Big Story


Public Relations is a dynamic and rapidly growing profession. Its landscape is anything but steady. Digital and social media revolution has caused tectonic shifts in the way we communicate. Globalization is opening up new markets across different regions of the world. And countries are forging common fronts to address global concerns such as pollution, terrorism and over-population. These have added new opportunities for Public Relations growth. The remit of the profession has expanded in the process, and new roles and responsibilities have emerged for PR professionals.

Unfortunately, many PR professionals are yet to come to terms with what these new roles are, let alone master them. In the process, they have left PR’s territory open for other communication professionals to usurp. When that is not the case, PR is relegated to the background in their organizations because they cannot meet the expectations of their top managements who may want things done differently.

This article traces the history of Roles Theory in Public Relations, discusses the nature of roles, identifies and explains some new roles and suggests skills required to play the roles effectively. It is my hope that it will motivate PR professionals to act quickly by developing new skills in order find their voices and make them heard in their organizations.

The Nature of Roles

The term “role” has its origin in Sociology and Social Psychology. It refers to a set of duties, expectations and behaviours that a person has to face and fulfill in a society or in other settings. In an article, Role Theory and its Usefulness in Public Relations, published in the European Journal of Business and Social Science, Elif Sesen states that roles are also seen as social positions and behaviours associated with a social position or a typical behaviour.

The definition of roles by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn in their book, The Social Psychology of Organization is apt: “Roles are recurring actions of an individual, appropriately interrelated with the repetitive activities of others so as to yield a predictable outcome.”

What this means is that roles are not static. They change constantly because they are in part, dictated by social structures and in part by social interactions. The roles a Public Relations professional plays is therefore the routine, daily activities and tasks that are relative to the position he occupies in an organization. They are determined by the goals the organization seeks to achieve. They change as their positions or structures in the organization change.

A Potted History of Roles in Public Relations

Glen Broom and George Smith pioneered the first Public Relations roles research in 1979 and came up with what they considered to be the four roles PR professionals play, namely:

  • The Communication Facilitator
  • The Expert Prescriber
  • The Problem-Solving Process Facilitator and
  • The Communication Technician.

According to them, the Public Relations Practitioner who plays the role of a Communication Facilitator acts as an information broker, liaison or mediator between an organization and its stakeholders. The Expert Prescriber identifies PR problems in an organization and proposes solutions to the organization. The Problem-Solving Process Facilitator works with an organization to identify its PR problems and equally works with it to identify the solutions and implement them. The Communication Technician focuses on production and distribution of PR materials such as videos, new releases, fliers etc at the implementation level.

In 1983, David Dozier figured out the fact that the first three roles were managerial in nature and reduced the four roles into two: The PR manager and the PR Technician.

PR Roles in Europe

In their study, Betteke Van Ruler and Dejan Vercic found that Public Relations is a multi-dimensional concept in Europe that is not just seen as a professional function of managers and technicians concerned with organizational relationships, but one that is also concerned with the public, the public sphere and public consequences of organizational behaviour. And drawing heavily from the findings of the European Body of knowledge (EBOK) project, they identified four roles of the European Public Relations Practitioner, namely:

  • Reflective Role – this involves the analysis of changing societal standards/values/viewpoints and working with organizational members to adjust the values and norms of the organization regarding social responsibility and legitimacy.
  • Managerial Role – this role is concerned with developing strategies and plans to maintain relationships and manage communication processes with stakeholders to gain understanding and trust.
  • Operational Role – this involves the application of communication plans by evaluating different communication tools and services for the organization.
  • Educational Role – this is concerned with the training and education of organizational members to become communicatively competent.

The South African Perspective

South Africa has made her contribution to PR Roles Theory through Benita Steyn. In her year 2000 Master’s Degree Dissertation, she theorized a brand new PR role after empirical verification in a study among CEOs. The PR Strategist, as she called it, operates at the top management level and performs the mirror function of Public Relations – scanning and monitoring relevant environmental developments/issues and anticipating their consequences on organizations strategies and policies, especially as it concerns stakeholders and the society at large.

Social Media Roles

When the emergence and acceptance of social media as a channel of communication put pressure on Public Relations professionals to acknowledge the development and create additional PR roles, Deirdre K. Breakenridge came to the rescue. In her landmark book, Social Media and Public Relations: Eight New Practices for the PR professional, she identifies eight PR roles associated with social media as follows:

  • PR Policy Maker – is responsible for social media policy development to protect users and organizations alike.     
  • Internal Collaboration Generator – who works closely with own and other departments to ensure effective collaboration amongst the departments, tracks progress and gets every departments to understand the tools or platforms used.
  • Communication Organizer – develops a structure and productive approach to internal communication and collaboration of departments in order to create better communications with the stakeholders.
  • PR Technology Tester – researches, identifies, tests and selects technology to improve communication internally and externally. This could include database monitoring services, social channels for audience collaboration, email marketing and content management platforms and so on.
  • Pre-Crisis Doctor – Monitors social media conversations and tracks the sentiments of stakeholders and addresses emerging issues before they snowball into a crisis.
  • Relationship Analyzer – develops audience profile, gets to know where they congregate and what topics they are concerned about and uses technology to deepen and grow the relationships strategically.
  • Reputation Task Force Member – Pays more attention to corporate reputation by building a more human face for the organization, auditing corporate reputation consistently and engaging in brand education for organizational members.
  • Master of Metrics – demonstrates accountability and return on investment (ROI) in social media. Responsibilities include: reviewing of sentiments measured by Reputation Task Force, analyzing share of voice metric, review of participation in brand initiatives and so on.

In 2015, a study which examined the strategic roles and responsibilities associated with social media through the lens of Roles Theory, Marlene Neil and Mia Moody identified two new roles, namely: Policing and the Employee Recruiter.

According to them, policing involves educating employees about an organization’s social media policies, putting controls in place, notifying employees of inappropriate conducts, and controlling the number of social media accounts on various platforms.

On the other hand the Employee Recruiter is responsible for portraying their company/organization as an attractive place to work, using the social media.

Another study by Marlene Neil and Nicole Lee on the topic, Roles in Social Media: How the Practice of Public Relations is Evolving, published by the PR Journal in Summer/Fall 2016 reveals another role, the Internal Social Media Manager. The role involves the management of internal social media channels or platforms such as Yammer used in communicating with employees.

Social Media has come to stay. A PR professional that does not understand his roles in its landscape has become a museum piece in the current world of Public Relations. His ability to engage influencers, manage digital communities, build corporate relationships, identify and manage reputational threats will be grossly limited. I believe that the best way to start on the journey of social media mastery is to study Deidre Breakenridge’s book and other related works and put the ideas into practice.

The 5 New Roles in Public Relations

In the course of my research, I have discovered five new roles in Public Relations. They reflect the evolving roles of business in the society. According to studies such as Edelman Trust Barometer, business is now expected to move society in a constructive direction since government and the media have failed in that regard. And to achieve that, business must lay emphasis on stakeholders’ engagement. These new roles have emerged to meet the needs of engagement in our highly connected world.

It is important to state here that these new roles are not my creation. They are gleaned from studies between 2014 and 2017 by global Public Relations organizations such as the Arthur Page Society, Korn Ferry Institute, USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations and Corporate Communication International (CCI), the global center for information and knowledge on corporate communication.

I chose them because of the rigors they bring to their studies. Most of all, their studies often cover the length and breadth of the PR and communication firmament.

These studies have verified and confirmed several new roles in PR between 2014 and now. Only the last of the five roles discussed here is my suggestion, and is yet to be tested and verified. I have intentionally thrown it up to draw attention for future research. And I have limited myself to just five new strategic roles which I believe many PR professionals are yet to fully come to grip with, and which are crucial to helping PR professionals gain a seat in the strategic management decision-making roundtables of the organizations they represent. Let’s look at them one by one.

  • The Strategic Integrator

 Back in 2011 when the Public Relations Society of America in its white paper, titled, The Public Relations Profession in 2015, predicted that PR professionals will be more integrated in the daily routine of all functions within their organizations, many PR professionals took it with a pinch of salt. Several studies have now shown that the PR professionals must be an advocate for cross-functional teams and should focus on performance and results around strategic priorities if he is to succeed.

Jasper Falkheimer and colleagues, in their article, Doing The Right Thing Or Doing Things Right?, published in Corporate Communication, An International Journal, observes that “tasks and activities are strategic if they relate to the core positioning of corporations in a substantial way and create potential for future success.” The role of the strategic integrator is to bring all relevant functions and technology in an organization together to build a stakeholder engagement system that is second to none.

As the title implies, the role requires a strategic mindset. Korn Ferry 2014 – 2015 Survey Report defines it as “the ability to anticipate and see ahead to future possibilities and translate them into breakthrough strategies.”
 It also requires excellent interpersonal relations skills and an understanding of digital technologies, especially in using data to understand stakeholders, and creating channels and platforms to connect with them.

  • The Corporate Character Builder and Activator

The Page Model for Enterprise Communication defines Corporate Character as the distinct set of values, purpose, mission, culture, beliefs and actions that compose the identity of the enterprise. Good corporate character is essential to winning and maintaining the trust of stakeholders.

Today, business must move beyond merely delivering customer and shareholder value and embrace social purpose. The role of the corporate character builder and activator is to define and align corporate mission, purpose, values, culture, brand, business models, practices and policies with this new societal vision of the enterprise. Many studies have confirmed this. For instance, more than 91% of respondents in the 2014-2015 Korn Ferry Institute’s survey believed that PR professionals should provide leadership; not just in the area of reputation, but also on values and culture across the enterprise. The New CCO Study by Arthur Page Society in 2016 has said the same thing.

The ability to win the support of top management, integrate all communications and use a combination of data analytics, cultural and stakeholder intelligence, storytelling as well as behavioural economics is what it takes to develop effective communication strategies that build and activate corporate character.

  • The Behavioural Scientist.

As organizational relationship managers, CEOs and C-Suite executives expect PR professionals to do much more than speech writing, graphic design and media relations. They expect them to know how their stakeholders make decisions and behave toward their organizations. And they are insisting that PR professionals should be able to use behavioural insights to move the needle in stakeholders’ attitudes and behaviours in their favour.

Behavioural Insights improve how information is presented to a target audience in order to elicit the desired response. The Behavioural Insight, Research Center (BIRC) launched in March 2016 by the Institute for Public Relations, USA offers PR professionals the opportunity to learn more about the application of behavioural economics principles to Public Relations and Communication Management.

  • The PR Data Analyst

The ability to demonstrate the Returns on Investment (ROI) in Public Relations is now the difference between an ordinary PR professional and a great one. The ability to collect and analyze data is crucial here.

Data and proper analysis is very useful in the area of audience selection, choice of PR techniques and channels as well as in message development. Public Relations professionals are left with no option but to play the role of the PR data analyst if they are to remain relevant. Arthur Page Society’s New CCO Study has confirmed this.

PR professionals who succeed in this role are those who are proficient in data analytics. A PR professional should be an adept in recognizing patterns, deriving meaning and making informed Public Relations decisions from data.

  • The Thought Leadership Strategist

I see thought leadership as the exalted position a person or an organization enjoys in the minds and hearts of stakeholders and potential clients for constantly putting forward valuable, original and evidence-based information, data and other content pieces that challenge existing notions, resolve pressing issues and solve problems for its audience.

Such contents could revolve around the industry, the individual or how the organization operates, its products or on the individual or organization itself.

          As the world becomes a very crowded marketplace of ideas, differentiating oneself or an organization from the rest and building an enviable reputation using communication techniques has become an herculean task. It takes Thought Leadership to cut through the clutter of excess information available to win the attention and trust of your target audience. As storytellers, CEOs and organizational leaders depend on PR professionals to develop and implement Thought Leadership strategies that work.

What does it take to be a good Thought Leadership strategist? It takes a clear understanding of stakeholders’ pain points and unmet needs. This enables you to know what topics would resonate with them. The ability to align contents to corporate strategy, create innovative contents platforms and a formidable content development team is also very crucial. PR roles are not static; they evolve. The forces that created these five new roles are building new strengths and changing. Brand new forces not yet noticed are joining the fray. Be discerning as a PR professional. Keep your eyes on the ground for new developments in the business and social environments in order to see how your job is affected. And when you discover gaps in your skills, work hard to close them. You can’t afford to do otherwise if you want to remain relevant. The name of the game is eternal vigilance.