Whom do we serve?

Today’s sharing economy demands societal engagement and authentic dialogue with organisations who in turn are expected to act in the best interest of the end-user (i.e. the stakeholder). Communicators act both as custodians of stakeholder relationships and the voice of the organisation they represent. This multi-faceted role raises an important question for the public relations function: Whom do we serve?

Proceedings Article: BledCom 2020


This paper presents a selection of findings from a doctoral study on the potential of public relations within the strategic thinking process called: Communication at the Core: Exploring decision-making when communication is at the heart of an organisations’ strategy development. The research focused on the link between the communication function and the creation and development of strategy in organisations and explored whether the position, territory, and scope of the public relations function can influence decisions, tactics and in turn an organisation’s results.

Today’s sharing economy demands societal engagement and authentic dialogue with organisations who in turn are expected to act in the best interest of the end-user (i.e. the stakeholder). Communicators act both as custodians of stakeholder relationships and the voice of the organisation they represent. This multi-faceted role raises an important question for the public relations function: Whom do we serve?

The concept:

Whom do we serve? was a recurring point respondents raised during a series of semi-structured interviews conducted with senior professionals working in international organisations. The same issue mirrored the authors’ experience throughout her career. At one point she was employed by a public relations agency whose major pharmaceutical client focused on early stage research and innovation designed to challenge the market and secure investment. The author questioned a set of research findings which were planned for use in international press and investor briefings. On first glance, the data appeared promising, yet when her concerns were presented, the client (and employer) feedback was that she was neither qualified (enough) nor had the authority to ask an integrity related question. Furthermore, securing financial investment using the data as is was far more important than research integrity which, the client maintained, could be addressed if needed at a later stage. The response was unexpected and against her values. On further reflection, she made the difficult choice to step back from the client citing ethical and safety concerns. In the end she left the agency. The interview pattern of the doctoral research acted as a trigger to discuss the issue : Whom to we serve?

Method, sample size and rationale:

This was a mixed methods study incorporating meaning orientated methodologies such as interviewing, active listening and participant observation and identification of emerging patterns and findings (phenomenological & grounded theory traditions). The sample was a mix of 34 senior professionals with an international remit. About 50 percent held responsibility for communication and the other 50 percent were part of a leadership team or experts with the ability to influence or help make communication decisions. The gender split was equal. 34 semi-structured interviews took place between 2018 and 2019 (figure 1). Follow up included transcript reviews as well as documentary and archival analysis of the findings. It is also worth noting that the study presents a multi-disciplinary perspective with participants drawn from different sectors and with diverse backgrounds.

Literature Review:

The literature review draws scholarship from studies of public relations, strategy, group dynamics and decision-making.

Greek in origin, strategy originally refers to the positioning of troops before battle. Organisations describe strategy as the ability to understand, predict and leverage stakeholder behaviour operating in an environment in which people and resources continually interact (Henderson, 1989, pp. 139–143). Strategy is also the product of history and learned experience (Tohidi & Jabbari, 2012). Understanding who, what, why, and how organisations and stakeholders have reached a particular point paves the way for strategic changes “allowed” by the existing culture (Darling, 2017, pp. 64–67) and creates “irreversible momentum” (Burt, 2010, p. 70).

Public relations is “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships [ ] on whom success or failure depends” (Cutlip cited by Broom & Sha, 2013, p. 26). Value comes through relationships (Grunig J.E. & Grunig L.A. 2010, p. 5) and “getting people to do what you want them to do” (Tolley cited in Grunig, Dozier, & IABC Research Foundation, 1992, p. 38 Tolley, 1988). Relationships are based on one-way, two-way and omni-directional communication (van Ruler, 2018, p. 368) with “the flow of purposive communication” and “continuous trans-actions” (Edwards, 2012, p. 21). Public relations professionals adopt highly co-operative behaviours which are underpinned by concern for others and perceived stakeholder needs. Behaviours change depending on the stakeholder and purpose of the interaction (Thomas, 2016, p. 266 Thomas & Kilmann, 1978, pp. 1143–1144).


The research found that the sector is in perpetual flux, transitioning from a process-driven function into an organic, always on transactional flow. Secondly, capabilities such as sense-making to produce and exchange meaning (Fiske, 1982, p. 2) and identifying patterns, inter-relationships and the ability to agitate (Fuller et al., 2018, pp. 233–252 Meighan & De Ruijter, 2016, p. 9) are emerging as basic requirements. Thirdly end-user needs rated ahead of the organisation as indicators shaping the direction of modern strategy and communication with priorities shifting from profit and shareholder value towards trust and doing the right thing profitably. This suggests that communication is moving towards co-creation with stakeholders built on trust and making a difference.

Communication was positioned as an authentic voice enabling genuine stakeholder discourse rather than simply communicating for advantage (Moloney, 2006, p. 165). Furthermore authenticity assumes that social relevance and multiple participants cited the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a given practise and a standard expected by consumers. Critical and consequential thinking, doing the right thing and accessing ones’ moral compass to guide decision-making emerged as essential capabilities opening further dialogue on Whom do we serve?

The dynamic environment communicators operate within as well as the emphasis in recent years on issues such as transparency and accountability in scholarly and industry opinion are reflected in the research findings. Participants acknowledged that communication has moved from a process type function into an environment which is in perpetual flux with an organic, always-on, transactional flow and focus on the needs and concerns of others (figure 2). Academics such as van Ruler, Edwards, Thomas and Kilmann have highlighted aspects of this in recent years.

The consequence of this, is that the sector’s capabilities and the skillset required to thrive in the profession are evolving. Communicators are more than well organised professionals who can meet deadlines and pitch a story. Today’s leaders operate at a level of sense making, identifying patterns and understanding inter relationships and what's taking place on multiple levels. Furthermore, a pattern focused on "doing the right thing profitably” appeared in participants language and concepts, signposting a trend that user needs are valued ahead and above those of the organisation. Reputation measurement has pivoted towards doing the right thing and making a difference rather than shareholder value. This change in dynamic, the research suggests, presents an opportunity for the profession which is both empowering and has impact. As the foundations on which organisations make decisions shift, communicators are embracing a paradigm of co-creation, and trust building by leveraging trust making capabilities (i.e. interventions which actually make a difference in organisations and reflect stakeholder values). The research also found that communicators of the future and the end-users of the future have very different perspectives on what privacy, transparency, shareholder value stands for and indeed what value will mean in the future. It also highlighted outdated views on profit and margin which would have had high priority and influence 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

The data found that communicators act as the custodian of the stakeholder relationship (figure 3) by (1) operating at the interface between the organisation and the stakeholder (2) understanding the consequences and risk of organisational decision-making (3) recognising the dynamic within and between different groups and (4) the positive aspects of automation. Participants argued that expertise on the human side of communication combined with technology will make automated interactions more relevant and increase stakeholder engagement as automation becomes more and more invisible.

The research also suggests that as end users values change, in-turn definitions of success will change, away from profit and towards a definition which focuses on doing the right thing profitably. The consequence for the sector is the emergence of co-opetition (where opposing forces come together to leverage an opportunity or to solve a common problem) (Angwin, Cummings, & Smith, 2015, p. 418) versus cooperation where in practise mutually aligned groups work together and focus on building mutual relationships. In the case of co-opetition, an organisation can have one viewpoint and the stakeholder can hold opposing and / or multiple view. The communicator, the research found (figure 4), has to curate the space and allow the transaction(s) to flow and at the same time act as the custodian of the relationship(s).

​Furthermore in order to mitigate overwhelm in an environment which is ongoing, omnipresent and omnidirectional, doing the right thing profitably underpins the professional choices. This point was emphatically made throughout the one-to-one interviews because when we go back and reflect on doing the right thing profitably then we are able to truly answer "Whom do we serve? " Is it the payer? as in the employer or the client. Is it the end-user? Is it society itself or is it the responsibility of the individual, guided by his/her/their own moral compass (figure 5).

Further analysis suggests that credibility and reputation are directly linked with who communicators choose to serve first. Professionals working directly with the CEO were perceived as the mouthpiece of the organisation, politically motivated and followers or influencers. Those positioned as trouble-shooters or the conscience of the organisation team were thought leaders and change-makers acting in the best interest of everyone.

Results, conclusions and implications:

Assessing the implications for communication professionals who curate and enable stakeholder & organisation dialogue warrants further examination. For example, are they appropriately skilled and resilient to adapt to constant change and clearly articulate who they serve and their motivation? Communicators are well positioned to leverage the opportunities this paradigm creates so that society thrives and authenticity driven indicators such as the SDGs are within reach. The question for the sector to reflect on is: Exactly whom do we serve? when, how and why and in what context? (Figure 6 Updated presentation)​

Author: ​

Sinéad Hewson’s PhD research explored decision-making when communication is at the heart of an organisations’ strategy development was successfully defended in October 2020. Her background is in health, business and communication specialising in co-opetition, group dynamics and gender equity. Based in the Netherlands, Hewson sits on the board of turn2me an online mental health provider in Ireland and is a former Board Member of the European Institute of Women’s Health, former Chair of Education for the Public Relations Institute of Ireland. She sits on the advisory board of Women’s Business Initiative International. Sinead speaks internationally and is a guest lecturer in TU Dublin and also lectured in Webster University Leiden and Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences.

Contact details:

Sinead Hewson, School of Media & Communications, TU Dublin City Campus Email: d13129063@mytudublin.ie / sinead@tpebo.com Mobile: +31615071701