Strategic Public Relations Leadership

Professor Emeritus Anne Gregory PhD, is a former Chair of the Global Alliance (GA) for Public Relations and Communication Management and a past President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), which she led to chartered status. A Board level appointee in public relations consultancy, for hospitals and Universities, she also runs her own consultancy, Practix Limited.

Professor Gregory is a member of the CIPR’s Board and #AI in PR Panel, leading work on the impact of AI on the profession.  She teaches and advises on public relations leadership, planning, ethics, evaluation and capability, including for the UK Government, the World Health Organisation in Australasia, Scandinavia, Asia, Africa and Europe.

Anne isn’t just an ivory tower academic: she works alongside practitioners constantly and is passionate about raising professional standards. She spends much of her time working with practitioners in leadership and aspiring leadership roles and has just co-authored the second edition of Strategic Public Relations Leadership.

Professor Gregory, holds the CIPR’s Sir Stephen Tallents Medal, the US Institute for Public Relations Distinguished Pathfinder Award for research, the Premio Internacional Award, from the Portuguese Business Communication Association, the Atlas Award for her international work from the Public Relations Society of America and the Canadian Public Relations Society Outstanding Achievement Award for her work on the Global Capabilities Framework.

At last they’ve got it! In this complex world, CEOs are turning to their public relations leaders more than ever. They know they need someone to protect their organisation and to challenge when there are risks and issues down the track. That someone is their public relations leader who hold up a mirror so that organisations see themselves as others see them. Someone who isn’t afraid to be truthful about what needs to be fixed and how to do it. These leaders are informed and bold, they ‘do’ communication superbly, they are networked and influential, but most of all they keep their organisations safe. Find out how in this podcast.

Key Topics:

“It’s a toughy that one. But interestingly in the book, we’ve got some research from an organisation called VMA and their international recruitment and executive search company. They’re specialising in comms and, you know, big names like Nestle Diagio, uh, Marie Curie, etc, have used them recently to get really senior communicators. And they’ve been talking to CEOs about why they think having a comms leader is really important and they’ve pulled out three main things. And I absolutely agree with this. First of all, they need somebody a really senior level who’s a sort of a guardian and protector, both of them as individuals, as CEOs, but also for their organisations. And they do the guardian bit by building trust proactively. So, um, being transparent and genuine in communications inside the company as well. So being really honest with people, as well as in their communication so that they can talk about the company as it really is not how it should be, how it maybe ought to be, or wants to be, but how it really is so that the reality actually reflects the conversations that are being had about it.

And to do that the public relations leader needs to be really embedded in the company, know it for all it is, uh, and hold other people to account as well. So if your purpose is X, everybody has to live X otherwise is not really the purpose of the organisation. So they’re in there rooting about making sure that within the organisation, there’s real belief about that and challenging people, including senior people when their behaviour and actions and decisions don’t match up to that. So they’re guardian so that sort of marauding inside holding people to account being a guardian of what’s important to the company. And they also protect it when there’s a crisis or whether you see issues coming down the road, helping to avert them, or if crises happen dealing with those brilliantly. And the second thing they mentioned is them being translators and storytellers.

So, you know, boards make complex decisions and sometimes they’re difficult to understand. So translating and making intelligent those decisions is, uh, is an important role for them. And then constructing a compellative narrative that’s accessible, but also true, you know, authentic to the organisation. That’s a highly skilled job. And the third thing they mention is, um, these leaders being trusted advisors. So they’re not afraid to raise problematic issues. They’re fearless, they’re bold people, they challenge decisions. Um, and particularly if they’re just based on, you know, commercial benefit for the organisation, cause they say, what is the story that this decision is telling about our company? Because that is a real story. The decisions that senior people make and the behaviours they have is the real story about the organisation. Um, and one of these comms, I spoke to a big comms director, uh, doing some work on, you know, why have you got some traction at most senior levels?

And one of his answers to me was that, well, unless I have an argument with the boss before nine o’clock every morning, I’m not doing my job properly. And he’s there on his case all the time, keeping the organisation safe. Um, for me, that’s the answer, you know, organisations need public relation leaders who help them be sustainable. And I don’t mean green sustainable. Well, I do mean that, but not just that. I mean, making sure that they’re good, making sure that they’re full of integrity, that they’re behaving properly, that they’re making decisions that actually contribute to society. And you know, that people are gonna be happy with, but are strong. I mean, and they know what their own identity is and they’ll stand up for that and protect it. But, you know, that’s why you need a public relations leader.”


“So I think that we have a particular lens through which we see the world and we’ve got a particular role. You’re bang on right on that. And it’s not a lens or a role that other people have at the most senior level, or it’s not specifically their remit. So I think that we’re, you know, boundary spanners we’re in our companies, in our organisations, our private sector, public sector, whatever, but we’re also outside. Uh, we straddle both. So we’re able to see what’s going on from the outside, bring that in, see our company, our organisation, as others, see it and bring that intelligence into the organisation is a really structured way. And you know, we’ve got all sorts of tools now to help us with that, you bring that into the company and you say, this is what’s going on out there. And you need, you know, board members to understand this because you have to make decisions that are somehow going to be interpreted by people out there, and they will take this interpretation from it.

So that being connected out, outside Asif and bring in what’s going on on the outside in and saying what that means internally is a role specifically, I think for us. And it’s a perspective that we have another thing is that I think we take a helicopter view of organisations. And by that, I mean, you know, if you talk to a finance director, they always see your organisation, public or private sector, not for profit sort like bundles of resources, if finances are the estate, uh, estate or whatever. And our job is to sort of stand above that like functional perspective and say within the context of everything that’s going on around us, within the context of all the decisions that what we have to make, you know, this is a perspective rather than saying, these are the HR dimensions of it. These are the financial dimensions of it, these are the legal dimensions of it.

Putting all those things together, what does this mean? And I think that helicopter view is really important for us. And so, you know, we understand that at the end of the day, organisations exist because they’re given permission by other people to exist. They support them, society supports them. So I call this, um, in the book, Paul and I call this contextual intelligence. You know, we are deep knowledge of trends, issues, stakeholders, the zeitgeist, you know, what’s going on in the world, which we bring in. And then we add to that communicative intelligence, how decisions, behaviours are gonna land on the outside and how to land things with people. That’s what our communication dimension of the job. And nobody has that twin perspective. I don’t think senior levels apart from us.”

“Being good at comms, which you need to be, you know, and don’t, I’m not ignoring that. And cause it’s almost like a calling card, you for the first run of the ladder you know, if you’re not really good at your job, you’re not gonna be listened to, but being good at comms alone is not enough. Um, you know, often here, I’m sure you do as well Asif. Why don’t they understand me? You know, I’ve got so much to offer and why don’t they understand what comms has got to contribute? That’s the wrong way around, you know, if you’re gonna be a leader say what’s their agenda and how do I attach to them? You know, how do I make myself in-disposable to them it’s and really make them understand how I can contribute. So it’s not about comms and the comms agenda.

It’s about what the organisational agenda is. Um, so you have to understand it. It’s priorities, it’s problems, it’s opportunities and ally comms to that agenda and show crucially show how comms makes a difference. You know, so you don’t do comms for comms sake. It’s how it makes a difference. And um, I think something else aligned with that is understanding how to articulate what our contribution is. And there’s something there about not framing things that those senior levels, not framing things in terms of communication language, you know, I’ll do a, do a social media campaign with the local community, but it’s about I’ll deliver active community support for you so you can get your new factory built. So that’s an impact whether the other is doing the campaigns is, is very tactical and sort of that’s what senior manager’s going to be interested in. What difference can comms make to you?

So that brings me onto a, third thing around, you know, it’s understanding how to articulate our contribution is not just about comms, but the other thing is about learning how to influence. And that’s about the conversations that you have internally every day. Because if you think about it, your daily conversations are how other people define you. That is your narrative. That’s your story. And if you’re talking about tactics all the time and you’re framing, you know, your arguments in terms of doing stuff rather than impacts, then that’s how you’ll be regarded as the tactician. You know, and I think learning how to be influential is a key thing that aspiring leaders need to, to focus on. Cause we know that comms works. All we have to do is to make sure then that we attach things, comms to things that are really important and show how it works and demonstrate the, the difference that we can make.”

“Well, I think things are changing. Don’t you? I mean, you’ve got a senior position, you know, more and more people with a comms background are getting onto boards and the thing there’s been a sea change, you were talking about the change over the last two or three years Asif. Yeah. And it’s almost as if senior leaders it’s, the scales have fallen off their eyes. They’ve realised that actually everything is about comms. Yeah. When they were sitting in their home office, you know, and they weren’t able to go around in their smart Jags and float around the offices and feel important. They were, they realised actually the guts of running an organisation is communication. So, you know, I think we can be really optimistic about that. But there are some challenges for us some of the things that I was talking about earlier, I think prevent PR people from getting on the board, you know, so we don’t understand the business.

We don’t know how to read balance sheets. We can’t contribute to other discussions around strategy and finance. We don’t use the right language. Interestingly, just to talk about myself for a minute, you know, I’ve, I, as you said, I’ve sat on a number of boards and I never talked about communication on those boards, but I was valued for bringing in that outside perspective for challenging things, you know, cause the sort of group thinking boards and they, you know, they all get together and they think, well, what are we driven by? And it’s the bottom line and all that. So challenging the decisions that we’ve been made as, hang on a minute, how, what are people gonna think about this decision? You know, it’s not explainable that you get in challenging times, Mr. Chief Executive, a 51% pay increase. What’s the story that, that tells, you know?

Yeah. So those are the sort of challenges that you bring and bringing that sort of reminding them of the unintended consequences of decisions that look perfectly okay. In a boardroom you think. Yeah. But what’s the outside world gonna think about that. So, you know, I think that those are the sorts of things that you’re asked to do when you’re on a board. Um, there was a comms director who was perfectly good at doing the comms stuff. Of course I was a fantastic ally of that person, but it wasn’t my job just to think about comms. It was my job to keep those businesses safe and supported. And it was a much broader role than just comms. And there’s a good argument as well that, um, you know, um, comms and PR people shouldn’t be on the board because if you’re not careful, you get into that mind thinkWhat’s really important. And don’t take that broader perspective. But as long as you’ve got influence at the board table, even if you’re not there, because you’ve had those discussions with the right people, you’ve thought through what the decisions might be, you’ve cornered people. And you’ve said, do you understand that if you do this, this is what’s likely to happen, you know, that’s, what’s having influence is, is what’s important. Not necessarily being on the board itself. Cause lots of other people want to be on the board. You know, there’s a big argument these days that the digital person should be on the board. Most of them aren’t, you know?”

“Well, it really taps into what you’ve just been saying Asif and I couldn’t agree more really. So I think public relations has often been seen just as supporting organisations. So, you know, help it achieve its objectives, projecting the brand, you know, keeping it safe in crisis, reaching out to stakeholders, doing customer relations, et cetera, et cetera. But we claim that communication is organisation, which sounds a bit sort of philosophical. But when you think about it, organisations can’t exist without communication. So if you think about, you know, somebody who might be thinking about setting up a business or a government as a policy, um, that it wants to develop the first thing, somebody has an idea and they have to talk to people about it for that idea to even become any sort of reality then. So you’ve gotta communicate about it in the first place for it to happen, a strategy for that policy or that new company or that product has to be discussed and agreed and disseminated.

And there’s always a to and throw about that. What’s about, it’s done through conversations, through communication, setting a vision and purpose. You know, it’s all done through conversations. People don’t sit in ivory towers with the tower around the head, you know, and it all just happens. Organisations achieve their objective through people, come on board. And they only come on board when there’s been conversations and communication. So if you think about it, any sort of organisation, you can take the buildings away. Cause that’s where we’ve been. You know, all the buildings are gone, you can take the money away. Voluntary organisations often don’t have any money, but you can’t take communication away. And an organisation exists. It absolutely is at the heart of what an organisation is. If you and I don’t talk, we may as well not exist. You know, uh, if, if I can’t talk with fellow employees, I don’t there isn’t an organisation. Yeah. So it’s the DNA of the place. And so that’s what we talk about, why comms is so important. Our problem is that everybody does it. Everybody talks, everybody communicates, you know, cause we’re human beings and that’s why they think they’re experts. So that’s both a blessing and a curse for us, you know?”

“Well, it can only get more important, can’t it? Um, just what we’ve been talking about. Yeah. You know, CEOs have learned, uh, the hard way that comms is really, really important. We’ve seen your employee communications and internal communication blind. It it’s absolutely exploded. Hasn’t it? And importance has really ratcheted up, you know, the idea of employees as advocates, as influencers, they’re more credible than CEOs speaking for their organisation. Yeah. It’s really, really been elevated. As you say, you know, I’m thinking about organisations like Tarter Steel, who’s internal blog now is public because they want to say the same inside as they do outside. You know, cause often that’s a challenge, isn’t it? People inside say, well, that’s not the organisation I recognise when they hear the external comms well, have it the same. So this has really become front and central and we’ve seen, you know, externally you look at the, you know, the tragedy of Ukraine and you see that that’s a battle for comms as well as for ground, you know?

What we’ve seen the leadership debates now, you know, um, politically how important get in control of the narrative is, and, you know, there’s a real sense that this is a moment for comms to come into it. I see huge potential for us really grasping that trusted advisor role, you know, an enhanced role in our organisation. You see the pay rates for, um, I mentioned this recruitment company, they’re absolute Skyrocketing. There’s no lack of opportunity for us at all. You see these agendas that you’ve mentioned about, you know, organisations of purpose and purpose and ESG really important. And an investor’s saying, I’m not going to invest in you anymore, unless you’re serious about the environment and, you know, developing internally real processes so that the environment is not just greenwashing it’s genuine. Yeah. Um, and, and these are all roles for comms people that I see absolutely going up the agenda and comms people being rewarded for not to mention the whole digital transformation piece.

Cause I’m a boring person Asif a couple of days ago, I was reading a report from Accenture and about the AI revolution and how, you know, we’ve had the general digital revolution, but the AI revolution is going to happen in a really concentrated period of time, as opposed to digital more generally. And this is bringing real challenges to organisations, not only about flipping their business models, but things like, you know, how do they ask those ethical questions about the fact that they will have a lot of power they’ll know, everything that they need to know about a consumer and they can manipulate them, you know, there’s issues about privacy and bias and algorithms doing things that they’re not meant to do transparency. And you know, the big question that keeps being asked is ethically is just because we can do all these things. Cause they’ve got lots of resources.

They should, we who’s asking those questions. Who’s, who’s stepping up to the governance piece, that’s our job. And what about our own transformation as we go into, you know, the metaverse and every sense of that a human being, uh, has, can be engaged by us as professional communicators. Yeah. You know, um, and the power that, that gives us. So I see the role of comms moving away from doing…to governance, both within organisations and ourselves, you know, cause all the bots are gonna do everything that we normally do. Um, well, not everything, but uh, you know, they’re going to do a lot, but who’s gonna set the parameters for that. And I, so I see a huge role for us and I think it’s really, really exciting. I wish I was a young person going into our profession now because you know, the world’s gonna be our oyster.”

“Yes, I am. As I say, I think it’s a brave new world and comms is right at the heart of it. So that’s got to be a source of optimism. Um, and I don’t think, as I just said, the issues not opportunity for us, the challenge for us, I think is our capability to fulfill the potential that’s there. So that means, you know, we need to take our own development seriously. We need to get into these conversations that not just about comms and stay in our little comms bubble, we need to, you know, not be seduced by the bright, shiny things that are constantly coming our way in comms. Yeah. But we need to step up to that leadership plate because it’s there for the taking for us. Um, and, and I’m really optimistic, you know, that we’re at one of those transition moments. It only comes once in the generation where comms can really that do a boundary a huge leap over the boundaries that we’ve had to date. and that’s where we should be. And that’s where we can be. So let’s make sure we are ready to do it and get on with it.”

“Three things, uh, I think CommsHero is massively up lifting. You celebrate all, that’s great about comms and, and what’s not to like about being in a community that, you know, drives us forward with hope and optimism. And you’ve been at the heart of that Asif. So you join and celebrate with CommsHero because it’s an uplifting, energising experience. Second thing is, you know, it’s really informative. You do, you do stuff. Um, you bring things to the forefront, you know, you’re doing these podcasts, you’re doing all sorts of things that demonstrate public relations at its best. So, you know, get stuck in because you’ll learn a lot. And then the third thing for me, it’s about connecting. You know, you’ve created a community where people connect and it’s not stuffy. You know, it’s ordinary Joe and Joe-eses like me, you know, being able to connect with other people and it’s embracing its inclusive, uh, and it feels like family. And so those three things to me, uplifting, it’s informative, it’s connecting this. Are there any better reasons for joining any community?