From the Journals–Defining ‘Public’, Social Media Influencers, Employee Relations

Periodically I write a blog post about the latest articles and research in public relations journals. Too often, professionals disregard theory and academic research as too abstract to be practical. I find the opposite to be true—theory and practice are far more grounded in reality than isolated experiences, however valuable experience can be. Journal research represents the scientific examination of multiple experiences and/or deep and well-reasoned conceptual thought and can help us explain and predict phenomenon in the public relations field.

Here then is a brief recap of some recent journal articles I found particularly useful (some articles may require subscription or university library access to see full text):

What is a public?

In Looking back and going forward: The concept of the public in public relations theory by Magda Pieczka, in the September 10, 2019 Public Relations Inquiry, the old issue of defining “public” in public relations is addressed and extended. For more than 100 years, intellectuals and public relations professionals have debated the concept of “public” as a group of people. Is it a public or the public? John Dewey and Walter Lippman debated the nature of public and public opinion in the context of journalism and democracy in the 1920s, about the time “public relations” was first being used to describe the field. Pieczka’s article redefines the public in three ways: an audience as a public of shared spaces, a self-organized public of shared attention, and the public as a political and social imaginary. Going beyond defining publics by their relationship to an organization (eg employees, customers, investors, etc.) can expand public relations theory and practice in terms of both strategy and ethics in communicating to build and maintain relationships.

Social Media Influencers

A special issue of The International Journal of Strategic Communication is devoted to social media influencers. Articles look at the key groups within the process of strategic influencer communication: (1) influencer clients, e.g., client organizations and agencies; (2) social media influencers themselves; and (3) audiences. Takeaways include the need to be authentic, strategic, and ethical to avoid crisis and actually achieve objectives that go beyond attention.

Employee Relations

With an increasing number of public relations professionals focused on internal or employee communications, a study of leadership and message styles is helpful. In Relational Communication Messages and Leadership Styles in Supervisor/Employee Relationships (October 2019, International Journal of Business Communication), authors Alan C. Mikkelson, David Sloan, and Colin Hesse show that both for “intimacy” and “dominance” forms of messages are needed whether a leader is task- or relationship-oriented in style. For PR pros in employee communications, this can affect how to counsel managers and the tone of communications written for internal audiences.

A related topic in an article in PR Journal titled Employee Perceptions of CEO Ghost Posting and Voice: Effects on Perceived Authentic Leadership, Organizational Transparency, and Employee-Organization Relationships by Tom Kelleher, Rita Men and Patrick Thelen tackles the issue of PR pros ghost writing posts for CEOs on social media. The authors found that employees expected and tolerated CEO ghost posting, but the voice in those posts was more related to their perceptions of authentic leadership, which inb turn led to better perceptions of organizational transparency, and employee-organization relationship. In other words, employees assume CEOs approve of messages even if they don’t write them. Specifically, when CEO communication on social media was perceived as natural, engaging, personal, conversational, and relationship-oriented, employees tended to perceive the CEO as more authentic, truthful, and genuine and the organization as more transparent. The lesson for PR professionals is that the issue is not whether or not to ghost write, but to work on how you write CEO social posts in an appropriate voice.

What Makes for High-Performing Corporate Communication Teams

An issue of concern for any professional communicator is how well they are performing, but performance has to be considered not just in metrics of communication skill proficiency, but how well the communications functions contributes to the overall organizational goals.

Over the past year and a half I looked into this issue in a research project with Mark Bain, a top communicator in his own right who now does consulting as owner of upper90 Consulting. We conducted a series of phone interviews and then a survey of top Chief Communication Officers (CCOs) at top companies and organizations around the country. This resulted in a an article, “High-Performing Corporate Communications Teams: Views  of Top CCOs,” published in the latest issue of PR Journal (free online–a real benefit to professionals!). I’d encourage you to read it, but here are the takeaways:

From the interviews, these common themes emerged:

  • High-performing teams are adaptable;
  • High-performing teams are collaborative;
  • High-performing teams possess specific and appropriate forms and levels of expertise;
  • High-performing teams are analytical;
  • High-performing teams demonstrate leadership across the organization;
We also found that there are several impediments or barriers to high performing teams. One is a lack of clarity from top management about the roles, objectives, responsibility and accountability of each functional unit in an organization. This can lead to turf guarding or fighting over who owns what, such as communications and IT fighting over digital responsibilities, and other internal tensions that slow performance. 
Poor leadership, which relates to poor culture, were cited as other impediments to performance. Structural and organizational issues also were mentioned often, including the “silo” effect of internal departments or varied geographic locations not talking fluidly with each other. Finally, a lack of CEO understanding of and support of the communications function were a common problem indicated by top CCOs, as was an external environment of rapid change.
Taking the input from the interviews, we conducted a large scale survey to determine, among other things, what top CCOs valued as the key factors driving high performance in corporate communications teams. Of 20 factors that drive performance presented, eight had the highest value according to respondents. The top factors in order of importance by mean score are: 
  • function’s work is aligned with business goals;
  • people in the function collaborate effectively with others;
  • the communication function adapts quickly to change; 
  • demonstrate respect for others;
  • culture that allows people to do their best work;
  • people in communication understand the company’s business; 
  • a clear role in the company;
  • CEO support of the communications function; 
  • interpersonal skills.
It’s also interesting to look at common perceived impediments to high-performance of communication teams. Here, seven factors emerged:
  • A CEO who doesn’t value her/his employees;
  • lack of alignment around strategy;
  • unhealthy work culture; 
  • inability of organization to adapt to change; 
  • lack of clear vision for the organization; 
  • difficulty hiring and retaining talent; 
  • a silo approach to working in the organization. 
I’d encourage taking a look at these and seeing if they mirror the situation in your organization. Or use the results in goal setting as you counsel your CEO or other top management to develop the factors that drive performance. It will improve not just communications, but, since communication and public relations ARE a management function, it will improve the performance of the entire organization in terms of meeting strategic goals.