Report: PR Pros often Disagree with Decisions of the Companies They Work for


Public relations professionals often disagree with the decisions taken by the top management of the companies they work for, even if they find it quite difficult and it sometimes costs them their jobs, a new study by researchers at Baylor University and the University of Texas at Austin has shown. The researchers based their findings on 30 in-depth interviews with senior PR professionals who had all held top positions at corporations, nonprofits or government entities.

Although pressured to support the organization they worked for, many PR pros considered themselves an “independent voice” within their employer’s establishment, not “mired by its perspectives or politics,” explained Study author Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., of Baylor University.

While PR pros prefer to be the voice of dissension over a “Yes man” attitude, many of the respondents had to face “kill the messenger” reactions which made it difficult for them to share criticism with their bosses and to persuade top management to agree with a conflicting perspective. In more serious cases, PR pros admitted to having been demoted or fired for refusing to go along with a company decision they considered unethical. Two of the participants stated they had resigned when their advice was rejected, one of the cases involving a requirement to include false information in a press release.

The study also revealed that senior executives saw their PR departments as mere marketing tools, thus limiting the public relations professionals’ ability to offer meaningful advise and help solve problems or diffuse crises.

The good news is some participants said they were working for organizations who appreciated a PR team’s role of devil’s advocate, in some cases having the courage to disagree with a CEO or other top executive helping them build a good relationship within the company.

PR pros agree that in order to be truly useful, a PR team has to work closely with the company’s legal counsels and key decision makers to be able to properly control and avert negative situations.


  1. Alina Popescu says

    David, I think the worst part is not leaders being unable to make the difference, it’s the fact that PR pros (or so they wished) are equally unable to separate PR from marketing. Unfortunately, everyone who can throw a few parties and place some products with their celebrity friends can run a PR firm (hint to Kim Kardashian’s friend, the PR guru gone reality show star) and so on. Many times I had to go to meetings with potential clients and have to clean up messes made by other so-called PR pros and I am sure that happens with in-house PRs as well. It’s sad that PR has such a bad rep and is viewed as another marketing tool or a simple way to some free publicity. But that also says a lot about PRs and their ability to build the reputation of their own profession.

    Matt, I am not surprised either. I’ve seen it happen often enough and the moment you dare tell a CEO or some top exec they are wrong, you pretty much start playing with fire :)

    Bern, maybe you should really, really try and make time to write that book! We all know it’s needed! I agree, there is a lot to improve in the respect for PR department! But it is hard to earn that respect when quite a few of those practicing PR will treat it as a marketing tool, will forget their ethics and will do whatever it takes to sell their services. We all know where PR should be, but when push comes to shove, will every PR pro walk from a job (or agency from a client deal) just because they only want to use AVE as measurement for your efforts? Or because they complain about your PR efforts not generating enough leads and overlook everything else?

  2. says

    The problem arises in large measure because many organization leaders and others, including some communications professionals who should know better, do not differentiate between public relations and marketing and between reputation building and branding. As a result of this confusion and a penny-wide and pound-foolish desire to save a few bucks, most organizations have placed public relations under the organizational umbrella of marketing.

    Public relations is much more than publicity. At its core, it’s about building and protecting reputations and establishing relationships that will stand an organization in good stead over the long haul in order to create an environment that will be receptive to marketing initiatives. Marketing is about engaging audiences and generating immediate transactions.

    A reputation is built by behavior and reinforced by public relations. It is how people actually perceive an organization. It is earned over a long period of time, although a good reputation can quickly erode or even be destroyed if it is not protected.

    A brand, which is a product of marketing, is asserted. It’s how an organization perceives itself and wishes to be seen by others. It can be created and redefined at any time.

    The best and most enduring brands are built on solid reputations. An example: the “Harvard MBA” brand is built on the reputation of the Harvard Business School.

  3. says

    These findings do not surprise me. Too often, I encounter upper management that is dead set on advancing a certain strategy, one that has been shown as prone to failure. When such stubbornness is encountered you can bet that your days with that firm are limited. Otherwise, you may find yourself compromising your principles, never a good option for ethical PR folk.

  4. Bern Wakefield-Heath says

    As a corporate reputation specialist and advisor, as well as an academic university lecturer on the subject and all things PR, I can see where this is directly coming from and all the elements around it. It’s a shame I haven’t got much time at the moment to respond more full as could write you a book on the issues. What I will state, and it’s one of the bugbears I’ve been banging on about for all too many years, is that there is little real respect of senior management and organiazational directors generally for what PR and reputation means. This is to not just the bottom line yet also the wider well-being of the organization in the longer-term. Most see PR simply as getting a bit of ‘free publicity’. Few major corporates have a board member whom also has an understanding of corporate reputation, PR and the wider communication elements that are associated with it. That is all so evident when it comes to something going wrong. It’s often then too late to fully repair all the damage and turnaround the problems with communication alone, by then just using rhetoric to hope all will fade into being forgotten or can wipe the slate clean. As also a qualified to MA level in operations management and in being a chartered manager in addition to providing communication advice and direction to multi-billionaire organizations across the globe through to small, local level operators, I am able always able to see the bigger picture, which is needed at board level. That takes account not only the communication of the organization, yet its behavior, practices and all areas of operational performance. It’s these areas where most of the problems stem from. If only corporates would have the far-sighted common sense and understanding of it not being so much of what they say, yet of what they do that counts in building trust and therefore reputation. These key factors in corporate survival take a long time to craft, but can be broken overnight. I can certainly understand the sometimes great pressures on those working as communicators in an organizational environment in having to toe the party line. It must be such a pull on their conscience, often, in having to say one things when really they want to advise differently. Yet the true state of the world out there does no-one any favors and is all too real a problem. This is also evident by the appalling state of corporate reputations generally (as also shown by Edelman Trust Barometer reports), having been crafted by the arrogance of bad leadership in many organizations and its associated poor operational performance. Only when the arrogance of these leaders ceases, bad managers are rooted out and better leadership is found, and an adherence to better corporate practice is dominant. All must though be driven in part by a board member and senior managers knowing both what they’re doing and having a direct control on behavior, will the problem start to be addressed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *