Sunday, September 19, 2010

Do You Want Management to Think You Are an Expert?

I just came across a list in a communications textbook that identifies four types of public relations professionals. The first, a "communications technician", is an individual responsible for process-oriented tasks--writing newsletters and copy for collateral, producing and distributing news releases, maintaining a contact database, etc. The role is purely tactical and more often than not represents the first role in a young public relations practitioner's career.

The third and fourth classifications of professional reflect strategic roles in which they understand their clients' business and industry, and are capable of making informed recommendations based on environmental scanning, risk assessments and relationship-building opportunities with key publics. Yet it is the second classification of professional--the "expert prescriber"--that most interests me as a potential danger to the client organization and the practitioner.

I was once hired by an organization to generate publicity for projects the company believed had newsworthy value within its target industries. Fair enough. If you haven't proactively done this before and if you believe you are doing newsworthy work, why not pursue this? I was hired as the public relations expert and, as such, was expected by management to build relationships with and deliver visibility in tier 1 media markets.

There were warning signs even at the beginning which, if I'd been more experienced at the time, I would have recognized as dangers-in-waiting. First, in this role I had no access to top management, and therefore lacked insight into key issues impacting the organization. With this knowledge, I might have had the tools to make more strategic decisions about which media markets to focus on. My new role also included responsibility for producing internal publications requiring significant communication with employees to develop accurate and in-depth copy; this essentially brought an overwhelming overlap of technical and strategic responsibilities. Finally, representatives of middle management often did not attend meetings to discuss activity in their departments.

When I was hired, it was as the public relations expert and, as such, little corresponding sense of responsibility remained with management to participate in the public relations process. No champion for PR existed in the suite of top management professionals. Any and all PR within the organization fell in my lap, no matter how essential collaborations were to success.

My relationship with the organization did not end well. I was an "expert" who ultimately was not deemed an expert. The failure was not entirely that of the organization, but a failure of my ability to lay out (at the beginning of my tenure) realistic expectations and an explanation of resources needed to attain the success the organization wished to achieve.

The dangers of being an "expert" were apparent almost immediately; without the participation, buy-in and endorsement from top management public relations can accomplish little. Of the four types of public relations professional, the role as "expert prescriber" has the potential to present the most danger.

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