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Which Hat Are You Wearing?

When Filling a Dual Role, Take Care to Do Both Well.

By Thomas J. Roach

In the aggregate industry where the relationship with the community can be so volatile, public relations staff need to be writers and advisors. Public relations professionals typically start out as writers who are told to write press releases and employee newspaper stories by someone who is making decisions about what public should be addressed, what channel to use to reach that public and what information the public may need or want.

Sometimes the person giving the direction is a senior public relations professional, and sometimes it is someone in upper management with a business or human resources background.

If the public relations or marketing department is large enough, then the practitioner moves incrementally away from writing and toward decision-making and advising. However, in public relations departments of one or two people, or in cases where the person with public relations responsibilities has other business responsibilities, there is no clear transition from technician to advisor. As expertise and trust grow, this person may eventually be performing both responsibilities simultaneously.

Making the Transition
The transition into a dual writing-technician and advisor role is a natural progression. After a year or two of talking to reporters and interviewing employees, public relations writers have a good idea of the information needs and preferred channels of communication for the company’s publics.

From reading trade magazines, the public relations technician also acquires a sense of what topics are of most interest in the industry. Eventually the person hired to write takes charge of the agenda of story topics and begins to manage the organization’s public profile.

The difficulty comes when the two roles are in conflict. An example from my career is when my CEO came back from a leadership retreat with our division presidents and handed me a new mission statement. They had written it as a team as part of a Crosby College exercise, and he wanted me to get it out to our 35,000 employees.

When I read the mission statement in my office, I became conflicted. There were grammar issues, it was lengthy and it didn’t say anything about leadership. I consulted the corporate vice president of human resources who told me the CEO was very proud of this mission statement and that I should make the grammar corrections and send it out. I couldn’t do it.

At my previous public relations job, I was the media relations and employee communications coordinator, but I was in a technician’s roll. A crisis of reputation developed and I didn’t find out about it until a reporter called me.

Another Occasion
On another occasion I was scheduled to attend a communication training session as part of a company-wide marketing plan. Halfway through the meeting, I concluded that we were all wasting our time with an ill-conceived, superficial approach to interacting with customers.

I wondered who had authorized the meetings and realized that it should have been me, but I wasn’t even consulted. I was just scheduled into a meeting along with the rest of the staff. The two epiphanies helped me realize I needed to move on.

Now I found myself in my new job, but with the same problem. My title said I was a director, and I decided to act like one. I put on my advisor’s hat and met with the CEO again. I told him I was prepared to send out the mission statement so I wouldn’t appear to be insubordinate, then I told him that as his internal communication director, that I needed to evaluate it for him.

He listened to my critique, and we argued back and forth for a few minutes, but I was on firm ground because of my expertise. We worked out a compromise, and I walked away with a better understanding of how to manage communication and not just communicate.