Do Canadian PR Practitioners Have a Better Practice Environment?

Natalie Bovair 2014If you’ve ever been curious about how the Canadian PR practice arena compares to that of the US, the results of the 2014 GAP study has the answer and you might be surprised. Canada’s senior practitioners are firmly entrenched in the dominant coalition and most are giving leadership to corporate strategic planning. The strategic value of PR is also a given here but there are also a few pinch points that suggest where improvements might be made.

Canada’s public relations community was delivered a somewhat glowing GAP VIII (Canada) baseline report late last month and is taking the news in true Canadian style, by being bashful. You won’t find anyone grand standing here, even though the results warrant a celebration of the progress that public relations professionals are making.

For one thing, Canada’s senior PR professionals have enviable positions in the dominant coalition. A remarkable 80 percent have decision-making power and control over the organizational communications function. Another 70 percent actively participate in corporate strategic planning, compared to just 38 percent in the US.

There’s also the fact that PR pros in Canada are most-likely to have a direct report relationship to the president/CEO (36 percent) and less likely than their American counterparts to report to the marketing department (10 percent in Canada vs. 26 percent for USA).

Researchers at USC Annenberg, who have run the GAP study in the US biennially since 2002, are emphasizing the value of direct access to the C-suite in their GAP VIII results report, noting that PR managers are more likely to be “taken seriously” and to “have a role in organizational strategic planning” when they report to the president/CEO, by direct or dotted line.

As for the perceived value of PR in Canada, a solid majority (75 percent) report that management teams place a high strategic value on the function, however, just half (52 percent) say that the link between public relations action and organizational financial success is accepted.

Since elsewhere in the GAP VIII (Canada) study it becomes clear that a significant number of PR professionals (17 percent) are not evaluating their organizations’ communications activities, it isn’t surprising to me that there are some question marks about the bottom-line value of PR.

In her recent presentation of these results, the lead author of the Canadian study arm points out that PR measurement tends to be quantitative in nature. “We can count things,” says Dr. Amy Thurlow, Associate Professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, “but what does that tell you about where you’re going strategically?”

As a senior practitioner myself I understand the time- and financial-restraints on practice and how these limit program measurement opportunities but I have found it possible to measure a number of major communications campaigns in meaningful ways (my recent PR Conversations post mentions several useful measurement guides).

More widespread and improved program evaluation is something that I believe we can drive as a professional group, if we put our minds and resources toward it.

Let’s also consider that the profession continues to be dominated by women (72 percent female to 29 percent male) and that women in PR earn 25 percent less on average than men ($95,500 vs. $127,000), according to the study. That the gender wage gap in Ontario is 31 percent offers some small comfort here but I suggest we not dwell on it, since knowing these facts will help the PR community and marketplace to correct itself. Besides, I’d rather be celebrating the fact that Canada’s senior communications professionals are drawing management level pay, which speaks to the strategic value of PR to employers.

For further details about generally accepted practices in public relations in Canada, including PR budgets, resource allocation, agency relationships, use of social media, reporting relationships and areas of responsibility, check out the GAP VIII (Canada) report. There’s lots to like!

Natalie Bovair, APR, is the principal consultant at Savoir Faire Public Relations.

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5 Comments

  1. Yes and, in this particular case, the “full support” of the C-suite is indicated.

    In Canada, 79% of senior practitioners participate in organizational strategic planning and another 75% say communications recommendations are taken seriously by the management team. For these and related data points in the GAP VIII (Canada) report, I believe suggesting that most Canadian public relations professional enjoy the “full support” of the senior management team is appropriate.

    It will be most interesting to see whether this baseline data holds up over time.

  2. It might be reading between the lines at this point, Natalie, since nothing is as yet conclusive. Regarding your first point, I believe you have jumped to a conclusion that I myself am not yet in full agreement. There seems to be an indication that CCOs in PR/C departments in smaller organizations and/or in organizations with more limited scope and/or in organizations that are in the non-profit sectors are more likely to be members of the highest level executive committee in the organization. Whether they have the “full appreciation” of senior management is a further extrapolation that can’t be walked back at this point. Regarding your second point, my answer is yes, regardless of direct reporting structure to the CEO. Regarding #3, the answer again is yes. It may not “rounds out” fully, since it probably adds other questions that need research. .

  3. I find your perspective and conclusions fascinating, Fraser. Let’s see if I follow:

    1) The smaller the organization and/or the narrower the scope of practice, the more likely PR professionals are to earn the full appreciation of the senior management team.

    2) It is possible for PR practitioners to build an effective power structure for public relations with the C-suite executives and their second tier seats.

    3) Additional research is coming to round out our understanding of the above.

  4. Let me add some further thoughts, Natalie. You raise important issues.

    Questions about PR/C department structure and organization, CCO reporting, PR/Communication department performance management and measurement and thus the demonstration of PR/C ‘value’ within the ‘dominant coalition’ are questions I deal with in my consulting practice and in the research I’ve done or followed.

    Overall, it does not appear that the percentage of Chief Communication Officers who report to CEOs (or the chair or top executive in the organization) has changed much in the last decade. Whether it’s the GAP studies, the European Communication Monitor studies, or other studies such as the CCI Corporate Communications Practices and Trends Study, the PR Week/Hill & Knowlton Corporate Survey or the Spencer Stuart/Weber Shandwick The Rising CCO Survey, research studies do not show much change from the typical 45-60% of CCOs reporting to CEOs. Simply, it appears that this ratio of CCOs who report to the top person compared to those who report to a tier two or three executive has remained relatively steady – and isn’t about to change drastically.

    Of course, these percentages represent an amalgam of all CCOs in a given sample. There is never a separate breakdown for CCOs who work for public for-profit organizations, private for-profit, non-profit, associations or governments (primarily because of the small sample sizes). Though a new study, when released, will show differences between for-profit and non-profit based CCOs. I was part of a research team – that included Danny Moss, Krishnamurthy Sriramesh, Maria Aparecida Ferrari, Peter Stokes and Bert Regeer – which recently completed a major study of the structure and organization of the PR/Communication function for the IABC Research Foundation. CCOs working in both the for- and non-profit sectors – from around the world – made up the sample.

    This brings us to the difference in the US and Canadian samples for the GAP VIII studies. In the US GAP VIII sample from USC Annenberg, for-profit sector organizations (public and private) make up 52% of the sample, while in the Canadian sample, they make up only 28%. In their stead, the Canadian sample had a higher percentage of government, non-profit and association respondents. The Canadian sample had a higher percentage of CCOs who report to the highest or tier 1 executive. As you report, these Canadian CCOs seem to have greater influence within the dominant coalition of senior executives than their American peers (“… 80 percent have decision-making power and control over the organizational communications function … 70 percent actively participate in corporate strategic planning …”).

    Is the difference because of the abundant, clear drinking water in Canada or is it related to the differences in the samples? Would there still be a difference if US and Canadian CCOs who worked solely in non-profit organizations were compared? For government organizations? And, importantly, for for-profit organizations, where one assumes that the US is more the headquarters for for-profit organizations of greater scale and scope than is Canada? Even more importantly, if organizations of similar size in Canada and the US, in each sector, were compared, would there be any difference? The forthcoming IABC report of PR/Communication department structure will shed light on some of these questions. My own view is that, no, there would be little difference if apples were compared to apples. Both size of the organization and size of the PR/C department are important variables here – and Canada as well as the Canadian sample have more smaller scaled and scoped organizations.

    But beyond simply the question of CCO reporting, some of these studies, including the IABC study, show that there is somewhat of a disconnect between reporting to the CEO and full membership on the highest executive committee. That is, more CCOs report membership on the highest level executive committee than report direct reporting to the CEO (or equivalent). Obviously, some CCOs do not need the ‘power’ of the CEO’s office to gain full membership and participation in the dominant coalition decision-making bodies. Many of these studies, plus anecdotal information in the trade and association press, suggest that the PR/C function is “taken seriously” and “valued” more today than a decade ago.

    My own conclusion is that many CCOs are taking control of their ability to have power and influence at the senior executive level – regardless of their reporting line. Organizational design experts are recognizing that we are entering into a new dynamic for CCOs. It’s what I call the ‘reporting to everyone and no one’ eventuality. Today, CCOs who have built influence in their organizations don’t appear to need the power that comes from a direct report to the CEO’s Office. They have fashioned their own ‘power structure’ with strong partner relationships with all second tier C-suite executives – combined with a confirmed and independent seat on the most important executive committee.

  5. Last evening, in response to this post, I received a thought provoking email from a well-placed researcher in the field of public relations. In his message, Fraser Likely rightly pointed out that the demographic and geographic scope of the GAP VIII Canada and US respondent groups varied quite substantially, making direct comparisons somewhat troublesome (be it ever thus in the research realm).

    Fraser further suggested that the environment for PR practice in Canada isn’t necessarily better than it is in the US and I think that’s a pretty interesting topic to discuss here since, to my eye, PR professionals in Canada appear to enjoy a higher overall degree of management support and appreciation for what they do relative to their US peers (this is a broad generalization of course but I think the facts bear this out).

    The reasons why this may be true elude me, hence the need to engage this learned community. Why the variance in practice situations?

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