ANALYSIS: Corporate Branding - PR must explain its role to earn itsplace in branding. When the rebranding party gets going, PR execsusually aren't invited

Julia Hood finds that while change is in the wind, PR's role

remains peripheral at best.



The Philip Morris Companies plans to rebrand itself as Altria Group in

the hope of promoting better communications and understanding. "I think

it enhances our ability as a corporation to communicate with a variety

of people, including people in the investment community, but also

opinion leaders, the general public, and the media," explains Steven

Parrish, the company's SVP of corporate affairs, in an analyst

conference call.



Sounds like a PR dream come true. But even with such a strong

communications mandate driving the proposed change, the most visible

vendor behind the strategy is Landor Associates, a brand consulting and

design firm. Burson-Marsteller, which also works with Philip Morris, was

not involved in the strategic discussions that began a year ago,

although some in-house corporate communicators were, according to a

Burson spokeswoman.



More and more, PR is looking for ways to muscle in on corporate branding

strategy. A quick survey of the websites of some of the biggest players

reveals that PR agencies are claiming space in the branding arena.

Burson, Weber Shandwick Worldwide, and Edelman, along with many other

firms of all sizes, include reputation management, brand building, or

corporate branding among their capabilities.



But PR has a long way to go before it is linked to corporate branding in

the same breath as management consultancies like McKinsey or Accenture,

or brand identity firms like Interbrand and Lippencott Margulies.



"I think almost every major PR firm talks about reputation management or

other kinds of labels like that, to get away from our publicist

association," says John Iwata, VP of corporate communications at IBM.

"Whether or not they have the actual capability to help a company think

through what it's transforming into, how to position itself, and changes

to be made inside the business in order to make the brand promise real,

I don't know. I don't know if they are geared up for that."



Other vendors still view PR as an important partner in the process, but

with limited scope. "I would say that PR should play an important role,

because who better than they to understand the media dynamics?" says

Michael Claggett, CMC with Anderson Claggett Consulting. "It's almost

like the people in politics who are the spin doctors. I would think PR

people know it from a media delivery standpoint, and should be an

integral part of the team."



Hayes Roth, VP of Americas marketing for Landor, says his firm's role in

the branding process is highly strategic, involving in-depth corporate

research before logos and names are even discussed. Landor frequently

partners with PR firms on the communications plan, but Roth still sees a

lot of PR as fundamentally tactical.



Getting to the strategy table



One of the problems may be the way in-house communicators are perceived

by senior management. During last month's ICCO summit in San Francisco,

John Onoda, SVP and chief communications officer for Charles Schwab,

said one of the biggest problems facing PR agencies in gaining access to

branding strategy is "weak corporate partners" who are marginalized.



Gaining a PR seat at the brand strategy table is a problem that Bob

Druckenmiller, chairman of Porter Novelli, has been tackling, and he

chaired a panel on the subject at the ICCO summit. Panelists included

Onoda, Burghardt Tenderich, SVP and partner at Applied Communications,

and Paul Argenti, professor of management and corporate communications

at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.



In preparation for the discussion, Druckenmiller and his team spoke to

communications officers at 20 of the top 100 global brands as determined

by Business Week and Interbrand. His research revealed that many of the

communicators surveyed believe there is little difference between

corporate brand, which has more of a marketing ring to it, and corporate

reputation, which sounds more like PR.



Druckenmiller's polling also found that companies define corporate

brands broadly. Bill Curry of Amazon.com defined it as "what people will

say about your company when you are not there." Iwata describes the

brand as "the essence of our reputation and our value proposition to the

marketplace."



So what is the difference between corporate brand and reputation? "There

is a sense that the term 'brand management' is more aspiration and

forward-looking," Druckenmiller explains. "Whereas reputation management

could sound a little more defensive and passive."



Paul Argenti, who consults with companies on branding strategies, says

terminology may be one factor thwarting the advance of PR, but stresses

that other issues are hurting the industry's ability to play the brand

game. "Out of the 75 companies I've worked with - and 50 are top

companies - why were no PR firms involved in any of these?" he asks. "To

me, it's the classic example of the kinds of problems we have, that PR

firms are not perceived as strategists."



Instead, he says, design firms, which on the surface have no greater

claim to the strategist moniker, have been able to position themselves

effectively through savvy hiring and focusing on the company's business

objectives. Management consultancies also focus on hiring MBA

candidates.



The PR industry is not known for recruiting MBAs, although that is

changing.



That perceived lack of grounding in business may be damaging the

credibility of PR among corporate leaders. "If you look at management

consultants, they are coming through the CEO door, and I'm coming

through the PR door," explains Dave Samson, partner/director at Ketchum

in San Francisco. "Historically, they have had more credibility because

of education and training."



Where there's work to be done



PR firms may also have to work harder in order to prove the value of PR

in relation to brand management. Liquid Agency recently commissioned a

survey called "The 2001 Bruised and Battered Brands Poll" to gather

opinions on brand survival during the downturn in the technology

market.



"We talk about reputation," says Donovan Neale-May, president of

Neale-May & Partners, which is helping with the study. "But the industry

as a whole does not do a good job of showing how the brand is

compromised by poor PR practices."



Some in the industry believe PR is increasing its role in branding by

focusing on its strengths. Applied's Tenderich does not minimize PR's

media expertise, but sees how it can be a tool to influence

stakeholders.



"Media coverage is the result of an editorial process, which translates

into higher credibility than advertising," he says. "For that reason, I

believe PR is in the process of becoming the most important branding

tool in the marketing mix."



PR must continue to look to its existing expertise in order to gain even

more credibility in the corporate branding matrix. Building

relationships across a broad range of constituencies is one of the

flagship capabilities of the industry, and a crucial tool for

corporations intent on transcending their product lines.



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