Breaking down the PR silo

Far from being 'faceless', the PR team should be fully integrated into the work of a charity, writes Lorna Harris

The PR team at the British Heart Foundation
The PR team at the British Heart Foundation

It is often the case across the sector that PR teams are the last to know about an event, report or campaign. The strange affection for working in silos can often mean a media message comes at the end of the planning and not at the beginning of the process. This can leave PR departments caught on the hop with a story that might not stand up to external scrutiny.

With an "always-on" communications culture and the idea that PR is just about securing coverage an outdated concept, how are charity PR teams breaking down the barriers to ensure they are involved in the planning of campaigns, instead of being brought in at completion, often when opportunities might have been lost and lead times missed?

Redefining the role

The British Heart Foundation has redefined the role that the PR team plays across the charity and now operates the PR function in a far more integrated way.

Andrew Webster, senior communications manager at the charity, says: "Several years ago, the PR team was seen as an in-house agency that was asked to secure media coverage to promote individual campaigns, events or products, but PR can have a far bigger impact than this."

Webster has seen first hand the difference integrated PR can make and how it can be used to influence public perceptions. "PR has changed significantly," he says. "It's no longer about media coverage alone. It's also about using all of our communications channels in an integrated way to maximise impact. This has required a new mindset and a new way of working across the whole PR team.

"We now plan in cross-functional working groups, which means our campaigns are brought to life in a completely integrated way."

Biggest weakness

A PR team's biggest weakness is often promoting the work it does to the rest of the organisation, and this is something Webster and his team have focused on improving. "For the PR team to be brought into the planning process earlier, colleagues across the charity need to be certain of the value we add," he says.

But if the PR teams is the last to know what is happening within an organisation, it shows, says Russell Hargrave, press manager at Power to Change, the charity that supports community businesses.

"You can feel it when you walk into a building, with a corner dedicated to PR," he says. "It sends out a signal: that PR is an add-on and not an integrated process from the beginning.

"Unfortunately, a red carpet is never laid out for PR teams. Everyone across an organisation is very busy. The sector is under pressure and silos can and do happen. To break out of them, PR teams need to be seen: they need to throw themselves into finding out more and getting to know other departments, even at the risk of being bit annoying.

It's important that you are prepared. Don't just show up at a meeting as a token PR person; bring ideas to the table and go the extra mile."

Changing nature

Rafi Cooper, director of communications at World Jewish Relief, believes the nature of charity PR is changing.

"It's moving towards PR for a purpose," he says. "Earlier on in my career, if you got great publicity for a project, that was seen as an end in itself. Now PR, along with all communications, has to be tied to the charity's higher mission and vision.

"Alongside this, PR has to be fully integrated into the charity's overarching communications strategy. When we get great PR coverage, we use digital and even direct-mail channels to show it to donors; it acts as a third-party endorsement for what we're doing."

When a campaign is ready to launch, it can be a sink-or-swim situation. Knowing the messaging is agreed and that PR is an integrated part of the process can make all the difference to the success of the campaign.

The key here is to practise what PR teams preach and simply communicate more with other departments throughout the organisation. If PR teams are part of the early-stage planning, it can make a world of difference and become crucial to helping a charity bring about the change it is calling for. For the future of the profession, this can only be a good thing.

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