PR execs warn of pitfalls in merging comms, marketing

NEW YORK: As more companies merge their communications and marketing operations, comms leaders say it is crucial for CCOs to retain the ear of the C-suite.

NEW YORK: As more companies merge their communications and marketing operations, comms leaders say it is crucial for CCOs to retain the ear of the C-suite.

The issue is again in the spotlight after Cigna CCO Maggie FitzPatrick said this week she will leave the health insurer as it merges its marketing and communications departments. Global CMO Lisa Bacus, who joined Cigna last week in a newly created role, will lead the integrated unit following FitzPatrick's departure in August.   

Over the last several months, a number of large companies including SAP, Visa, Allstate, and FedEx have announced similar plans to combine the two functions.

The trend has raised concern among some communicators.

“This is a big mistake. It sets up a situation where important opportunities will be missed that can only be obtained through earned media and objective reporting – not through marketing, sponsored, or branded content,” says Prudential Financial CCO Bob DeFillippo.

DeFillippo, who has led PR and comms for Prudential since 1994, questions the effectiveness of a combined marketing and communications unit in the event of a company crisis.

“Reputations are not built through advertising campaigns,” he says.  

If companies elect to make this transition, it is important that communications chiefs continue to have access to the CEO and other C-suite executives, even if they formally report to the CMO, says Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur W. Page Society.

“If [the CCO] doesn't have a seat at the table, an enterprise may find itself making tone deaf decisions that it might regret later because it made the decisions without broader stakeholder input,” Bolton says.

Robert Mead, SVP of marketing, product, and communications for Aetna, agrees that having the ear of the CEO is essential to his job.

“It's been quite important for my ability to understand what he is trying to accomplish and help him accomplish that as well as carry that message throughout the organization,” he adds.

The rise of social media, which has given new power to consumers, has contributed to integration efforts, PR execs explain. At the same time, some marketing professionals are finding it increasingly difficult to move the needle with paid media efforts, Bolton says.

“Paid media has become less effective, and word of mouth through social media is becoming more important,” Bolton says. “Enterprises need to have a unified position and messaging and the ability to develop relationships with a broad number of stakeholders."

Aetna was a leader in integrating PR with other disciplines, combining its communications, marketing, and corporate public involvement units six years ago. Doing business that way gives companies “a lot more bang for your buck,” Mead says.

“Things happen so fast now that the fewer people you have to bring to the table to talk about how to protect your brand, the better off you are,” Mead says.

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