While public relations and marketing executives aspire to have a seat among the C-Suite, the most senior executives in a company, evidence from a new study published in the Journal of Communication Management, suggests that is an example of “tunnel vision.”
The study titled “Beyond the C-Suite: Corporate Communications’ Power & Influence” involved 30 in-depth interviews with senior executives working in four U.S. companies. Two of the companies were privately owned, and the other two were publicly traded.
As an indication of their standing, three of the four companies have appeared among Fortune’s list of the top 50, 150 or 500 companies, and the fourth was a multinational company featured among Inc 5,000’s list of the fastest-growing private companies. The sample included executives outside of corporate communications such as marketing, sales, human resources, investor relations, finance, and operations as well as division presidents.
To provide insight into corporate communications’ power and influence, the executives discussed eight strategic issues that can be classified as four categories: those when corporate communications had an influential role, when marketing had an influential role, when both functions collaborated, and when neither function was an influential member of key decision teams. Examples of some of the strategic issues discussed included crises, a merger/acquisition, employee wellness program and new business partnership.
What the discussion revealed is that domain expertise, the type of industry, hierarchy, CEO preference and organizational culture are key factors regarding which functions have a seat at the decision table. Corporate communication was most likely to be included in decision-making when issues were perceived as falling within their domain, when the function had support from the CEO, when working in industries with frequent crises or those focusing on reputation management, and in companies that utilized integrated decision teams. However when discussing one of the strategic issues, corporate communications executives revealed they were not initially invited to the table to assist with an employee wellness campaign, which was perceived as an HR issue.
The Lesson from this example: A public affairs executive said, “It requires an effort on the part of the manager of public affairs to really build the internal relationships […] so that people always think to call them (pg. 129).”
The discussion of strategic issues also revealed that critical issues do arise at the division level as well as executive-level committees, which provide significant opportunities for enhancing corporate communications’ power and influence. For these reasons, both marketing and corporate communications professionals should expand their perception of organizational power to include membership among multiple executive-level committees. However, organizational culture and structure can limit their ability to do so.
At two of the companies included in this study, employees described the use of integrated decision teams that increased the odds for both corporate communications and marketing to serve on formal executive-level committees. The size of these committees typically ranged from 15 up to 30 active members. Both companies demonstrated characteristics associated with Theory Y management, which means expertise and competence are considered predictors of decision involvement rather than formal authority, such as titles.
In contrast in one of the other companies, committees were formed based on hierarchy, which is more consistent with Theory X management. In this second scenario, public relations and marketing professionals may have to resort to informal means to influence senior executives such as a casual stop by a colleague’s office or a morning visit at the coffee shop (See Berger & Reber, 2006; Neill, 2014).
Marlene Neill, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media at Baylor University. Follow her on Twitter @neillpr.
Berger, B.K. and Reber, B.H. (2006), Gaining Influence in Public Relations: The Role of Resistance in Practice, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ.
Bowen, S.A. (2009), “What communication professionals tell us regarding dominant coalition access and gaining membership”, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Vol. 37 No. 4, pp. 418-443.
Neill, M.S. (2014). Building Buy-In: The Need for Internal Relationship Building and Informal Coalitions in Public Relations” Public Relations Review, 40 (3), 598–605. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2014.02.017