Every CCO grapples with the choice of organizational options and the complexities each brings. Since each organization is different from all others and is constantly evolving, since each PR/C department is different from all others and must constantly evolve in turn, the choice of a department’s organizational structure must respect this evolutionary precept, with the choice being as adaptable, flexible and fluid as possible. At the least, an organizational structure must be configured to optimize a PR/C department that is multi-stakeholder attuned, digital and social media wired and operational 24/7 as much as possible. 

Having worked closely with clients to generate the evidence, insights and options on which they can consider various organizational choices, I deeply understand the better practices that are integral to all organizational design decision-making. Here are two, both of which are contrary to common accepted wisdom found in much of the PR/C literature. 

Much of the literature gives the impression that it is problematic if the CCO does not report directly to the CEO. This is the first example of widely held misconception. Over the last decade and a half, survey after survey report that approximately 50% (results typically between 45 and 60%) of CCOs report directly to CEOs – and this percentage has not budged upwards. Yet, these and other surveys report that CCOs increasingly are full members of the Board and/or the highest senior management committee. Later surveys put the percentage as closer to 65-75%. As well, recent research indicates that CCOs increasingly say they are being listened to and that their input into management decision-making is wanted and valued. 

Direct reporting to the CEO may be ideal, but, obviously, is not an essential organizational design element. The better practice is to weigh the positives that come with direct CEO reporting, independent Board and/or senior management membership, matrix type reporting to key constituents such as Marketing and HR and ‘reporting’ as part of clientist-type internal consulting relationships with all other senior managers. One of the generic principles that resulted from the IABC Foundation’s Excellence study was: “Empowerment of public relations in the dominant coalition or a direct reporting relationship to senior management.”[1] Experience suggests that empowerment is more important than direct reporting, and that it doesn't come as a result of direct reporting.”

A second misconception found in the literature describes organizational centralization and its corollary, integration. Reading the literature would suggest that a single, centralized PR/C department is the ideal structure. 

Yet, research shows that PR/C functions continually move either left or right along a centralized-decentralized continuum. It appears that perhaps 50% of all organizations have, at any given time, a single PR/C department that acts as the whole of the organization’s communication function. An organization’s natural, organic pressures tend towards communication devolution and therefore structural decentralization. For example, a region will want to create its own communication department. Or, an operational unit will want to create its own internal communication or even marketing communication unit. Or, Marketing or HR will want control of its own dedicated communication units. Or, different departments in the organization will create their own websites, Facebook pages, Twitter streams or YouTube videos. 

Another two generic principles resulting from the Excellence study are important to discuss here. The first is the integration of PR/C function: “All public relations functions are integrated into a single department or have a mechanism to coordinate the departments.” Integration is not the same as centralization. The first part of the principle talks about a single department and thus centralization. The second part talks about true integration, the integration of two or more departments. There is nothing in the research to suggest that a single, centralized department managing the whole PR/C function is a more successful organizational design than an integrated function comprised of two or more departments. Given the natural decentralization tendencies within organizations and the popularity of the matrix organizational structure, the better practice is to weigh the positives of mechanisms - not just a single mechanism - to coordinate the departments. Mechanisms for integration abound: common policies; common strategy development and planning; common channels and vehicles; common campaign execution; common performance measurement; common learning and training; common functional head; and common socialization. 

The second of the two applicable generic principles is: “Public relations is a management function separate from other functions.” The problem in many organizations is that the PR/C function has been sublimated in the past to another function, usually Marketing or even HR. This is not simply a question of the CCO reporting to a Marketing or HR head, it’s about the PR/C function being solely a support function to these other functions and not a strategic function in its own right. More current research suggests that this sublimation is less a problem today. In fact, the opposite has occurred, with Marketing sublimated within a PR/C function. The better practice is to weigh the positives of creating a strategic, management function and not simply a technical, support function. 
In my consulting practice, I employ a rigorous, evidence-based approach that builds on functional expertise gained from the scores of previous organizational design assignments, as well as from a thorough understanding of and participation in the scholarly research. The tools I employ include those that support various organization management consulting methodologies, including: structural assessments, peer best practice benchmarking and management team facilitating, training and coaching. 

The PR/C department must continually re-structure to support both the evolving organizational strategy and the resulting organizational structure. Structure does follow strategy. For the PR/C department this means that its structure must follow organizational strategy and structure, all other departments’ strategy and structure as well as its own strategy and strategic management choices. Only then, can the PR/C make organizational choices. Any PR/C design principles must be attuned to the strategic requirements of the organization’s operating model. 

In my training, facilitating and coaching sessions, I understand that the practical application of design principles comes when the PR/C department’s senior executive team evaluates the different operating model options I’ve presented. The need to align the department’s senior executive team on principles before getting into discussions on options is crucial. PR/C departments are complex designs and, as such, require negotiation and trade-offs. It’s in facilitating these sessions that I bring my greatest value, particularly my understanding of ‘better practices.’

Want to understand how my approach developed over the years? Here is a small selection of articles:

  1. Likely, F. (2014). The Structure of the PR/Communication Department: How Is It Evolving? The Pulse. VMA Group.
  2. Likely, F. (2005). The Rise of the Relationship Manager. Strategic Communication Management. Melcrum Publishing. 9(4). June/July.
  3. Likely, F. (1998). Reorganize Your Communication Function: Structural Models for the New Look Organization. Strategic Communication Management. London; Melcrum Publishing. 2(5), 11-16.

[1] Vercic, D., Grunig, L.A. & Grunig, J.E. (1996). Global and Specific Principles of Public Relations: Evidence from Slovenia. In H.M. Culbertson & N. Chen (Eds.), International Public Relations: A ComparativeAnalysis (pp. 31-65). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.