Can PR save a company?

There’s some discussion in the blogosphere about GM’s social media and crisis communication strategies these days, when they just filed for bankruptcy.

The arguments motivated me to finally start a new series of posts, For the Love of Theory.

In response to the question: Can PR save a company? I’d like to offer and overview of a “classic” PR theory, that of Issue Management.

PR can save a company, but not if it’s used to “get the message across”: If it’s used to listen, monitor and analyze issues, to enable the organization to adapt to its environment in a timely manner.

This is exactly what GM failed to do, and what the theory of Issue Management explains:

IssueMgmt.jpg

The theory posits that any issue in society (i.e. environmentalism, vegetarianism, etc.) has a lifecycle that revolves from dormant (no one thinks about it) to potential, as a few selected people start considering it, to imminent, when it starts picking up speed and media attention, to current, when it’s in the center of the public’s and the media’s attention, to critical, when the issue is demanding a solution. After being “resolved,” the issue goes back into the dormant stage, but it can wake up again at a later time.

The Issue Management function of public relations (which is thought of, at least in academic circles, as much more than media relations & publicity) is to continuously:

– scan the environment

– identify issues that can affect the organization

– analyze these issues to determine if action is necessary

– bring the issues to the attention of higher management, along with action recommendations

– design, implement, evaluate communication strategies around the issue (you often see companies taking positions on social or political issues)

Depending on how late/early a company identifies the issue and takes action, it can follow a reactive strategy (implementing actions imposed by others), an adaptive, dynamic, or even catalytic strategy – in this one, the company wakes an issue up from the dormant stage and moves it through the entire life cycle.

Of course, the earlier the company intervenes, the more power it has to frame the issue and to influence public discussion.

Can you see now how the issue management function of PR could have saved GM?

Many rhetorical scholars‘ view of PR is:

The good organization speaking well*

PR is widely understood as the “speaking well” part, but if the PR function is used strategically, and is given a seat at the management table, it is its job not only to speak well, but to help the organization be good.

Ultimately, the PR function can help an organization adapt to its environment (and change the environment to suit it better).

For GM, it’s a bit late. But I hope you can see now how PR can help an organization adapt, survive, and thrive. It’s just time we moved past the “free publicity” paradigm of PR and catch up to a bigger picture understanding of what PR can do for an organization.

If you’re interested in reading more:

Chase, W. H. (1977). Public issue management: The new science. Public Relations Journal, 32(10), 25-26.

* Cheney, G.D. (1992). The corporate person (re)presents itself, in: E. Lance Toth, R.L. Heath (Eds.), Rhetorical and Critical Approaches to Public Relations, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, p. 167.

Crable, R. E., & Vibbert, S. L. (1985). Managing issues and influencing public policy. Public Relations Review, 11(2), 3-16.

Heath, R.J., & Palenchar, M.J. (2008). Strategic Issues Management 2. Sage.

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4 responses to “Can PR save a company?”

  1. Mihaela says :

    I love this related post by David Meerman Scott, just wanted to keep the link here for further reference:
    http://www.webinknow.com/2009/06/attention-gm-here-are-the-top-5-marketing-ideas-for-your-reinvention.html

  2. Mihaela says :

    Tim,

    PR may be listening, but is management listening to PR? PR needs to be integrated as a management function in order for this to work.

    When a company changes as a result of a crisis, that is definitely a reactive strategy. On the issue life cycle, they definitely woke up too late!

  3. Tim Penning, APR says :

    Excellent points. However, I’m not sure when “too late” began for GM. FYI, I had a GM PR representative in my class and on campus this past March. His emphasis was on the need to listen. You can see more here: http://gr-pr.blogspot.com/2009/03/gm-pr-listening-is-key.html

    Judging from the WSJ full-page ad message from GM’s CEO today, they seem to be at least starting to pay more attention to publics and issues. I guess bankruptcy does that to a company:-/

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