Most of my career has been in or around the C Suite, which has given me the chance to observe dozens of different types of consultants and advisors and hundreds, literally hundreds, of public relations practitioners and attorneys, all giving advice.
Over the years, I began trying to identify why certain consultants and advisors were heard by management and whose advice was taken versus those who came and went. In 2008, I published a book with my observations called Why Should the Boss Listen to You? The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor through Jossey-Bass and Wiley Publishing.
The book is about understanding management, understanding leadership, understanding what a business perspective is, and how to get invited back time and time again. In addition to observing and understanding why consultants were successful, I also began to pay a great deal of attention to why public relations practitioners and other advisors were less successful or failed. Keep in mind that I work with all staff functions: law, strategic planning, human resources, security, communications, senior executive services and other staff functions.
This post focuses on the PR practitioner who seems to be chronically absent at crucial times in the C Suite process, and frequently is invited only after all the crucial decisions have been made. I’ve identified at least nine powerful reasons why PR practitioners are so often ignored by the C Suite.
My argument is laid out as a technique I call “contrast analysis.” There are a series of nine assumptions often expressed by PR practitioners as their reasons why management should engage with them more. Following each assumption is a real management response or observation. Management responses are mostly expressed as actual quotes.
Following the analysis, I describe the changes and new expectations that communicators need to meet to be more valued, to be invited into the C Suite earlier, and to have their voice actually heard.
PR Practitioner Assumption #1
- Communication is critical to leadership and management and we deserve to be in the room from the start.
Management Reality #1
- Most leaders and managers think that they’re better communicators than anyone who works for them and in 40 years of consulting I have only come across two managers who thought they were bad communicators.
- What is your boss’s assessment of their own communication skills?
PR Practitioner Assumption #2
- Communication is involved in virtually everything leaders do and they need advice from competent professionals to maximize leadership effectiveness.
Management Reality #2
- See number one above.
- “We know when we need communication assistance. 99% of the time, communication is something we do well on our own.”
- “When things go in the ditch, we may require some extra communications help temporarily, but even then, I prefer to handle it myself rather than hear all the excuses, war stories, and outright admiration for the news media. These people (the media) are not our friends.”
PR Practitioner Assumption #3
- Communication is in every management executive transaction.
Management Reality #3
- “Well duh!”
- “Look, my problem with PR is that they are too focused on the news media, and the media generally.”
- “I wish they knew more about the business and appreciated the operating problems I face every single day.”
- “The business knowledge of the PR people I’ve worked with over the years has always been pretty shallow. They should read Harvard Business Review every once in a while, maybe even The Wall Street Journal.”
- “Take a business course?”
PR Practitioner Assumption #4
- We are always butting heads with attorneys and rarely receive any support from management when these conflicts occur.
Management Reality #4
- “PR people are the greatest whiners in my organization. They whine about human resources and about the law department. They even whine about me behind my back while rolling their eyes. When I ask them to evaluate programs and people, they are very reluctant. Why? Who do they really work for?”
PR Practitioner Assumption #5
- Management refuses to learn about and understand communication.
Management Reality #5
- “PR people seem unprepared to understand our business problems. I’m surprised at how few of them can understand a financial statement or report. The PR people want me to learn their business. I actually know a lot about what they do. It’s their job to learn what I do.”
PR Practitioner Assumption #6
- The boss I work for talks about having an open door and an open mind, but in reality they have neither. They’re unwilling to accept important, but negative, truths about the organization.
Management Reality #6
- “Of all the contractors and advisors who work for me, public relations is the only one that gets just limited trust from me. They hold information back that they know I should know. Often, they see things that are questionable, but are not reported to me. Why this is the case is a mystery. It does affect my trust level.”
PR Practitioner Assumption #7
- My boss really doesn’t respect my function.
Management Reality #7
- “More than any other staff function, I get the impression that PR people seem to need appreciation and compliments. If I’m not getting any, and I run the place, why should they?”
- If you need confidence every day, stay out of the C Suite.
PR Practitioner Assumption #8
- Look, we are always a source of useful, important ideas for the leadership of our organization.
Management Reality #8
- “It’s true, communicators are a source of many interesting concepts and ideas. But my bigger problem is that I’m still working on last week’s, even last month’s problems and questions.”
- “The last thing I need is five more new ideas today that I’m probably going to have to say no to and hurt somebody’s feelings.”
PR Practitioner Assumption #9
- We can be solution finders if the boss and the bosses team would let us.
Management Reality #9
- “In my experience it’s unlikely that a staff function other than one directly affected by any given situation or problem rarely has the understanding of the whole business to routinely provide solutions. What I can actually use better than solution ideas are more options that I can apply to the solution I’m supposed to create.”
- “The consultant who really cares about what I need to get done, is the one who is a constant source of smaller, simpler, more sensible decisions and information as well as action ideas that I can build into the decisions I have to create.”
So, what does your boss really want?
This contrast analysis reveals, for PR practitioners who want to work at the upper levels of organizations, that the boss wants practitioners who understand what bosses want, need and expect, first:
- Advice on the spot.
- Candid assessments of people, projects and programs.
- Options from which management can build its own solutions.
- What to do next (options, again)?
- What they really don’t know, again with great candor.
- Emerging rumors, issues that they’re not hearing about, even interesting gossip.
- What’s going on in the silos, since they’re almost always silent and impenetrable to leadership.
Above all, start talking like you work for management rather than the media. Time to retire from the media entirely. In fact, for communicators who come from journalism, it may be time to search your souls and get straight who you really work for. The question is, why should your boss listen to you?