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HRD's pocket guide to... PR

The HRD’s pocket guide series offers an explanation of areas outside day-to-day HR that business-savvy HRDs need to have a handle on

Why do I need to know about it?

BHS. Carillion. Philip Green. Weinstein. The corporate world is awash with scandals of all shapes and sizes, and as a result PR departments are in great demand. The public relations function exists to control communications an organisation puts out into the world and maintain good relationships with customers, partners, investors and the media.

“The PR department is there to engage audiences and explain what an organisation is up to. Usually the PR department tries to enhance the reputation of an organisation by telling interesting positive stories. Sometimes PR will have to adopt a more defensive stance when an organisation is facing a crisis, conflict or major external challenge,” explains Mike Sergeant, owner of Sergeant Leadership Communications and author of PR for Humans.

And organisations have seen rather a lot of all three of those lately – whether it’s high-street stalwart Debenhams teetering on the brink of administration, the EHRC taking the BBC to task over equal pay, or government legislation compelling social media giants to be accountable for the content they host. To avoid public ire (and subsequent loss of business) firms need to be seen to respond to these events. Staying quiet and waiting for it to blow over is simply not an option anymore.

What do I need to know?

Speed is of the essence. Whether it’s good news or bad, you don’t want to rest on your laurels.

“It is essential that communications leaders are involved in dealing with an issue from day one. Too often organisations bolt on ‘doing the PR’ far too late in the decision-making process,” says Matt Cartmell, deputy director general of the Public Relations and Communications Association. As such he advocates PR has a seat on the board.

Amy Shanler, associate professor at the College of Communication at Boston University, agrees. “The PR function acts as a strategic partner. It acts as the corporate conscience… [working] with senior leadership to ensure the organisation isn’t engaging in at-risk behaviour, and if it is they will collaborate on changing corporate culture, processes and structures.”

Which are all areas HR has a hand in, showing there is ample ground for HR and PR to work together. “HR and PR should be aligned on the central story. Why people work there, why it exists, why it matters,” states Sergeant.

“The two must be close partners and allies, working together to plan communications to ensure consistency. Employees are an organisation’s most authentic and effective public relations ambassadors. When it comes to news employees must be the first to know what’s happening,” adds Shanler.

Where can HR add value?

PR is partially about telling positive news, and HR is well placed to find this within a business. “Look for interesting people doing intriguing things. Stories that allow outsiders to look at the organisation and think ‘that looks like a fascinating, decent and fun place to work’. Employer brand is such an important part of reputation,” advises Sergeant.

“HR can help convey attitudes and perceptions employees have about the organisation and leadership. This would feed into the strategic direction and give leadership the chance to make relevant changes that can strengthen employee trust and loyalty,” says Shanler.

Open and honest communication is key. “HR and PR should have a strong relationship for one very important reason: all internal comms become external comms eventually. Close partnership working between these functions allows for proactive issues planning, preparing the way for potential HR-related crises that may arise in the future,” says Cartmell.

HR anticipating how employees might react to bad news is also important. “By thinking about this in advance the PR and HR departments can proactively address these questions, strengthening the overall impact of the communication and building trust,” Shanler explains.

Anything else?

Some argue there is a place for a role that combines both the external messaging of PR and the internal comms of HR. “I believe companies should have a chief story officer who takes charge of the narrative,” says Sergeant. “The focus should be on telling a powerful, consistent, internal and external story that draws it all together. A big part of PR and HR is securing engagement with that story.”

He adds: “Both HR and PR lost their purpose in the ‘90s and ‘00s. They were strangled by jargon, became robotic functions that managed to forget their core mission: serving people and interesting their audiences. The thing that should unite them now is the vital job of making organisations more human.”

This piece appeared in the May 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk