What you’ve read in the textbook up to this point has been about how organizations think about and use the principles, strategies and tactics of public relations to accomplish specified objectives and generate positive relationships with opinion leaders and stakeholders. Many, if not most, of those organizations are for-profit corporations: organizations in business to produce a profit for their owners or, if the corporation is public, for the shareholders.
The central question of this chapter, if not of the entire text, is this: How does corporate communications differ from other kinds of public relations – nonprofit PR, marketing PR, crisis communication, investor relations, consumer relations, media relations, advocacy PR, lobbying, international/global PR and any other kind of public relations?
Understanding the difference between corporate communications and other kinds of public relations is no simple matter, but it’s even more difficult to understand for anyone without real-world corporate experience. And it’s really more than a matter of understanding what a famous manufacturing or service corporation – MicroSoft, Google, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, AIG, Bank of America, Exxon/Mobil – does for its PR activities. It’s critical to understand corporate communications at a deeper, more fundamental level— the level at which we understand what value a corporation like Google or Ford or General Mills offers for sale, of course, not only to consumers but to society itself – to stakeholders including government, to philanthropies (charities), to healthcare, education, to sports and entertainment, to media, and across the board of the economic, productive sectors of society.
What would this country – any country – be without the products and services generated by the corporations in the paragraph above? You couldn’t listen to your iPod, fill your gas tank or even have a car in the first place. Governments depend on the payment of taxes by corporations, but also largely from consumers like you and me who are taxed on the iPhones, Big Macs and Sox tickets we buy. Yes, some of the revenue isn’t in the form of direct taxes – some of it comes indirectly. But you and I would not enjoy the quality of life we do without corporations — yes, profit-seeking corporations – producing the X-boxes and Wii’s and putting winning Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots teams on the field to attract our patronage, our dollars.
Just as “It’s a Wonderful Life” demonstrates each Christmas that what’s bad isn’t banks or bankers – it’s liars and cheaters and thieves and heartlessness. The savings and loan association operated by the Jimmy Stewart character is the heart and soul of the community itself – the money the depositors trust the bank with is repaid to the community in terms of affordable mortgages and affordable loans that are the seedbed of new businesses which without money would remain only dreams.
But of course corporations are rarely adored. We may love the Whopper but hardly think about the corporation that cooks it up. Yes, we may think Apple and BMW and Zappos are cool. But how do we feel about Texaco, CitiBank and Dow Chemical? Yet we don’t want to live – at least most of us don’t – without iPhones, Beemers and affordable shoes.
Does this seem obvious to you? Perhaps. But then ask yourself why so many, if not most corporations are loathed when the breach the surface of our consciousness via the media – newspapers, films, TV. How are corporations and CEOs portrayed on “The Simpsons,” or in feature films like “Up in the Air,” just released starring George Clooney?
So why is that? What does it say about you and me that we can love the product but despise the producer? Are we hypocrites? Self-righteous phonies? Or are we coolly able to compartmentalize our feelings and actions, thumbing our nose at Wal-Mart while benefiting from Wal-Mart’s low-priced items?
So what does this have to do with corporate communications? Why do corporations engage in “reputation management,” stage big, fancy events to demo new products, send out news releases about their contributions to the Jimmy Fund, hold press conferences when they hire a new CEO, prepare for terrible things like assassins and arsonists, require employees to attend sexual harassment training, create glitzy web sites with advertainment geared to appeal to young consumers of snack food?
Also ask yourselves whether nonprofit corporations are not also business organizations not so very different from famous brand-name companies? What kind of competition and pressure is part of the lives of the employees of Oxfam, MassPirg and other issue-advocacy nonprofits? Are these nonprofits not competing for a share of mind, a share of dollars? Are not the fundraisers at our College courting wealthy donors such as Jack Welch to pony up $1 million for a new dorm, a new dining common, a new library to replace the collapsing one?
Ask yourself whether you could live without the service provided by Visa or Master Charge or Discover Ask yourself what you want for yourself in this life – and to what extent your getting it will require you to enter into relationships with for-profit corporations.
You already know that it’s not hard to call out the deceptive mortgage company, the oil company charging $4 for a gallon of gasoline, the electric utility that is raising its rates – or the College that sends you a letter informing you your fees will increase by a $100 next semester, the textbook company that charges $150 for a book you hardly crack all semester and which you are dying to sell back – to the bookstore that will only give you $30 for it.
It’s easy to call out thieves and frauds like Bernie Madoff. But do you really suppose that Bernie Madoff and Countrywide Financial and AIG are representative of for-profit corporations? And if you do, ask yourself why you think so – all the while looking forward to one day owning a home, driving a spiffy car and watching your monster Mac load huge web sites in a flash.
Yes, we’re a little schizo when it comes to our perceptions and behavior in the marketplace. But is that so odd, when we look closely, look in the mirror and examine our choices coolly and honestly?
Unless and until you really think through these questions, you won’t be ready to begin to understand corporate communications. And even then, I doubt you will be able to grasp it until you have some real-world experience not merely as a consumer of corporate products but as an employee of one of those famous but faceless, stereotyped and media-washed corporations.