The endless fight for the (PR) power

Guest post at my co-authored blog, PR Conversations by Sean Williams

Who owns corporate messaging?

This is navel gazing of the first order, and the fact that I’m writing this post is testament to how we can start arguments with all the seriousness of Lindsay Lohan’s newest brace of public shenanigans. Judy Gombita’s recent Social sniff test post skewers the idea that “everyone is an employee brand” advocate; its associated comments by some smart thinkers covers some, but not all, of this ground.

The marketers claim to be the guardians of the brand, which they define as every means of communication for every purpose (every “touch point”) anytime and anywhere. Brand is reflected in customer service, in sales, in advertising, in design of our offices and buildings, and also in our typefaces, our corporate colors, our phrases and even in the shades of our ties and scarves.

This is to some degree true, as the customer experience is a crucial component of the development of reputation and increased likelihood of continued patronage.

But it is also a somewhat reductivist point of view, turning all interactions with anyone into a transaction, a relationship based on exchange—I give you money, you give me stuff. This is the root of the integrated marketing thinking—in the end, it’s all about selling stuff, and anything that we can’t link directly to selling stuff is not valuable.

Contemplating the non-marketing relationships

We know, however, thanks to work by terrific scholars like Drs. Larissa and James Grunig, Dr. David Dozier, Dr. Linda Childers Hon and Dr. Brad Rawlins, that there are many valuable relationships with stakeholders that aren’t based on the exchange relationship.

There are activities that address these non-marketing relationships—issues management, reputation management, investor relations, employee communications, community relations, government relations—that have intrinsic and extrinsic value to organizations. The impact of these relationships, while complicated and frequently expensive to measure quantitatively, can be demonstrated.

This is especially important in employee communication, and as I commented on Gombita’s Social sniff test post, requiring employees to function as an extension of the sales force, even to the extent of being an “employee brand” activist, deepens the exchange relationship between employer and employee.

But that’s a problem because the relationship should be communal—to paraphrase Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, “If we take good care of our employees, they’ll take good care of our customers and we won’t have to worry about shareholders.” Taking good care of employees includes fostering a sense of identification with the organization and building a team that feels inspired by the mission and values of the organization.

In the “free agent nation” that sense of belonging and community is lost in service of the “all-sales, all the time” that marketing advocates and frequently requires.

We can argue the point that we want people to do business with us—namely, a sales relationship—but we cannot defend the concept that marketing knows what to do with those constituencies that aren’t customers.

We might be selling something to all constituencies, but we surely won’t do so in the same way that we sell a potential customer.

Who owns messaging?

So, there we are. Who owns messaging?

Are corporate communicators some sort of Machiavellian schemers, locking the methods of messaging behind their gilded doors, hoarding the C-suite’s attention in the battle for budget and resources?

Mercy, are we so powerful that we can go toe-to-toe with our colleagues and vanquish them with our superior might? The Social sniff test: engaging employees as advocates or treating them as commercial commodities? post goes deeper into these questions, but my answer is, at least, brief.


I’ve got news for you. PR budgets are a lot smaller than marketing budgets. Marketing has more staff. CEOs understand marketing; they studied it when they got that MBA from Wharton. Not to mention how according to Ansgar Zerfass’s research, the CEOs are discussing communication issues with everyone in the C-suite except the PR people.

My take

Most companies I deal with are team-oriented. There are no bright lines between the communications functions, there are grey dots. The ownership of messaging rests with the C-suite, not the PR or marketing corporate pukes.

It’s like Congress in the U.S.—we propose, the CEO and company dispose. Enlightened PRs work with their colleagues and don’t scrap over petty turf. Oh, sure, we worry about losing out, but in my experience it is way more likely the marketers will worry about losing to us.


Because if you do the ROI math, we the (PR) Power People are orders of magnitude less expensive than marketing, for the same sort of results. This is especially true in the age of social media.

Stop fighting. Play as a team. Give credit freely and share glory. No one else is keeping score.

And for the love of Arthur W. Page, quit gazing so deeply into your navel.

No one cares, and it’s more than a little creepy.


Sean Williams is the owner of Communication AMMO, Inc., which helps organizations plan and execute communications effectively and measure the results. His current and past clients include Ernst & Young, Western Reserve Academy and University Liggett School. He also is an adjunct professor of public relations at Kent State University and chair, employee communication section, for PRSA.

Previous contributions include the Triple-associate Sean Williams asks, “Why join?” post and his responses to the (PR Conversations exclusive) PRoust Questionnaire.

Read his Communication AMMO! blog, connect with Sean William on Twitter, GooglePlus or LinkedIn or contact him by email.

CIPR Fellow | Educator | Consultant | PR practitioner | Director of MIPAA Ltd | Twitter: @Greenbanana | Studying PhD in Career Strategies in Public Relations | Passionate about professional development

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