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.

PR is the Talent that Attracts and Retains Talent

An article in last week’s Grand Rapids Business Journal alerted me to another study about “talent.” It’s become almost cliche’ to say that CEOs value “attracting and retaining top talent.” This study was no different in that regard, but it did have a refreshing emphasis on communication as a tool to acquire and keep a skilled workforce.

The 2017 Gallagher Benefits Strategy and Benchmarking Survey  had the usual discussion of benefits, salary and quality of life. But near the end it had this gem: communication is a key factor in employee satisfaction. What I especially appreciated was a comment from one of the executives of Gallagher, an insurance, risk management and consulting firm. He noted the need for a comprehensive communication strategy to communicate the solutions human resources provides, but that only 15% of companies have such a comprehensive strategy.

This not a revelation to people who work in or teach public relations, particularly those who focus on what is typically called internal or employee relations. It’s a specialty form of public relations, focused on a specific public–employees. When I teach public relations management and other courses, I devote some time to the objectives and strategies of employee relations. I know more than a few PR professionals, including a growing number of former students, whose full-time job is to manage internal communications.

There is an increasing number of books on employee communication, including the recent “Excellence in Internal Communication Management” by professors Rita Men and Shannon Bowen (writing this blog post reminded me to order it!). The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), which has special interest sections for various specialties within the broad profession, has long had an Employee Communications Section.

All of this is to say that it’s good to see the CEOs and management consultancies are understanding that communication is vital to the talent problem, and that communication is not just “getting the word out” but requires strategy that is tailored to the public and the goal. This comes from educated and practiced public relations professionals. They may be embedded in the human resources department, or they assist HR from their separate PR department. But however it’s structured, a PR professional is both a tool in the talent acquisition and retention of an organization and a form of talent in it’s own right.

The fact that PR “talent” is also sought is evident in the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that there will be a 6% increase in demand for “PR specialists” between 2014 and 2024. I think it will be higher if the definition of “what they do” on the BLS site went beyond “maintaining a favorable image” and “sending news releases.” That may have summed it  up in 1914 when “public relations” was new. But the profession is far more diverse than that now, including employee relations.

I would hope that the focus on “talent” will help CEOs and others see the full breadth of what public relations is and can do for a company. One day managers will place as much emphasis on employee relations as they do on consumer relations.

As one example. consider the simple “employee life cycle” that mimics cycles for products or consumer engagement. To truly attract and retain talent, companies need to be thinking about what and how they communicate through all stages:

  • before even hiring, reputation matters. Potential employees look at how current employees are treated, and people talk! The goal is to become an employer of choice in your industry or region, the place top talent would love to work if possible. 
  • when hiring, process matters. This is the initial relationship formation stage. Communication needs to be frequent, transparent, and respectful.
  • the employment stage is obviously the crucial one, and must go beyond dissemination of information and policy. That’s necessary, but the objective needs to be motivation, morale, and retention. More than cheerleading is required.
  • the exit, whether by retirement, job change or termination, must be managed wisely. Good companies do exit interviews to understand why an employee is leaving, and to get honest reflection on their time with the company. Excellent companies have alumni employee programs and keep in touch years after employment, recognizing that former employees are their best ambassadors in talent acquisition. 
While much of the emphasis on attracting talent focuses on employees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), I would hope CEOs in those and other industries see the wisdom and benefit in attracting and retaining PR talent as well.

The Good PR of Happy Employees

First, a self-disclosure: I worked for a brief period at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. But I’m not writing about them now because of that connection.

Rather, it’s a response to an article in MLive about GRCF being named number 6 on a Nonprofit Times list of “50 Best Nonprofits to Work for in 2012.”

I’m always a little dubious of national publications generating “best of” lists, or lists of any kind. They tend to read as “Desperate Attempts to Get Attention to Boost Our Flagging Subscriptions and Ad Sales.”

But this list, and the justification for it, caught my eye. The article this list generated gives GRCF some publicity, but that’s not the real PR value. Essentially, it shows why and how employee relations is good public relations.

Public relations is about establishing mutually beneficial relationships with ALL publics. Too many in the communication profession think all publics are customers, or that PR is all about media. But that’s a simplistic view.

Employees are the face, the brand, the essence of organizations. They meet the public face to face more often and in more ways than the top management does. If they come off as less than happy, less than knowledgeable, less than passionate…it affects the messaging, the branding, the operations, the reputation and the success of an organization.

As many men say about marriage–“Happy wife, happy life”–the same is true of employees and organizations.

Add to that the fact that good employees with the right skill sets and personal attributes can be hard to find. Any organization should have as one of its objectives to be seen as “an employer of choice” so that when they are in a position to hire, their reputation as an organization–not merely the job opportunity–helps them attract the best employees.

GRCF shows that they are doing things recommended by PR professionals and academics who specialize in employee or internal communications. President Diana Sieger speaks of the intentional effort to make every employee feel they are an integral part of organizational success. Employees speak of GRCF valuing innovation, encouraging work-life balance, involving everyone in strategic planning, and maintaining open relationships with management.


Congratulations to GRCF, and thanks for the positive example.