies which they can use to explain the necessity of changes in company policy. The results show that PR first and foremost uses strategies that translate external problems into the logic of the company: 88% of those interviewed evaluate the ‘demonstration of consequences for loss of image/reputation’ as particularly promising, 59% the ‘demonstration of consequences in the form of economic losses’. Lines of argument anchored in the external perspectives of critics are considered to be significantly less promising: Only 29% consider an “appeal to the social responsibility of the company” and 19% the question of the legitimacy of a decision and bringing in arguments of critics to be promising.
It appears here that the communications officers have to a great extent set store by the rationality of the management and use this knowledge for themselves.
Figure 3: Applied strategies for ‘Issue selling’ (n=148)
- With their boundary spanning role, PR managers clearly side themselves with the company. This indicates that they are not in conflict with the expectations towards them.
- Furthermore, they understand and speak the language of the company while selling their issues.
- On the other hand, it appears that they overestimate their ability to change company policy. In many crisis situations, the company management does not listen to the advice of PR and adheres to their disputed policy