row team

by 

Ryan Klee

#read
7 minutes

Mutually Beneficial: How Modern PR is Driving Change

Confession time: I don’t like the term PR. 

In my 17+ years as a public relations and communications pro, I’ve sometimes found myself holding onto the negative connotations often associated with the discipline: spin masters, using the media to push an agenda, bending the truth for corporate gains, or worse, nefarious reasons. 

Viewed in this old context, I can see why I, and others, don’t think much of the Public Relations industry. The truth is, modern PR is a massive driver of business growth and change, helping to enhance, amplify, and clarify companies’ brand messaging through many different ways: media relations, corporate communications, crisis communications, executive communications, internal communications, investor relations communications, content creation, events, brand journalism, and more.

Today’s PR

The official modern-day definition of PR, from the Public Relations Society of America, is:

"Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics."

Let’s read that again — "Mutually Beneficial." 

To me, this is undoubtedly the key phrase in that definition; one that is an important distinction from PR of yesteryear. Today, whenever internal comms pros are creating any kind of messaging for employees, this should be the first consideration: “Will this serve the company AND the employees?” 

Anything that omits the employees’ concerns and point of view, or that makes the company the hero or focus of the story, rather than the employee, is destined to fall on deaf ears. And that change you were looking to drive with your comms? Doomed.

If your employees’ concerns and the business’s goals are mutually exclusive of each other, you’ve already failed.

Communicators, Assemble

Before the pandemic, HR and internal comms pros were already gaining influence in the boardroom and C-suite. The sudden and constant change thrust on every organization accelerated their importance.

As Diane Schwartz, CEO of Ragan Communications, recently said, “I think 2020 was the year of the communicator. CEOs and the C-Suite really saw the value more than ever of the communicator’s role in the business.”

Even traditional investors such as BlackRock are beginning to insist that companies invest in their people and other important areas such as sustainability, and be able to clearly show their efforts.

"It is clear that being connected to stakeholders – establishing trust with them and acting with purpose – enables a company to understand and respond to the changes happening in the world. Companies ignore stakeholders at their peril – companies that do not earn this trust will find it harder and harder to attract customers and talent, especially as young people increasingly expect companies to reflect their values. The more your company can show its purpose in delivering value to its customers, its employees, and its communities, the better able you will be to compete and deliver long-term, durable profits for shareholders."

2021 will see that growth continue. Corporate restructures, mergers and acquisitions, remote workforce, return to work planning, D&I — communications is going to play a major role in everything and internal comms pros need to be ready.

From the time I started in PR, I’ve leaned on several core tenets I’ve never wavered from, and that can and should be applied to any internal change communications.

  • Honesty: Your parents taught you lying is bad for a reason. Be upfront with your employees. Don’t sugarcoat things.
  • Transparency: Don’t hide key information. Treat employees like the adults they are. They can handle the truth. And they deserve it.
  • Defensibility: Everything you do or say should be grounded in truth, based on facts and ethics, and able to be defended without any hint of embellishment or mistruth.
  • People-focused: Good stories focus on the right subject; in this case, employees. Make them the focus, not the company. People respond to people.
  • Real talk: Keep it simple and conversational. Nix the corporate speak and talk to them like the humans they are.
  • Collaboration: Don’t go at it alone. If you need some help, walk down the hall (or schedule a Zoom) and connect with marketing and HR, the two departments in any organization that deal with people.

"At its core," says PRSA, "public relations is about influencing, engaging and building a relationship with key stakeholders across numerous platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization."

Replace "the public" with "employee" and it’s easy to understand the importance of modern day Public Relations.

When done right, PR and internal comms can be massive drivers of change. With seemingly unending change ahead of us, clear, concise communications will continue to be crucial. Leaning into only what is mutually beneficial will yield the greatest result, keeping your business positioned for sustainable success.

Maybe I should give the term “PR” another chance.