By Elizabeth Driver
Knowledge plays a vital role in the public relations profession. Practitioners are expected to continuously develop and expand their understanding of the ever-changing PR industry. For some, this may include checking daily trade news, attending professional conferences and seminars, and engaging in online forums or discussion boards. But for corporate communication professionals, staying on top of trends encompasses much more.
According to Inc.com, corporate PR is messy because its purpose is to “persuade influencers that your business, its services or products are worth their time to consider.” The communication function can require in-depth knowledge of a business’s competition, industry, customers and the “context in which its service is utilized.”
Staying up-to-date on industry trends
Corporate communication specialists are responsible for understanding trends within the PR community, but more importantly, their company’s specific industry.
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Corporate professionals have to be aware of industry trends to anticipate potential issues that could arise for their organization in the future. In his book “Public Relations: Principles and Practice,” author Philip J. Kitchen stated that “public relations serves as an intelligence function, analyzing and interpreting trends and issues in the environment that may have potential consequences for an organization and its stakeholders.”
Anna Catherine Roberson, a communications specialist and public information representative for Alabama Power Company’s Western Division, said she tracks trends and issues affecting the utility industry to stay proactive. In order to keep ahead, Roberson searches through the news every day for updates on the power and energy industries.
“It’s likely that whatever issues or trends are happening with other companies in the utility industry might affect our company as well,“ Roberson said. “It’s important to not only know your company and business, but to know the industry as a whole.”
Experts in all things internal
In order to effectively and accurately communicate on behalf of a company, corporate PR practitioners have to understand how an organization operates from the inside. This knowledge includes recognizing the specific functions of each internal department from production and delivery to accounting and customer service.
Ron Culp is the former senior vice president of public relations and government affairs for Sears, executive director of public relations for Sara Lee Corporation, director of public relations for Pitney Bowes, and manager of corporate communications for Eli Lilly. According to Culp, by studying the company’s business model, PR professionals gain insights that enable them to be more strategic in their approach to the job.
“The most successful corporate PR pros somehow find time to dig deeper into every aspect of their company, as well as the industry in which it competes,” Culp said. “You soon become viewed as someone who is more than simply a tactician.”
Culp suggests reading up on the company in newspaper articles, analyst reports on the organization and its competitors, and employee reviews on Glassdoor.
Relying on others
According to PRSA, in order to get a comprehensive glance into the different aspects of a business, corporate communicators should continuously build and maintain relationships with colleagues in different departments within their company. Interdepartmental relationships can be useful to gain expertise in the inter-workings of each business function.
“In corporate communications, you have to rely on a lot of different people and departments in order to learn the business. It is essential to develop relationships with everybody,” Roberson said. “You never know when you’re going to rely on them to get the information you need for whatever issue you are handling that day.”
Roberson finds herself working with Alabama Power’s customer service, transmission, power delivery, marketing, corporate real estate and other departments on a daily basis to learn more about the happenings within the company and industry. She said that responding to trends and issues on behalf of the company is a team effort with customers as their main focus.
“It’s great to know that, once you have those relationships, people are willing to help,” Roberson said. “They know that I have a deadline when dealing with the media and are willing to help me with whatever I need to communicate a message correctly and effectively.”
Expertise is one of the professional values included in the PRSA code of ethics. It states: “We advance the profession through continued professional development, research, and education.” Practitioners’ industry knowledge benefits not only their job and organization, but also the public relations profession as a whole.
Elizabeth Driver is a senior public relations major and theatre minor. She also serves as VP of Community Service and High School Outreach for UA PRSSA. This article also appears in Platform Magazine, the outstanding online publication produced by PR students at UA.