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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Just Who Owns The Message Anyway?

The leader of the ‘Pragmatism Movement,’ American psychologist, William James once eloquently stated, “The instinct of ownership is fundamental in man’s nature.”

So basically it’s in our DNA to want to own things. We instinctively look for opportunities to claim something and as we are well aware, our instincts can be inextricably tied to a need to survive.

With that said, right now in organizations across America, “Kramer vs. Kramer-esque” battles are waging over ownership of that all powerful function known as corporate communications, thus giving credence to Mr. James’ observation. And though it is not apparent to the outside observer, there are probably all kinds of behind the scenes departmental fights over not only what the message will be, but more importantly, who gets to disseminate that message internally and/or externally.

He that controls the message survives the day.

Given my background and profession I’m of the camp that says the communications department should control all messages/communications going outside of an organization and a large percentage of those that stay within. To put it in Web 2.0 terminology, I’m part of #TeamCommMessageControl. But there are others in-house that would lay claim to an organization’s communications, most notably: human resources, marketing, customer service and legal.

But which department is the right one to own and hone an organization’s message(s)? I say leave it to the wordsmiths.

Sometimes it’s a false assertion that in-house communicators can’t communicate…dare I say it…in-house. We unfortunately get shoved into this identity of only being the people who talk to the media, like our most tangible talent is the ability to speak “media-ese” (which we actually do by the way, except we call it pitching and writing in AP Style). But contrary to popular belief, our communication well runs a little deeper than that and our skill sets are a lot more diverse.

When I was just beginning in public relations, I was fortunate to have worked in several public relations offices that actually had a very firm hand on all external and internal communications (including but not limited to employee relations). It seemed such a natural fit to me that I thought it belonged there. I personally had been responsible for updating the internal intranet site; wrote for and edited the employee newsletter/magazine; positioned employees to earn awards and then promoted their recognitions; and I oversaw employee town hall meetings with executives.

Once when I found myself back in the job market, it came as a complete surprise to learn that the human resources department at other places covered some of these functions. I did not see how non-public relations people could craft the messages while keeping in line with organizational objectives and maintaining a consistent voice and style. The problem is, in many cases, they can not and the differences can be seen in how the messages are crafted, disseminated and received.

A good PR pro has a great grasp of language, words and audiences. So in addition to being excellent overall communicators, we are very competent writers at our core (for the record, I’m a PR purist, which means I think it’s a shame whenever someone claims to be proficient at public relations but their writing leaves a lot to be desired). A PR pro that can’t write is like a model who looks good in photographs but can’t master the catwalk; we’re talking about the basics (but that’s another topic for another blog post).

Back to the topic at hand, who should own the message creation within an organization? I strongly believe that the Office of Public Relations and/or Communications should serve as a messaging clearing house of sorts. And as the gatekeepers of organization communications in-house PR pros would assure quality control and consistency in message. Those other departments I mentioned (human resources, marketing, customer service and legal) simply cannot do what we do.

But that’s just my two cents. I’d be glad to hear yours.

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