If lawyers are reviewing the PR pros, shouldn’t it work the other way too?

Anyone would expect lawyers to review press releases written by public relations professionals, but it isn’t as common to have PR advisors review legal contracts and financial structures prepared by lawyers. It should be, so it was refreshing to get that perspective from PR industry expert Paul Holmes at a spring conference in Montreal.

Holmes’ view is that public relations professionals should be involved in any business decisions potentially affecting the reputation of organizations. The PR veteran, author of the Holmes Report and chief executive of The Holmes Group, cited the example of Starbucks in the U.K., which experienced a huge crisis in 2012 provoked by a “brilliant” fiscal structure planned by its accountants that reduced considerably the taxes the company had to pay.

Not only were its senior executives called to testify before the British Parliament to explain their failure to pay their “fair share of taxes,” but Starbucks was subject to a visible consumer boycott as a result.

I couldn’t agree more with Holmes when he says that PR should be a C-suite function. If not, who is responsible for managing stakeholder relationships (and reputation)?

Here are other takeaways from his remarks, which are worth sharing with a broader marketing audience:

1. While PR is growing in importance and considered a more essential function within businesses today, PR professionals must get more business-savvy.
2. It is imperative for CEOs to be in-tune, knowledgeable and have an understanding of public relations and of the impact of decisions on stakeholders and reputation.
3. Social media didn’t change anything for “good” public relations professionals, since we were already working under principles such as authenticity, transparency and openness. The difference now is that bad decisions are known quicker and can have a greater impact on the business. For organizations, social media has changed the price of not doing the things right.
4. Public relations is the management of the relationship of an organization with all its publics. For Holmes, public relations acts, whereas communications tells.
5. PR functions should be integrated to eliminate fragmentation of stakeholder relationships (ex. internal communications, which sometimes reports to HR, should fall under the communications function)
6. As public relations professionals, we must be courageous: we must be able to say what we think (say “don’t do that to a CEO”); empathy: listen carefully to the public. We also need to be convincing to show our impact.
7. When public relations is done properly, it improves the world in which we live in because it aligns society’s interests with the interest of the businesses.

Unfortunately, Holmes may have been preaching to the converted, as the room for the session, organized by the Luc Beauregard Center of Excellence in Montreal, was full of PR professionals. It would have been great if more CEOs, lawyers and accountants were getting this message.

Marie-Josée Gagnon is the founder and president of CASACOM, an independent Canadian public relations consulting firm with offices in Montreal and Toronto. She can be reached at mjgagnon@casacom.ca.