PR doesn’t belong in HR

HR practitioners don’t have the time or skill set to deal with PR, but they have an important role to play in branding
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/16/2006

It’s not unusual to find internal communications within the HR department. Communicating what’s new in an organization to employees seems to be a natural fit for human resources, especially when it comes to benefits and issues that can affect an employee’s future.

“These are the people that are responsible for aligning the people strategy to the business strategy. For them to own and manage the communication with that group, just makes total sense,” said Jodi Macpherson, communication business leader at Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

In instances where internal communications reports to HR, it’s common to find a dotted line from that role to an overall public relations department. This is to ensure all the organization’s messages, either internal or external, are aligned and consistent, said Macpherson.

So why not take it a step farther and put the external communications, or public relations role, in the HR department as well?

While this isn’t common, some organizations are doing it, said Macpherson. In the case where it happens, the person within HR who has the PR responsibilities should have some grounding and experience working with and communicating to a broader audience, beyond employees, she said. This audience includes customers, members of the media and often investors.

The person responsible for public relations should also have a seat at the senior management table or have direct access to senior management, said Macpherson.

“Oftentimes in a PR position, what makes it effective is being able to move very, very quickly,” she said. “As issues evolve, you make sure you’re at the table and you’re looking at it from the perspective of ‘What do my constituencies need to know? What do we need to communicate with them?’ That ready access to the senior management table, or sitting there, is critical.”

However, at least one communications expert thinks having PR in the HR department is a huge mistake.

“I think that’s a totally inappropriate decision,” said Julie Freeman, the president of the International Association of Business Communicators, a San Francisco-based communications professionals network. “The knowledge base and interests of HR really don’t fit with external communications.”

Public relations professionals need to develop good relationships with members of the media and understand what kinds of stories will appeal to which reporters at which outlets to get the company’s message out, said Freeman.

The professional must then establish herself as a source for the kind of information a particular outlet or journalist might be looking for.

“It’s not impossible for an HR person to do it, but it certainly isn’t something that they’re doing now,” said Freeman.

The growth of the Internet has added to the responsibility of the PR professional. While IT might be responsible for the technical aspect of a company’s website, PR needs to be involved in the site’s design and look, choosing content that will appeal and be appropriate to outsiders and ensuring content is up to date, said Freeman.

Other challenges of the technology include social media, blogs and podcasts, which allow for two-way communication between an organization, employees and often customers, said Freeman.

“Everybody is trying to get a handle on how to do that well,” she said.

All of these components create a full-time job, one that an HR professional, unless she doesn’t have any other HR responsibilities, wouldn’t have enough time to do well, said Freeman.

“I’m not saying HR people aren’t competent. Of course they’re competent, but I don’t think they’re competent in the areas of external communication,” she said. “There are people who have that kind of expertise and experience and those are the people who should be doing external communication.”

Even if the person responsible for external communications had no other HR responsibilities, placing the function inside the HR department just doesn’t make sense, said Freeman.

“The whole idea of HR is working for the benefit of the employees,” she said. “External communication is a completely different audience. I would think the danger of putting external communications in the HR department is that the external communication gets buried.”

One instance where it makes sense for the HR department to be involved in external communications is in the area of employer branding, said Monica Belcourt, an HR professor at Toronto’s York University.

“Human resources is the de facto PR within the company,” said Belcourt. “How employees perceive the company, how workers feel for the organizations they’re working for, these opinions all have to be managed and HR always does this.”

HR can use this expertise to communicate with potential candidates. Putting out the right kind of message, either through advertising or news coverage, about the kind of work environment and how employees are treated, can help an organization attract more of the right kind of job applicants.

“With the right kind of employer branding, you can attract a very good candidate. A candidate will often come to an organization because of its corporate reputation,” said Belcourt. “In the same way that investors will invest based on information on the company, employees are investors — they’re investing their energy, their time, their productivity — and candidates are investors — they’re analyzing the company to see if that’s the way they want to work.”

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