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Bruce Berger on the Role of Counselor in Public Relations

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Posted At: January 9, 2013 3:20 P.M.
by Sam Nathews

The public relations professional wears many hats. He is expected to be a masterful writer, strategic genius, crisis handler, networker, influencer, digital deity, media mastermind and a top-tier conversationalist, to name a few. Each of his abilities is vital to the well-being of the company he represents.

Though it is crucial for us as PR pros to have the ability to wear a rack-full of proverbial hats and wear them well, it is what rests beneath those many hats that matter mosts in our profession. We must possess a mind capable of offering good, trustworthy advice to leadership. We must adopt the often overlooked and under-emphasized role of counselor.

Bruce Berger, Ph.D., Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Alabama, trustee for the Institute for Public Relations and board member for The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, explained that for the PR professional, the role of counselor “means providing advice and informed thinking about organizational problems and opportunities, from a communication perspective.”

“An excellent public relations professional will offer sound advice, guidance and recommendations to organizational leaders — on a regular basis and in good times and bad,” Berger said.

Berger, a seasoned veteran in the field of public relations and recent recipient of the Institute of Public Relations Pathfinder Award for career contribution to scholarly public relations research, is no stranger to the PR professional’s role of adviser.

Throughout his illustrious career in the field of public relations and before becoming a professor of the craft, Berger held a laundry list of positions where he was to assume this role, including VP of corporate affairs for Whirlpool Corporation and manager of public affairs for Upjohn Company in Belgium.

Berger described how most PR professionals naturally gravitate toward the role of counselor in their careers.

“Most professionals believe their role IS larger than execution: they also want to participate in discussion and decision making regarding what should be done, why and how, regarding the organization’s various stakeholders,” Berger said. “Voila: the counselor emerges.”

Berger said the counselor role is one rooted in expertise, knowledge, ethics and understanding, among other factors, and it demands more than wise words.

“That’s part of it. A bigger part is the ability to actually influence decisions — to put your counsel into effective practice — with decision makers and others in your organization,” Berger said. “Doing this implicates strong interpersonal communication skills, a strong network of relationships and the ability to articulate a clear point of view or argument — grounded in the organization and its values and character.”

However, arguments — no matter their strength — are powerless if they are never heard.

In undertaking the role of counselor in our profession, it is not enough to have a mind capable of offering solid ethical and moral advice if we are not bold enough to deliver that advice to leadership when it is needed most. In addition to a wealth of wisdom, we must possess a spirit courageous enough to, in Berger’s words, “speak truth to power.”

“This refers to stating a point of view to organizational executives — one they might not want to hear. And they might let you know in clear terms they don’t want to hear it, and they don’t agree with it,” Berger said. “Also, many people don’t enjoy verbal conflict, which may result from stating truth to power.”

Berger elaborated, saying that giving superiors a cold dose of hard truth is “risky business for any counselor,” no matter the age or experience.

Nevertheless, offering difficult advice — or advice of any nature, for that matter — to higher-ups can often be an especially tall order for a young PR pro.

How can young PR professionals overcome the crippling illness of intimidation and gain leverage toward a counselor role? Berger offered a possible antidote.

“Young professionals can establish themselves as advisers and counselors by developing relationships in the organization, gaining organizational knowledge, developing their interpersonal communication skills and their abilities to make effective arguments in clear, concise terms,” Berger said.

Fostering relationships, gaining a better understanding of the organization and honing your people skills are the easy parts. Berger said the other key factor in establishing credibility as a counselor in the eyes of leadership is performance — or as he put it, “a track record for excellent and successful work. And performance over time, which we can call ‘experience,’ counts for a lot.”

“My own students don’t always want to hear this, but I agree with C.S. Lewis who said something like: ‘Experience is the most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God you learn,’” Berger said. “I would counsel young counselors not to undersell the great power of plain, old-fashioned experience on the job or in the career. Some of those old fogeys on the job actually know a hell of a lot.”

However, young PR pros aren’t the only practitioners who may be slow to offer counsel. “Old fogeys” may find it challenging to voice their advice, as well. In fact, some senior-level PR pros may actually find the risks of speaking-up and the rewards of clamming-up to be overpowering.

“For more senior-level executives, there’s the little-discussed issue of those ‘golden handcuffs,’” Berger said. “Professionals in more senior positions earn good salaries and enjoy some great benefits: why risk those rewards by expressing what you know will be an unpopular point of view? Why not just get along to go along?”

Thankfully, there are many PR professionals in the field today who boldly brandish the counselor’s hat and do not champion the mantra of “get along to go along.”

“The good news is most leaders in the field are really great counselors,” Berger said. “It doesn’t mean their arguments always carry the day, but they make them — consistently, professionally, ethically.”

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