Merged marcomms groups demand a willingness to learn, collaborate

Key job requirements for today's communications executives are a willingness to learn other marketing skills such as paid media and an eagerness to partner with other business units.

Key job requirements for today's communications executives are a willingness to learn other marketing skills such as paid media and an eagerness to partner with other business units.

Both are more important than ever as the trend of corporations merging their marketing and communications teams heats up, say corporate communications leaders.

One often-cited forerunner of the merged marcomms model is IBM. Over the past decade, the company has undergone various changes to its corporate identity from selling its PC unit to highlighting its role as a corporate problem solver with its Smarter Planet campaign.

With its brand personality now established, IBM continuously evolves its communications strategy, says Ben Edwards, VP of global communications and digital marketing at the company. Edwards manages communications under marcomms chief Jon Iwata.

“The world of marketing has moved on from one in which we spent a lot of money, time, and effort on the external manifestation of the brand,” he says. “I would argue there's been a shift toward focusing on the actual reality of the brand experience.”

This means IBM makes sure there is close collaboration between marketing and communications staffers, as well as human resources and IT pros. Together the units can come up with strong and transparent messages and communications conduits to speak to key stakeholders such as employees, customers, and governments.

Teamwork has become “increasingly important in order to do what we need to do for communications,” Edwards says.

Yet with greater integration among teams, the chief communicator role is beginning to disappear. For instance, when Cigna CCO Maggie FitzPatrick departs Cigna in August, her position is not expected to be filled as the communications department is absorbed by marketing under Lisa Bacus in the newly created role of global CMO.

Not all CMOs have a background in media relations, messaging, counseling the chief executive, and crisis management, notes Jeffrey Hayzlett, CEO of The Hayzlett Group and TallGrass Public Relations and former CMO of Kodak. He notes that many marketing leaders come from business operations roles.

Hayzlett adds that while he had a communications chief reporting to him at Kodak, the company made a move similar to that of Cigna. “The role of communications would have been greatly diminished” because marketing duties tend to be prioritized because they have drastically higher budgets. “Those things move the needle more so then just an article or media relations,” he said.

The trend of consolidation has prompted conversations among communications leader about how they can stay relevant at their organizations.

“If you're a traditional corporate communications practitioner, you can't play the victim,” says AECOM CCO Paul Gennaro. “We need to understand that we can play an active role in what's taking place by asking ourselves how we can be the best leader that contributes to our organizations.”

In his case, that means determining the company's business needs first and then building a communications strategy, instead of the other way around. Communications leaders must be willing to learn about strategies like paid outreach, as well.

“I'm going to need to continue to learn, because things are moving so quickly,” Gennaro says, adding that he's taking a new master's program in his 40s that he doubts will be his last.

Oscar Suris, EVP of corporate communications at Wells Fargo, shares this sentiment, adding, “at the end of the day, what we talk about on my team is what we need to do is do right by the company, and we don't let organization charts get in the way of that.”

Meanwhile, at AT&T, communications staffers are cycled through other departments as part of their training to “[strengthen] the talent pool of the future,” explains Larry Solomon, SVP for corporate communications at the company.

He adds that today's communications professionals must not only pay attention to the day-to-day news cycle, but also to efforts such as a product-launch campaign that may be months in the making. Marketing and communications leaders need an understanding of both types of work to meet a company's business needs, Solomon adds.

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