Friday, August 15, 2008

HR and PR

The current issue of PRSA's Strategist is an important read, especially the article about Chrysler's re-organization that involves putting PR in the HR department. The article includes an important debate about the wisdom of sequestering PR in this odd fashion on the organizational chart.

I've had conversations with several West Michigan PR pros frustrated with the location and minimized role PR gets in their company or organization. Often, PR is tucked under marketing. It's a little odd to have it subsumed under HR. But frankly, if you put PR anywhere other than reporting to the CEO, it's an insult to the profession.

I recently had a call at the university from a large corporation's training director who was inquiring about an HR staff member taking one of my classes because "PR is now going to be part of her job." I had mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, at least this company didn't just think "anyone can do PR." They wanted her to take a class. On the other hand, they thought one class would give them the keys to a profession that is very diverse.

A couple of academic thoughts on this issue:

1. Dominant coalition. James and Larissa Grunig are scholars well-known for their studies on "excellent" public relations. They found that one of nine measures of excellent PR is when the top PR representative in an organization is part of the "dominant coalition." The dominant coalition is the group of individuals in any organization who make the key decisions. If a PR person is part of that group, they are involved in making policy, not merely communicating it.

2. Multiple publics. Part of the classic definition of PR includes the notion that PR builds mutual relationships with multiple publics. Placing PR under marketing makes it narrowly focused on consumers. Placing PR under HR limits it to an employee relations function. Having PR report to the CEO means counseling management on publics who are overlooked and should be engaged and will hopefully ensure that PR is practiced with the broad and ethical notion that PR is about building productive and mutual relationships with all publics.

3. Encroachment. As in football, this means going over the line into another team's territory. In organizations, this means lawyers, marketers, and HR folks encroaching on what should be the responsibilities of public relations professionals.

I worry that Chrysler--and too many other organizations--encroach on and even exploit PR as a gimmick to spin or gloss policies decided upon by managers who do not understand PR as a management function. They see PR as merely a communication tool. Chrysler needs PR now more than ever, not just with union employees, but consumers, communities, government officials and a whole host of publics beyond the scope of HR. And guess what? When they do it badly or unethically, it'll be called "mere PR" or a "PR stunt."

One point made in the Strategist article is that senior PR people should not take jobs if they are going to be parked under another function. Also, those currently in jobs should start taking initiative to convince management that PR is more than sending news releases and managing crises. I agree. It may be hard for people who need a paycheck, but we have to stop the encroachment and the negative consequences it has on the growth and reputation of our profession.

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