Thinking ‘outside the table’ creates value for PR

I’ve stopped reading articles about PR’s need for “a seat at the table.” They drive me nutsimages1.jpg (arrgh). You see, I disagree with folks who think PR must operate as a fully integrated branch of management — or, God forbid — marketing. When that happens, we tend to lose our perspective, not to mention our cajones.

Sure, PR people need a seat at the table. No one’s debating that. But so many of our critics insist that PR’s greatest weakness is our inability — even our unwillingness — to see challenges from the MBA/management perspective.

Here’s a different take…

To create real value, PR needs to spend a lot more time kicking the client’s ass than kissing it. To do that, we gotta push back from “management’s table,” at least far enough to see the complete picture — to escape the group-think of mahogany row.

If PR is just another cog in the strategy machine, what do we add to the discussion? Part of our role at management’s table is to raise the seldom-posed question: “WTF are you folks thinking?” (OK, you don’t have to use the “F” word, but it does get people’s attention.)

In my classrooms, I remind PR students of their role as the “no man.” The opposite of an ass-kissing, brown-nosing, back-slapping “yes man,” the no man sits at management’s table and never obsesses over job security. He works with legal or HR, but he doesn’t kowtow to them. The no man brings a broader perspective to the discussion. He’s a human being who advocates for those who don’t have a seat at the table. And someone has to do that if the client has any conscience at all. (Hey, no giggling!)

Being the no man is right up my alley. I enjoyed busting the chops of the dominant coalition back in the day. But I also viewed it as a professional duty. I did it tactfully most of the time, and it got me into hot water a lot.

“You need to be more of a team player,” my last real-world boss told me more than once. “You shouldn’t be so negative in meetings,” said another. Only when I ran my own firm (for 5 years in the late 80s) did I feel entirely comfortable in the no-man role. And never was I more effective as a counselor. Hell, it may be the only time I was a real counselor.

I’m not advocating that PR folks ignore bottom-line concerns or that we stop supporting our evil twins in marketing and legal. But our real value comes when we step outside the inner circle and become advocates for relationships — the relationships that make our organizations work. We’re advisers, not liars for hire. We work to generate trust, not sales leads.

As you probably know, relationships require give and take. Sometimes this leads to civil disagreements with marketing or HR. And sometimes it means a bare-knuckled brawl. Try the first, but don’t fear the second.

Our focus on relationships also requires that we advocate for the ethical over the expedient. That’s how you manage reputation, how you build trust.

I was a boardroom brawler who lost more fights than I won. You probably will, too. I recall once joining “the team” to supporting a marketing campaign I viewed as disingenuous and borderline deceptive. I remember well my client’s orders to ignore media calls as we closed factories and put thousands out of work. I approved more than a few news releases that oozed with half-truths. Like I said, I lost more battles than I won. But I fought on.

In our classrooms at Kent State, we work hard to turn students into polished writers and strategists. But we also remind them — I hope daily — of PR’s mission to question the prevailing wisdom, to insist on ethical business practices, to safeguard reputation. This only happens when diverse opinions are brought to management’s table.

So the next time you take your seat on mahogany row, promise me you’ll roll that leather chair back a few feet, at least far enough to let you see what’s really going on.

Then kick some ass, OK? I’ve got your back.

15 Responses to Thinking ‘outside the table’ creates value for PR

  1. Breeze says:

    Damn, where was this “no man” idea when I was in PRKent? I would’ve been perfect for the no ass-kissing role!

  2. Ed Lee says:

    what about the “why” man – the person who can quantitatively demonstrate what messages should be focused on in the campaign in order to demonstrably meet the organization’s business objectives?

  3. Stacy Wessels says:

    It’s even harder to be a “no woman.” Goes back to that whole “men are decisive” and “women are bitches” perception. And Bill, you know you’re preachin’ to the choir on this issue. The PR professional should have a dotted line from the top row of management.

    As a consultant, I hope every day to work with the client who actually listens to my advice. I pick my battles.

  4. somesangs says:

    Good to know you’ve got our Back, Bill. Everyone needs a no-man to assist with kicking A!

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks to a software hiccup — WordPress began marking my own comments as spam — so my responses to your comments weren’t showing up here. It’s a lot like my Technorati links, but I’ll save that for another post.

    Brian got my smart-ass remark. We didn’t tell him about the “no man” role while he was here for fear he’d be telling the dean to kiss his backside. Sometimes you gotta keep secrets to keep the peace, eh?

    Ed, I edited our my paragraph about the “why” questions, trying to get the post under 800 words. Thanks for making the point for me. (Oh. let me add, thank you Ed for posting the hysterical video on your Facebook page. I was rolling on the floor; my wife was horrified. Definitely a difference in perspective on that prank. Here’s the link so others can check it out: http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1774718.

    And Stacy, you are right on. I’ve not met a successful woman in our business who hasn’t experienced this “bitch” phenomenon. Guys are “assertive,” women are “bitchy.” Same behavior. Silly. And it will change, since there probably won’t be any men left in the business by 2020! Just check our enrollment numbers!

    Kait. I’ll always have your back. It comes with the diploma from Kent — lifelong protection to all grads who want to kick ass.

  6. Speedbumps says:

    I know I never responded to a blog when it was required of me, but I really enjoyed this one. This subject, lying for “the man,” is what eats away at me throughout out the school year. I’m not sure if I have the “cajones” to stand up to the one that is writing the check that feeds my family. Being the “no-man” might be the responsible thing to do, but is it the smart thing to do? That is why I have decided that I will not be driven by money. I will only be driven by cause. That is why PR is such a great profession…the option is always there. Money or Cause? No matter what the case may be, kicking ass should always be the standard…right Bill?

  7. Benita Steyn says:

    I have always believed that it is the role of the ‘PR strategist’ to be a devil’s advocate, to show the other side of the coin to top management, to inform them of the consequences of their behaviour/ strategies on stakeholders and society, to advocate stakeholder and societal values and norms to management. In the European reflective PR paradigm, this is called the ‘reflective’ role. In my opinion, this represents the contribution of PR to strategic decision making. Not a role that is going to make you very popular, I agree. But a huge value add to the organisation!

  8. Tim Roberts says:

    Excellent comments! In my experience, the pr pro adds real value by bringing a common sense approach to the table that looks out for the LONG-TERM term interest of the company or the client. That is a mantra that most business people will by into eventually.

    Too often in my tenure, lawyers and HR folks are well-intentioned but can be short-sighted when they want to win a case or put out the latest fire. It is our job to point out the consequences of a quick fix and to tactfully point out that having egg on our face today beats conducting damage control for weeks or months when the fix backfires.

    One more thing: the central role of a pr counselor is to listen. Don’t say yes or no until you know an issue and all its angles. I’ve learned, often the hard way, that restraint of pen and tongue is a great virtue.

  9. idontgiveapitch says:

    Amen! Amen! Amen!. …because after the meeting with the stale bagels at the big mahogany tabel it is the PR people that are expected to move the corporate message to the front page of the news.

  10. […] So there you have it. Some steps you can take to earn that seat at the management table. Want to know what to do once you get there? One of my former professors and favorite PR bloggers, Bill Sledzik, offers some great advice. Check it out. […]

  11. […] As I said here, you must be willing to play to role of “no man” if you want to be a boundary spanner. You must advocate for all sides, no simple task when you consider who’s signing the paychecks. But serving as boundary spanner is really very simple. The best business deals — just like the best relationships — are the ones in which ALL parties benefit. Most of us refer to it as “win-win,” and it’s easy to achieve, provided you don’t get greedy. […]

  12. Greg Smith says:

    Boy oh boy, Bill, you’ve done it again (twice in a week). Lots of food for thought. I’ll have to make this required reading out here in Oz, methinks. I gotta sit down and take this all in. Twice in a week is a bit much for an old fella. Whatever it is you’re taking, I want some.

  13. Patti S says:

    I’m reading this at just the right time. About to leave for a meeting to explain to our CIO why we can’t yet make the claims he’d like to make without some of our employees calling BS on it. He and I are pretty candid with each other, but I’ve had a little heartburn over this one. Your post is just the pep talk I needed.

  14. […] you regularly question the wisdom of teams? Or do you nod and go along? I call it “thinking outside the table,” and it sometimes means putting your career at […]

  15. […] necessary if you are going to be able to say no and defend your points when you are the lone dissenter in a room full of people ready to charge forward with a lousy idea. If you act like a jerk, you are […]

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