Are PR folks lacking confidence in stating their views?

“Unfortunately a lot of companies only understand the value of PR when a crisis hits,” said Stephen Forshaw, head of public affairs, sustainability and stewardship group, and managing director for Australia and New Zealand at Temasek, during Marketing’s PR Asia 2018 conference.

However, it is up to PR professionals to create value for themselves where no one else can. Speaking over a fireside chat, he says PR professionals need to be the owners of a brand's reputation and spot issues and manage them before they actually become a problem. At the end of the day, that is how PR can carve a niche for itself in the company and show the value of the function.

“Instead of reacting when a crisis hits, find those issues and immerse yourself in the business. I guarantee you will be irreplaceable,” he said.

Marketing: Last year, during a panel, we discussed the role of PR in the boardroom, and many of our panellists said the boardroom isn’t ready yet. Can you share with us how the role of PR in the boardroom has changed?

Forshaw: I was interested to hear the comment from the previous year that PR won’t be in the boardroom at least for three years, and actually that is absolutely not the case. PR is in the boardroom today, the question is: who is advising them?

I sit on boards and I involve myself with boards of companies with our portfolios. The number of times boards are talking about issues such as corporate reputation, and managing issues and expectations of stakeholders is far more common than I think people in our profession realise and understand. The question is: are we the people equipped to have that conversation with boards?

And I think as a profession, we are lacking in our own confidence to be able to project our experience and understanding of managing issues to boards.

As I say, boards are talking about these issues all the time. [After the chairman's alleged financial violation], the Nissan board would have met and would have been talking about issue management and reputation.

My question to PR professionals is then, do we have the right skill set to have those mature executive conversations with boards and CEOs about the general direction of corporate reputation or are we just people to write press releases and handle the social media posts? If that’s what we are, then we are underselling our function and underselling ourselves.

Marketing: Should the marketing and PR function be under one unit?

Forshaw: In an ideal world, the functions should be separate. There will be occasions which calls for a need to have competitive tension between the advice going to the leadership from the marketing function and from the PR function.

Advice on the short-term generation of sales and revenue for the company may not be good for the long-term brand and trust that the organisation is trying to build. During most occasions, those issues can hopefully be easily resolved in the organisation. However, the competitive tension needs to be there, constructed in the right way to ensure that both sides are holding each other accountable.

But there are also small organisations which do not have the luxury to have two separate functions. Although the functions and discipline work well “hand in glove”, they are not necessarily the same.

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Marketing: Should the focus of PR be in managing reputation or in generating sales?

Forshaw: It has to be both. But if you ask me which of the two I love more, it is always going to be reputation. At the end of the day, your company would have a CMO or a head of sales, but who will be the head of reputation? CFOs are the main experts on accounting, while the general counsel or the chief legal officer is the main expert on law and legal.

Reputation is owned by the board and the CEO, and as PR professionals, your value comes in terms of the skill set you’re offering to the senior leadership team as the chief reputation officer.

The right to be a chief reputation officer goes to the PR professionals.

If you don’t feel like you’re there yet, use the opportunity you have in this profession to improve yourself by attending training courses or further studies. Own your space and be incredibly proud of the fact that you are going to be the company’s chief reputation officer. Work with the CEO and the board to make sure that not only are you the last line of defence to protect the brand’s reputation, but you’re also able to contribute positively to building that brand reputation.

Moreover, building a brand is about building trust as customers will only buy from you if they trust you. Your contribution as a PR professional is important, one that is more than the person who writes a press release. There has to be engagement with the senior leadership team on the issues that will potentially impact the corporate reputation.

Marketing: How do you feel the PR function has changed with the advent of social?

Forshaw: Step one is keeping up and understanding what is going on out there in the wider noise sphere. That is a real challenge for all of us. Ten years ago, a usual morning for a PR professional would be to look through clippings and newspapers that define the task for the day.

But now you have to be actively monitoring everything, but I think the key point here is to understand when to sift the noise from the issues that are really challenging. There will be a lot of things said out there and you can get consumed with all it.

You have to sift through and identify what matters and what doesn’t.

In some cases, the use of instincts can help to sift through these things.

The second challenge comes when your organisation has done something that warrants criticism. Then PR professionals need to understand that this is a cycle the organisation has to go through and not try to defend it too much. Certainly share your perspectives, and make sure your views are heard.

Particularly if you have to respond to a crisis, don’t go silent. However, understand that trying to hold back the criticism when you have done something wrong is like trying to put your finger in a dike to stop the water … it is going to blow up somewhere else. Just understand that this is the cycle you have to be in.

Marketing: Given the advancements in digital and data, do you feel the pressure in terms of incorporating data insights to talk about the performance of PR? 

Forshaw: I am probably one of the guys giving the pressure. The beauty of what we do in social digital is, you can measure almost everything by asking the right questions and interrogating the data.

But having said that, don’t sweat too much on the data, and don’t lose your own instinct for good storytelling.

Data will tell you something, but data won’t tell you everything. At the end of the day, as PR professionals, we need to have judgment and instincts on what we know works and what doesn’t. Sometimes it comes down to our instincts.

So the question is more about how do you balance the use of data and good judgment for storytelling. We have all seen cases of things out there that have gone viral, and when you look at it, you don’t understand why. The data tells you nothing about why it has gone viral, but your instincts tell you that story was quirky or happened to run on a day where the audience was in the mood for quirky news. That sort of instinct still matters for us as PR professionals.