If you thought public relations professionals existed purely to sing the praises of the companies they work for, think again. A new study of senior public relations professionals found that, while it can often be difficult for them to disagree with company decisions, these employees often do.

The study by researchers at Baylor University and the University of Texas at Austin drew on on in-depth interviews with senior PR professionals who had all held top positions at corporations, nonprofits or government entities.

Study author Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., of Baylor University said that, despite feeling pressure to support the organization that employed them, many participants considered themselves an “independent voice” within their organization, not “mired by its perspectives or politics.” 

But being the voice of dissention wasn’t easy for those interviewed. Many of the 30 participants reported finding themselves in “kill the messenger” predicaments. This made it difficult both to share criticism with higher-ranking people at the company and persuade such leadership to agree with conflicting perspectives, Neill said.

And a number of those interviewed said they had been fired or demoted because they refused to go along with a company decision they deemed unethical. Two participants reported resigning when their advice was rejected, including one who refused to include false information in a press release.

Many of the study’s participants reported that senior executives see a public relations department as nothing but a marketing tool. This view limits a PR person’s ability to offer meaningful counsel or help solve problems, the study showed.

But some participants reported working for organizations that were on board with their PR team’s role as devil’s advocate.

"The 'yes man' has no value in PR," said one of the study's participants.

Another public relations veteran said that she had developed a good relationship with her company's CEO because he could often count on her to disagree with him.

Participants said that a truly useful PR team works closely with a company's legal counsels and key decision makers to control and avert negative situations.

PR professionals cited a number of ways they've helped management make smart choices and avoid company crises, including mock news conferences and "headline testing," in which managers are asked to imagine a good headline and a bad headline that could result from their decisions.

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