Most research on the strategic management of the PR/Communications function, as well as the place and role of PR/C in the strategic management of the organization, is relatively recent, over the past decade or two. As yet, that research has not been summarized in a way that would articulate a clear direction for a CCO when making strategic decisions on possible choices or options, offering strategic advice at management tables or leading strategically. That said though, there is a growing body of research on the definition of strategic communication, on managing the PR/C department strategically, on CCO strategic leadership and on the PR/C purpose and role within the strategic management of the organization.
For anyone who is interested in source material, here are a number of worthwhile references:
Hallahan, K., Holtzhausen, D., van Ruler, B., Verčič, D. and Sriramesh, K. (2007). Defining Strategic Communication. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 1:1, 3-35
The authors examine and attempt to define the terms strategic and strategic communication. While citing the importance of communication being strategic, they state that strategic communication is not yet “a mature scientific domain.” They provide examples of how the term strategic communication is used in a wide variety of ways.
Holtzhausen, D. & Zerfass, A. (2015). Strategic Communication: Opportunities and Challenges of the Research Area. In Holtzhausen, D. & Zerfass, A. (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Strategic Communication. New York; Taylor & Francis.
From the forward: “Strategic communication is a term that has become quite popular in communication science education in the second decade of the twenty-first century. … Originally only used for a niche, that is, communication programs in the domain of national governments and the military (Farwell, 2012; Paul, 2011), it is now increasingly popular as an umbrella concept embracing various goal-directed communication activities usually covered by public relations, marketing and financial communications, health communications, public diplomacy, campaigning, and so forth. … It is a distinct approach focusing on the process of communication which offers complementary insights and open up new fields for interdisciplinary research.”
Vercic, D., Grunig, L.A. & Grunig, J.E. (1996). Global and Specific Principles of Public Relations: Evidence from Slovenia. In H. Culbertson & N. Chen (Eds.), International Public Relations: A Comparative Analysis (pp. 31-66). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
The authors identified nine strategic management principles, which they derived from the IABC’s Excellent study’s fourteen characteristics of excellent public relations programs (Excellent Public Relations and Effective Organizations: J.E. Grunig, L.A. Grunig & D. M. Dozier: The Excellence study researchers defined the generic principles as “that in an abstract sense, the principles of public relations are the same worldwide”):
- Involvement of public relations in strategic management;
- Empowerment of public relations in the dominant coalition or a direct reporting relationship to senior management;
- Integrated public relations function;
- Public relations as a management function separate from other functions;
- The role of the public relations practitioner;
- Two-way symmetrical model of public relations;
- A symmetrical system of internal communication;
- Knowledge potential for managerial role and symmetrical public relations; and
- Diversity embodied in all roles.
Likely, F. (2013). Managing strategically: Canadian federal government communication branches evaluated against five of the Generic Principles of Public Relations. Journal of Professional Communication 3(1): 69-96.
From the abstract: “The Government of Canada employs over 4000 public relations/communication specialists at the federal, national political level. Since 2000, in order to compare management practices between and among these discrete communication branches, four comprehensive government-wide benchmarking studies were conducted by the authors management consulting firm: Likely Communication Strategies. From a review of three of these studies’ findings, this paper examines the practice of strategic management by Government of Canada communication branches and their heads, in particular the concept of managing strategically. Five of the generic principles that referred to managing the PR/C function strategically, part of the General Theory of Excellent Public Relations and derived from the work of the Excellence study, were tested. They were: empowered by the dominant coalition or by a direct reporting relationship to senior management; separate from other functions; integrated in to one function; headed by a manager rather than a technician; and diversity is embodied in all roles. Evidence from the findings of these benchmarking studies suggests that Government of Canada communication branches indeed were managed strategically by 2008.”
Steyn, B. and Niemann, L. (2014). Strategic role of public relations in enterprise strategy, governance and sustainability: A normative framework. Public Relations Review 40: 171–183.
The authors argue “PR/communication management plays a strategic role in enterprise strategy development but a support role in corporate strategy development.” Enterprise strategy is conceptualized as “a broad set of issues around values, social issues and stakeholder expectations.” While corporate strategy is “the range of business opportunities available to the organization and rests on an understanding of how the stakeholders can affect each business area.” They suggests that “the ﬁeld of strategic communication management (SCM), a.k.a. strategic public relations (PR), should contribute to “enterprise strategy development by assisting with the achievement of the organization’s non-ﬁnancial goals.”
Steyn, B. (2007). Contribution of Public Relations to Organizational Strategy Formulation. In E. L. Toth (Ed.), The Future of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management: Challenges for the Next Generation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. (137–172).
Benita Steyn, who is a, or most probably the, leading scholar on strategic public relations management, provides an overview of an extensive research program on Strategic PR Management. In this article, she explores the concepts of PR management, the PR strategist role, the different types and levels of organizational strategy and thus PR strategy, as well as the operationalization of PR strategy.
Bowen, S. A. (2009). What Communication Professionals Tell Us Regarding Dominant Coalition Access and Gaining Membership. Journal of Applied Communication Research. 37, 4: 427-452.
In the abstract, the author summarizes the study: “Public relations literature emphasizes gaining membership in the dominant coalition. However, we know little about the ways that successful practitioners have garnered dominant coalition membership. By combining 32 interviews with public relations executives, four focus groups, and open-ended responses on a larger survey of communicators, this study sought to uncover patterns explaining routes to the dominant coalition. Routes found include organizational crisis, ethical dilemma, credibility gained over time, issues high on the media agenda, and leadership. The positive and negative aspects of each route are discussed and an ethical analysis of findings is offered.”
Grunig, J.E. (2013). Furnishing the Edifice: Ongoing Research on Public Relations as a Strategic Management Function. In Public Relations And Communication Management: Current Trends and Emerging Topics. Sriramesh, K., Zerfass, A., and Kim, J-M. (Eds). New York; Routledge.
The author, the father of PR strategic management theory, states that this chapter “traces the origins and continuing development of a research tradition that conceptualizes public relations as a strategic management function rather than a messaging, publicity, and media relations function.” He goes on the say that “A major task remains, however, in institutionalizing strategic public relations as actual practice in most organizations.” He believes that there is greater value derived from a public relations function if it is an open “bridging” or stakeholder relationship building function and thus strategic than a closed and self-protecting "buffering” or messaging/communication function. He also has referred to these two paradigms as strategic management/behavioral and symbolic-interpretive respectively.
Supa, D. W. (2014). The Academic Inquiry of Media Relations as both a Tactical and Strategic Function of Public Relations. Research Journal of the Institute for Public Relations. 1, 1 (Summer). Retrieved from: http://www.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/OrgSupa1stIssue1.pdf
From the abstract: “This article summarizes the current state of media relations research through a review of history, current topics, theory development and measurement issues. It suggests these five propositions for studying media relations designed to make this research more useful to those who practice public relations: media relations should be a strategic function of public relations, every organization has different media relations goals, relationships remain the key of effective media relations, media relations efforts are not a means to an end, and tools used in media relations do not define media relations.”
Van Ruler, B. (2014). Reflective Communication Scrum: Recipe for Accountability. The Hague, Eleven International Publishing.
From the intro: “Reflective Communication Scrum is a new methodology for planning communication actions. … The characteristics of Scrum methodology are defined as: strict adherence to the rules and flexibility regarding content. … In traditional corporate communication or public relations planning the results you will obtain (in smart objectives) and the actions needed to achieve your objectives are precisely defined. … RCS not only embraces flexibility, but also justifies it by using ongoing evaluation to gain insights for decision-making.
The Rising CCO V. (2014). Spencer Stuart/Weber Shandwick. Retrieved from: https://www.spencerstuart.com/~/media/pdf%20files/research%20and%20insight%20pdfs/rising-cco-v_12jun2014.pdf?la=en
The report found that the percentage of CCOs who report to the CEO/Chair/Vice-Chair has changed little (NA 54%) and remains hovering in the 50s; the average tenure for CCOs is approximately 6 years in NA and 8 years in Europe; and the number of CCOs also overseeing a marketing function has increased in the past two years, particularly in Europe.
Arthur W. Page Society (2013). The CEO View: Impact of Communications on Corporate Character in a 24x7 Digital World. Arthur W. Page Society. New York, NY.
This study followed the Society’s groundbreaking 2007 study The Authentic Enterprise that was a “report on the role of communications and its strategic importance to CEOs and corporate reputation.” The purpose of the study was to explore any changes since the first study. This study found that:
- “more CCOs are in the inner circle”
- “measurement is a key expectation”
- “there is only one message”
- “get broad and deep input”
- “makes the values transparent”
- “check your work”
Bronn, P.S. (2014). How Others See Us: Leaders Perceptions of Communication and Communication Managers. Journal of Communication Management. 18,1.
Though the study was conducted in a small country (Norway) with business leaders, the author reports “communication executives must improve their strategic orientation if they are to be engaged in decision processes where more than communication is discussed. There is moderate but significant correlation between strategic orientation and involvement in decision making and being invited to the strategic planning process.”
Tench, R. & Moreno, A. (2015). Mapping Communication Management Competencies for European Practitioners. Journal of Communication Management. 19,1.
The paper reports on a project by the European Communication Professional Skills and Innovation (ECOPSI) program that examined the competencies required by communication professionals in Europe. The project identified a number of gaps between the existing competencies of communication professionals and the training opportunities available and taken. Among the competency needs, the largest is the need for management knowledge, the next business knowledge and the third management skills. These were competency needs that were not being addressed currently through training. For CCOs, the project’s findings “highlight the competencies needed by senior practitioners through the creation of the Communication Role Matrix with critical evaluation of the current contemporary issues faced by the sector.”
Zerfass, A., Schwalbach, J., Bentele, G., & Sherzada, M. (2014). Corporate Communications from the Top and Center: Comparing the Experiences and Expectations of CEOs and Communicators. International Journal of Strategic Communication. 8,2: 61-78.
In the abstract to the study, the authors summarize by stating that: “Common viewpoints as well as divergences between top executives and communication professionals influence the institutionalization of strategic communication. However, there is little empirical evidence on the accordance between both groups. Most research explores either communication professionals or chief communication officers (CEOs). Very few studies have combined both perspectives. This article identifies the research gap, explores insights from previous research, and contributes to the body of knowledge in strategic communication with an original study that is based on two surveys with replies from 602 CEOs and executive board members as well as 1,251 communication managers from companies in the largest European country, Germany. Although top executives rate the information and motivation of employees as the most important objective of corporate communication, communication professionals focus on the creation of a positive image. Respondents from both groups also state different opinions about dealing with the demand for transparency. Both top executives and communicators give most support to a role model that describes communication professionals as a facilitator between an organization and its publics. Nevertheless the overall conclusion is that perspectives diverge quite often and attention should be directed towards a better alignment between top management and those leading the strategic communication function.”
Fieseler, C., Lutz, C. & Meckel, M. (2015). An Inquiry into the Transformation of the PR Roles Concept. Corporate Communications. 20,1: 76-89
From the abstract, the authors provide this summary on their study: “Purpose – Recent years have seen resurgent interest in professionalism in public relations, with several initiatives to enquire about the state of the communication profession and its part in organizational strategy. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the findings of a quantitative investigation into the work roles of European communication professionals. In particular, the research investigates different professional roles, as developed in previous roles research, while taking a particular look at managerial role enactment. Design/methodology/approach – The authors report the findings of an explorative study among 551 European communication professionals. The measures are used in this study are closely aligned with previous roles research, but modernized. The authors analyzed the data with factor analysis and structural equation modeling. Findings – The authors unfold four distinct contemporary managerial tasks (“diagnosis,” “coaching,” “liaison,” and “execution”), extending previous research rooted in distinguishing these managerial tasks from more technical ones. As a result the authors show that managerial role enactment is predominately determined by education and work experience, with a diminishing gender gap when it comes to performing managerial tasks alone, and that these roles just partly relate to salary but highly relate to job satisfaction, particularly when it comes to taking part in management decision making (tasks that require responsibility, accountability, job diversity, and also an analytical, strategic mindset). Originality/value – The results of the study point to the further transformation of the PR Roles’ concept, turning a more execution oriented job profile into a more managerial and strategically oriented profession.
Berger, B.K., Reber, B.H. & Heyman, W.C. (2007). You Can't Homogenize Success in Communication Management: PR Leaders Take Diverse Paths to Top. International Journal of Strategic Communication. 1,1: 53-71.
The study’s authors summarize their work as follows: “Interviews were conducted with 97 high-level U.S. communications managers to assess factors related to professional success in public relations. The executives most commonly defined success in managerial and strategic terms and indicated that excellent communication skills and a proactive nature were crucial to success in the field. However, the results suggested that success follows diverse pathways, which appear to be linked by 10 patterns or themes. These include the power of performance, varied experiences, dense networks of relationships, complex communication skill sets, and passion for work and the profession. Some modest gender differences were noted. The study captures perceptions about success among top public relations leaders, a group little represented in the literature on this topic. The research also bears implications for education, practice, and organizations that seek to hire and develop successful communications professionals.
Gregory, A. & Willis, P. (2013). Strategic Public Relations Leadership. Routledge. London & New York.
The authors explain the need for this book this way: “Life as a public relations practitioner is challenging. Taking on the role of organizational leader is also fraught with issues and this has generated a mountain of books and scholarly articles. In this book we want to take a long, hard look at bringing these two roles together.” They go on to say that: “Public relations is operating in an increasingly challenging and complex environment. Pressures from outside the organisation include new accountabilities, empowered stakeholders, increased public cynicism and a new communication landscape. Internally, there are increasing demands to demonstrate a return on investment, alongside a requirement to coach and counsel senior managers exposed to these environmental pressures. This context requires public relations professionals to be able to clearly articulate and demonstrate their own contribution to organisational effectiveness. This textbook provides public relations leaders with a framework to do this, as well as a checklist of essential capabilities which they must acquire and exhibit if they are to operate at the highest levels of any organisation.”
Nothhaft, H. (2010). Communication Management as a Second-Order Management Function: Roles and Functions of the Communication Executive – Results from a Shadowing Study. Journal of Communication Management. 14; 2, 127-140.
From the abstract: “Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to provide young communication managers with a theoretical framework to better understand what they are doing. Design/methodology/approach – The paper combines theoretical reﬂections with empirical material from an observation study, a “shadowing study” of eight communication managers in German companies undertaken by the author. Findings – Communication management is explained as a second-order management function, i.e. a function which not only coordinates organizational performance by planning, organizing, controlling, but also institutionalizes certain concerns in the organization. Drawing on the shadowing study, the paper describes how communication managers “manage the management of others” by acting in certain roles, e.g. the missionary (not the guru), the agent of common sense (not the enforcer), the buck’s stop (not the CEO’s darling). Communication management, it is argued, is not predominantly concerned with power in the organizations, but with inﬂuence.”
Kanihan, S.F., Hansen, K.A., Blair, S., Shore, M. & Myers, J. (2013) Communication Managers in the Dominant Coalition : Power Attributes and Communication Practices. Journal of Communication Management. 17, 2: 140-156.
According to the summary in the abstract, “the paper finds that four attributes of informal power differentiate communications managers who are in the dominant coalition from those who are not: reciprocal trust, strategic business decision‐making, social inclusion and communication expertise. … The paper supports the organizational theory of the importance of informal power as a prerequisite to be in the dominant coalition – particularly friendship and “being included.” Communications managers who are in the dominant coalition are in a better position to institute ethical and excellent (symmetrical) communication practices. The findings of this study have implications for the likely success (or lack thereof) of managers with diverse backgrounds of being included in the dominant coalition. … Future research should explore whether any of the 37 percent of communications managers in the dominant coalition at these top companies come from backgrounds significantly different from those of the executive elite.”
Zerfass, A. & Franke, N. (2012). Enabling, Advising, Supporting, Executing: A Theoretical Framework for Internal Communication Consulting Within Organizations. Fifteenth Annual International Public Relations Research Conference. Miami. March 8-10.
From the abstract: “This paper analyzes the consulting and enabling function within the role set of communication managers and provides an initial theoretical framework for internal communication consulting in organizations. The idea of communication professionals as consultants and enablers of communication has already been introduced by a number of researchers. Nevertheless, the necessity of this task as well as the specific dimensions and practices of internal communication consulting and its various objectives, forms, and specifications have not been elaborated until now. This paper takes an initial step towards closing this gap by developing a theoretical framework based on research in business consulting and existing public relations role models.”
Verhoeven, P. (2014). Communications Officer and the C-Suite: A Study of Financial Times Global 500 Companies. Public Relations Review. 40: 606-608.
The authors study included the following research: “A content analysis of the websites or annual reports of the 2012 Financial Times Global 500 companies was performed to examine the position of communications ofﬁcers (COs) on their executive boards. Almost one quarter of the companies examined had a CO on the executive board. Their distribution differed by region, with North America leading, followed by Europe. No signiﬁcant differences were found between business to business (BtB) and business to consumer (BtC) companies or between sectors with more or less regulated communication. Economic indicators did not predict whether a company would have a CO on the executive board.” “Eleven companies use the label chief communications ofﬁcer (n = 11), both with and without an additional title (executive, senior, vice or a combination). The most common job titles for communications functions on executive boards were senior vice president of corporate communication and senior vice president of corporate affairs.”
Jin, Y. (. 2010). Emotional Leadership as a Key Dimension of Public Relations Leadership: A National Survey of Public Relations Leaders. Journal of Public Relations Research. 22, 2: 159-181.
The author summarizes the study as follows: “Based on the emotional leadership theory, this study used a national survey of public relations leaders to examine the core emotional traits and skills for effective public relations leadership. Transformational leadership was preferred by public relations leaders, in which empathy played an essential role. Transformational leadership and empathy were found to be significant predictors of public relations leaders' competency in gaining employees' trust, managing employees' frustration and optimism, as well as taking stances toward employees and top management in decision-making conflicts. By identifying emotional leadership as an essential dimension of public relations leadership, the findings advance the understanding of how emotional skills can enhance public relations managers' employee and top management communications in decision-making conflicts.”
Meng, J., Berger, B.K., Gower, K.K. and Heyman, W.C. (2012). A Test of Excellent Leadership in Public Relations: Key Qualities, Valuable Sources, and Distinctive Leadership Perceptions. Journal of Public Relations Research. 24:1, 18-36.
The authors found that: “According to study participants, strategic decision-making capability, problem-solving ability, and communication knowledge and expertise are the three most important qualities of excellent leadership.” They went further to state: “About half of the respondents indicated that excellent leaders in public relations are different from leaders in other fields in three ways: “They must hold a compelling vision for communication, possess comprehensive understanding of media and information systems, and effectively develop and implement strategic communication plans.”
Meng, J. & Berger, B. (2013). An Integrated Model of Excellent Leadership in Public Relations: Dimensions, Measurement, and Validation. Journal of Public Relations Research. 25, 2: 141-167.
“This study investigates the role of leadership in facilitating strategic communication management and effective public relations practice by proposing a set of dimensions measuring corporate communication executives’ perceptions on leadership. A measurement methodology was applied and suggested to facilitate empirical investigation. Data from two groups of senior corporate communicators and public relations executives (N = 384) nationwide were used to assess the validity and reliability of proposed leadership dimensions that contribute to effective communication management. Results from both groups demonstrated strong support for the proposed higher-order measurement model. The analysis suggested that 6 major dimensions (self-dynamics, team collaboration, ethical orientation, relationship building, strategic decision making capability, and communication knowledge management capability) are crucial for communication executives to expand their influence in the institutional context and generate desired communication outcomes. The findings offer insights on both leadership and corporate communications that may account for significant non-financial indicators of organizational effectiveness.”
Sison, M.D. (2009). Leading Up: Public Relations Beyond Managerial Roles? Paper presented to the Public Relations Division, Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication Convention. August 5-8, Boston.
The author explored the role of practitioners as “being one of the leaders” and found that practitioners are “leading up” yet their self-perceptions constrain them from extending themselves beyond managerial roles.” She goes on to state that: “This study posits that the biggest hurdles to public relations enacting leadership roles are the practitioners themselves. Practitioners seem to be limited by the way they see the leadership potential of their roles.”
Choi, J. & Choi, Y. (2009). Behavioral Dimensions of Public Relations Leadership in Organizations. Journal of Communication Management. 13; 4, 292-309.
Abstract: “Purpose – The evolution of public relations into a management function has brought the importance of leadership to the forefront of professional discussion. This study aims to identify and develop a measure of behavioral dimensions critical to effective public relations for organization-wide public relations leadership. Design/methodology/approach – Using a national survey of Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) members (n = 159), a conﬁrmatory factor analysis (CFA) was conducted on the seven theoretically-driven leadership behaviors: upward inﬂuence, coordinating, internal monitoring, networking, representing, providing vision, and acting as a change agent. Findings – The results suggest that the measurement model had a good internal and global ﬁt. CFA results supported the seven-factor model over the one-factor model, suggesting that public relations leadership is multi-dimensional. Among the behaviors, “providing vision” and “acting as a change agent” were those most strongly associated with the value of public relations in an organization. Originality/value – The study shows that understanding public relations leadership from an organization-wide perspective opens up a whole new avenue for future research to strengthen public relations as a management function. The present study also provides public relations managers with valuable insight concerning the leadership behaviors they can exercise to contribute to the value of public relations in their organizations.”
Macnamara, J. (2014). Organizational Listening: A Vital Missing Element in Public Communication and the Public Sphere. Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal. 15, 1: 89-108.
Taken from the abstract: “A pilot study reported in this article indicates that allegedly communicative functions including public relations, involve considerable and often massive resources devoted to creating an architecture of speaking and doing the work of speaking on behalf of organisations including government departments and agencies, corporations, and institutions. Conversely, this research raises serious questions about the extent to which organisations listen to those who seek to engage with them. Further, it suggests that organisations cannot effectively listen unless they have an architecture of listening or do the work of listening, and identifies cultural, structural, political and technological components to create this vital missing element in public communication and the public sphere.”