An earlier post to Influence Online described how stress is a necessary part of role performance in public relations, but how excessive stress – role strain – impedes performance.
Role problems – ambiguity, conflict, overload and underload – contribute to stress in public relations practice and in other occupations but can be managed.
Roles – think of the analogy of an actor on stage, acting out a part – are defined by expectations, in organisations set out in more or less developed and accurate job descriptions. The expectations are those of a group of people who have expectations of someone occupying a ‘focal’ role. This group can be thought of as a role set. An example would be an account executive in a public relations consultancy responding to expectations from their co-workers, managers, clients, suppliers and media representatives.
Individuals occupying roles also bring their own expectations to the roles they are playing.
Public relations practice is shot through with role problems, for several good reasons. The earlier post talked about how role problems, unmanaged, lead on to potentially serious consequences, such as burnout and possible mental health problems.
Role ambiguity is a common problem in public relations practice, which arises when members of the role set, and the individual in a public relations role, are uncertain as to what the role involves.
A lot of work has been done to understand possible roles for people working in public relations, but they fall into two main role categories: technical and managerial, where in the second role practitioners are essentially consultants able to advise on and act to solve managerial problems.
Coming to the expectations of others, too often the full scope of public relations is not understood.
Where role ambiguity exists, there is a clear opportunity for the individual in a public relations role to work with members of the role set to clarify with them what they should expect from them – to, in effect, write their own job description. Doing this requires that the individual understands what the scope of their role can be – and this is where practitioners may not be prepared to do this, having only a partial understanding of the potential of their role.
Mitigating role problems means negotiating with members of the role set (easier said than done).
This is difficult in matters of role conflict, where different members of the role set have conflicting expectations of a particular role – where, for example, client expectations of unlimited service clash with consultancy management expectations that over-servicing should be avoided. Negotiation clarifies and shows where conflicting expectations create difficulties.
Role overload means trying, and probably failing, to carry too many roles. Role overload is managed by attempts to compartmentalise – by time, or by moving quite definitely from role to role. This is made more difficult in an ‘always on’ world – the individual trying to live out private roles outside working hours may now, at any time, be called back into a professional role by an out of hours work email.
Role overload is dealt with by negotiating with the role set to lose roles, where it can be shown that attempting to carry too many roles detracts from performance in any one of them.
Role underload is a common problem in public relations practice. It arises when individuals have higher expectations for their performance in their role than do members of their role set. An example of this is evidenced in the frustrations felt by individuals who feel that they have a higher level, strategic contribution to make in the organisations they work for, while they are only expected to act as a communication technician in residence.
An approach to dealing with role underload is to behave in line with higher expectations and through demonstrated value in higher level performance change expectations for performance – again, easier said than done.
Role problems can be managed and through their management stress involved in public relations practice can be lessened and resilience improved. Their management depends on a well-developed awareness of expectations bearing on role performance.