How Corporate Responsibility is Returning Public Relations to Its Original Meaning

I have been a practitioner for corporate communications, including public relations for more than three decades. And I have been working in corporate responsibility for the last 15 as well. In that time I have come to the conclusion that the two professions are - or will become - one and the same.

To a generation of professionals that grew up thinking 'public relations' was synonymous with 'media relations' I can understand how this might seem to be a radical idea. And for those who would equate PR and Marketing I would point out that organizations have many stakeholder groups and those to whom you would sell are only one - admittedly a very important one - but still only one of the many constituencies that must be engaged effectively to build an enduring company.

In addition, and before you can serve any customers, you need

  • Passionate empowered employees who can give them a customer experience that builds loyalty (and word of mouth)
  • You need favorable relationships (including credit terms) with suppliers.
  • You need the good grace and favor of those in the community you rely on for permits and 'license to operate.'
  • You may need the good grace and favor of investors to provide capital.

In fact, you need to build relationships with a whole host of stakeholders.

To be sure, the media can be a powerful way to get news and information to a wide variety of people quickly. However, the increasing mistrust by the majority of 'audiences' indicates that the strategy of using the media to 'tell the story' is increasingly falling on questioning ears (or eyeballs). At the same time, corporate responsibility professionals have worked to build internal constituencies, engaged with NGOs and educational organizations to understand the issues, adopted transparency through events like open houses, public meetings, and even increasingly are seeking opportunities (i.e. digital media) to engage in direct dialogue with their stakeholders- including some of their sharpest critics - in order to:

  1. further mutual understanding of the issues and
  2. develop value chain strategies to build a sustainable enterprise and economy.

In addition, they have engaged with suppliers to ensure that the values of the corporation are instilled in its own business relationships (although to be fair, this is in varying stages of development in many cases). And lastly they have worked to build relationships with consumers rather than seeking merely transactional interactions.

So, if you think about it, if "stakeholders" really are the various "publics" who have a vested interest in your organization; and relationships are meaningful interactions (and not simply the delivery of corporate messages) perhaps we're getting back to what was the original intent of "public relations" after all.