I’ve stopped reading articles about PR’s need for “a seat at the table.” They drive me nuts (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.