Building Businesses Through External Relations

8 years, 8 months ago


A change in focus has upgraded the role of practitioners in public relations and public affairs as companies have had to take a more long-term, strategic approach to communications. By Erik Jonnaert.

Having been active in public affairs and public relations for more than 20 years, first in Europe and now in Asia, I have noticed some major changes in the profession which I want to share with you; these major new developments offer both a challenge as well as new opportunities for all of us active in public relations and public affairs, both for in-house practitioners as well as for agencies.

1. From protecting businesses to leading business building programs

I remember the days that the prime focus of PR practitioners was to fight fires as they started to affect the business. We were initially called upon to protect the brands and the businesses we were supporting. PR managers were in first instance crisis managers; they were supposed to use their communication skills and their media relations to advise the company and to protect the company against the "dangers from the outside world". They were occasionally involved in other communication tasks, especially to support brands with the consumer media and with internal communications; the latter was often a task handled by human resources or personnel departments. The entire approach was very much focused on defending the business and the brands.

This has evolved big time across the different disciplines in which most of us are active: in brand public relations, the focus is no longer on defending the brand but has become truly focused on building the brand’s equity through leveraging media and other influencers in a way which helps to build trial or credibility for the brand. Brand PR has proven to provide a higher return on investment than using traditional media for most categories and sectors; the interventions of PR are now less focused on creating free publicity in the media but are now fully integrated into the brand communication strategies. In corporate PR, we see the same evolution from defensive to become truly business building: building reputation and credibility for the company and for its brands are flipsides of the same coin. Consumers and stakeholders want to know the company behind the brands. In government relations or public affairs, the role has evolved from one reserved to general managers on their way to retirement who could leverage their business knowledge and connections to a very targeted and strategic role making sure that companies can constructively contribute to informed decision making by policy makers. Government relations managers are company ambassadors representing the business perspective externally while presenting the government and policy maker’s perspective internally, so that companies make strategic decisions with the external environment in mind.

2. From being involved on a need basis to be fully plugged into the business strategies

PR or PA managers were recruited by companies once they had identified an urgent need which had to be fixed: this could be a crisis, could be a reputation issue or another challenge identified which required somebody with good communication skills and a good understanding of the media. Several of these managers left the company once the job was done, looking for another challenge somewhere else to address. These days, PR and PA practitioners are seen as strategic partners of the business. Companies are making strategic choices on how best to operate with their consumers, customers, suppliers but also with all the other stakeholders who can make or break their business, which include government, media, civil society, scientific and academic communities etc.

PR and PA practitioners are well placed to support business into formulating the appropriate strategies to manage these stakeholder groups. You could even argue that companies in today’s flat world have no longer the choice to dismiss these stakeholder groups. The digitalized environment in which we operate has made the role of PR and PA practitioners even more important: companies can no longer focus on communicating with these groups; they now need to engage with them which requires another skill set uniquely owned by PR and PA practitioners.

3. From being seen as a stand-alone function to becoming a fully integrated partner on the business teams

PR departments were often stand-alone departments reporting into marketing or other more established functions. These days, PR and PA practitioners are more integrated into multi functional business teams adding their unique experience and perspective to the discussion. PR and PA practitioners have become the guardians and builders of trust and confidence in the company and its brands. It allows companies to develop business plans which speak to the hearts and minds of people. This requires a long-term approach and also requires more continuity of the PR and PA practitioners into the roles they are playing. This is often a big challenge among agencies where retention of good people is often a problem.

4. From separated disciplines like PR and PA towards a more integrated external relations approach

This has even evolved further in some companies like in P&G where we have fully integrated all disciplines involved in external relations work like brand PR and corporate PR, but also government relations and regulatory & technical relations, even consumer relations into one fully integrated external relations organization. This helps to create a critical mass of experts with strong communication skills and strong external connections across a wide range of stakeholders, relevant to the entire business. This also provides a single point of contact to all business partners to create more effective externally focused and fully integrated business and brand building programs.

5. In-House and Agency professionals: from "us versus them" to " we are in there together".

While we have seen an increase in demand for in-house professionals, we have also seen in parallel an increase in demand for experienced agency professionals. Agencies provide unique insights and experience across companies and markets and can ensure that your programs are truly distinctive and effective. I have seen a major shift in how companies like P&G start working with PR and PA agencies; where they were initially seen by the business as contractors or suppliers of services, we see them increasingly as an extension of the in-house external relations organization. This partnership approach is becoming a must to ensure that we as external relations professionals can continue playing a truly business building role within our companies. This will require however new approaches within the profession to make sure that we can jointly build our capabilities across agencies and companies. This is becoming even more important in emerging markets where we often see the need to strengthen the professionalism of public relations and public affairs practitioners. It will also require that companies and agencies work more closely together with business schools to help creating the talent we need for the future.

It is a great time to be in public relations or public affairs; it can become even more of an opportunity if we integrate all these disciplines under one umbrella – external relations – leveraging all our knowledge and connections across a diversity of stakeholder groups to become a real business builder.

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The Author

Erik Jonnaert

Erik Jonnaert, Vice-President External Relations, Procter & Gamble Asia.

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