Although this blog is aimed at marcomms firms, on reflection it strikes me that what’s here is – sadly – applicable more widely…

Experience tells me there are four types of PR firm Boards, only one of which is effective.

Partly this is evolutionary – what may have worked for your business when it was small or predominantly lifestyle, no longer works as the firm becomes larger and more complex, and seeks more challenging growth opportunities.

The first, and most common type of poorly-functioning Board, is the Echo Chamber.

This is where the most senior individuals in the business are in thrall to the CEO (who probably runs the business as a sort of mates’ club), to the extent that the boss is never seriously challenged; discussion is driven by CEO whim-du-jour; and Boards simply become an echo-chamber of the boss’s views.

I think there are two routes to this sorry state of affairs. Either the Directors are signed-up members of the CEO-as-hero society, which believes that great businesses are created and sustained by a single, incredible individual. Or the company has been created by a charismatic Founder, who fails to evolve as the business develops, and instead moulds Board membership to cement their position as Master of all they survey.

Either way, these businesses are doomed. CEO-as-hero has been thoroughly debunked and these organisations can look forward to quietly floundering as the marketplace evolves beyond the CEO’s ability to cope. Founder-worshiping businesses will decline, as whatever talented people they have hired leave, when they realise the limitations imposed by the boss mean they will never be able to advance, unless they sign up as acolytes.

The Student Debating Society

Did you see the coverage of Amazon’s requirement for six-page memos to be produced and read through, before meetings? They have to be narrative, not PowerPoint, a great deal of hard work has to go into them, a reading room is set aside so that the documents can be read through properly. It’s this thought and preparation that helps make for great meetings, there.

However, too many PR Boards operate at the other end of the spectrum – little preparation; few papers distributed beforehand; Board members turning up with no real thought as to what issues should be discussed and what needs to be challenged.

Now the odd thing is, these meetings often feel great. Highly spontaneous; lots of thinking-on-your-feet; making decisions quickly; bags of creativity and enthusiasm! Who needs boring preparation when flying by the seat of your pants is so much more exciting!

Trouble is, it’s never been harder to run a PR business. Clients are taking more work in house; they are more demanding; the marketplace is evolving at pace; and a class of highly professional firms is quietly taking the lion’s share of the profits that are out there.

The need for well-prepared, thoughtful and challenging Boards has never been greater. So, student debating societies – must try harder.


A sure sign of problems are those smaller PR firms that have Director-itis. Businesses making less than even a million in profit, but have at least four of the following:

• Strategy Director;
• Marketing Director;
• Business Development Director;
• Client Services Director;
• Creative Director;
• HR Director;
• Design Director;
• IT Director;
• Digital Engagement Director;
• And on and on.

These are businesses that mistake correlation and causation. They have the trappings of large, successful firms, without realising that these are not just unnecessary for smaller firms, they actually get in the way.

In similar vein, I come across Boards that go through the motions – Board papers of incredible depth and complexity; lengthy agendas; minutes, etc – but that miss the big picture; that allow the Board agenda to become a straight-jacket on thinking; where what the CEO thinks is paramount. These Boards need a dose of reality and external insight, to help them break out of the trap that’s of their own making.

The “Gritty” Board

This works: Hard numbers. Budgets. Accountability and consequences. Preparation, analysis, and careful thought. Disagreement and challenge; no pulling punches. Pre-mortems. The slaying of sacred cows. Decision-making processes. Real-world input.

These elements may be uncomfortable to experience but they are the ingredients of effective Board meetings, as they put good minds to work on important issues, fueling them with information.

But this type of meeting – which feels “gritty” given the degree of challenge and debate – is not for everyone. In the hands of the inexperienced or the insecure, these meetings are powerfully destructive, as challenges are taken as personal slights which bruise the ego (and never forget how brittle confidence can be, and there’s nothing that dents confidence faster than having your colleagues laying in – logically, unemotionally, politely – to your latest clever idea).

So it’s worth reflecting on which type of Board yours most closely represents. And bit by bit you need to replace it with one where talented individuals, having prepared properly, are prepared to speak their minds, so that the Board functions as a proper sparring partner, to knock ideas into better shape.

As always, there’s much to do and time is short, so good luck and get cracking.