Telling one story

Comms and marketing units are being integrated to create cohesive strategies, but do the opportunities outweigh the challenges?

Comms and marketing units are being integrated to create cohesive strategies, but do the opportunities outweigh the challenges?


Simon Sproule, corporate VP of global marketing communications at Nissan Motor Company, has two words of advice for communications leaders whose companies are merging their marketing and PR units: “Embrace it.”

Sproule took the helm of Nissan's newly combined department in 2010, a change he says started at the company with CEO Carlos Ghosn.

“[Ghosn] said, ‘Look, the world is changing, so how are you going to cope with it?'” Sproule recalls. “In the end, we were trying to tell one story.”

Sproule says it makes more sense to tell Nissan's story under an integrated communications model, and other companies – such as IBM, General Electric, and Microsoft – have reached the same conclusion. While Sproule and others tout the benefits of merging marketing and PR, for many communications execs, it is still a new approach that creates as many challenges as opportunities.

Separated into silos, marketing and PR professionals can disagree about certain communications issues and create conflict at companies, some agency and corporate leaders say. For example, a study conducted by Makovsky & Company between July and October 2012 found that CMOs and CCOs often disagree over who has ownership of social media.

“That is why integration needs to happen. As long as those arguments continue, it hinders a company from telling its story,” Sproule says. “If you do get the different units sitting around the table and everyone pulls in the same direction, creativity goes up and politics go down.”

The Makovsky study concluded that consumers are driving integration of the marketing and PR disciplines. Survey respondents, who consisted of marketing, PR, and corporate communications professionals at the VP level or above, attributed the trend to the “growing impact of reputation on consumers' buying decisions” and the “increased voice of consumers” through social media.

Lisa Travatello, global brand and consumer marketing practice chair at Burson-Marsteller, says the ratio of her clients with integrated marcomms departments to those without is about 50/50. More companies are “reimagining what the communications mix can be” as they seek alignment on messaging and spending, as well as a “higher return on value” among influencers, employees, customers, investors, and marketing partners, she adds.

A benefit of removing barriers between marketing and PR is “the right hand is aware of what the left hand is doing,” says David Chamberlin, EVP and GM of Edelman's Dallas office. A marketing department, which tends to be more focused on driving sales, could create reputational issues for a company if it does not understand the role of PR and corporate communications, he explains. Likewise, the communications function might lack some of the creative skills of marketing, he adds.

Tommy Bahama's Relaxation Day was a fusion of marketing and PR strategies.

Natural progression
For Virgin America, merging the PR and marketing teams was a natural transition, says VP of marketing and communications Luanne Calvert, who assumed leadership of the airline's new marcomms unit in October. The marketing and PR departments already worked closely together on brand initiatives such as social media and events, so combining the two simply formalized that collaboration, she explains.

“In communications, there is always this idea of what is on brand and off brand. By streamlining our departments, we can have a clearer agreement of what is on brand,” she says. “It allows us to come up with better programs that work across different media.”

Benefits of a combined marcomms function include widened measurement perspectives, Calvert adds. “We measure things in different ways. With PR, a lot of metrics are around impressions, but it's always been a challenge in connecting that to revenue goals,” she notes. “We're starting to do that more with social media and other campaigns, so there has been a lot of sharing and learning.”

Integration of PR and marketing happened gradually at retail company Tommy Bahama, says SVP of marketing and restaurants Rob Goldberg, who oversees marcomms for the company's apparel and restaurant brands. Leading a team of about 20 professionals, Goldberg says the lines have been blurred between traditional marketing and PR. For example, Tommy Bahama led a campaign last summer to make National Relaxation Day on August 15 an official US holiday, an initiative that included a giveaway, social media, and press outreach.

Nissan's marcomms unite works on everything from media strategy to digital efforts such as Innovation Garage.

Seamless transition
“[The campaign] turned into a big tool for marketing, but it also communicated our image and what we stand for, which is relaxation,” Goldberg says. “I'm not sure what selling and brand is anymore. I think we've just accepted the fact it's blurry and we should approach it with the same sort of discipline for both.

“There's a time and a place for communications with more of an image and brand sensibility, and a time and a place for communications directed more at selling and driving company objectives. To try and isolate it, I would have a hard time unraveling it today,” he adds.

Merging the marketing and PR disciplines also has a positive impact on employee communications, Goldberg says. Tommy Bahama employs 2,500 people across the US, with additional employees at locations in Macau, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

“When we can speak with one voice, it helps [employees] understand who we are too,” Goldberg explains. “That translates to the public because a big part of our brand is our employees.” To support an integrated marcomms
function, Goldberg and leaders in similar positions say they must recruit talent from a wide range of backgrounds. Building a strong team is crucial, Chamberlin says, because executives who oversee multiple disciplines cannot be experts in everything and have to delegate some responsibilities to their staff.

In Nissan's marcomms department, for example, employees work on everything from media strategy and digital efforts such as its Nissan Innovation Garage to CSR and internal communications. Sproule comes from a more traditional PR background, but only 20% to 30% of his current role involves PR, he explains. “The challenge is getting all the parts to work together.”  

At Barclaycard US, CMO Peggy Maher oversees corporate and customer communications, digital and social marketing, new product development, marketing analytics, and rewards. Maher, who previously spent 25 years at American Express in roles focused on international marketing, product development, customer engagement, and loyalty offerings, says it is important for her and her team to “stay current” and evolve their skillsets by attending conferences, sharing knowledge, or seeking other educational opportunities. 

Chamberlin cautions that executives leading integrated communications departments could “spend so much time on education and not get enough work done.” Adding extra responsibilities to the CMO role might lead to higher stress and turnover in the job, he says.

Added responsibilities
“Asking them to be experts in marketing, advertising, lead generation, and then throwing government relations, employee communications, financial communications, and media relations on top of that – that's just mammoth,” Chamberlin adds. “Cramming everything together under one position might be counterproductive. There are great benefits, but you have to realize how much you are asking for from a role that's already experiencing turnover.”

On top of this concern, many PR executives are still resistant to integrating marketing and communications because they warn companies could create teams of generalists rather than specialists. Yet Sproule and others disagree with this premise.

“I do not believe that you dumb down to the lowest common denominator and force everyone to a common level. Instead you're lifting people up, allowing them to learn, pick up different skills, and have an appreciation of both sides,” Sproule says. “We want to train people in our business who can think both ways.”

While every company might not take the same route as Nissan or Virgin America, it is clear to both marketing and PR professionals that the role of communications will continue to evolve and might take an altogether new shape. Sproule cites the example of many holding companies, which have pointed to a future of integration by acquiring digital and social media firms along with marketing, PR, and advertising agencies.

Sproule says that while he has deep expertise in PR, his successor might just as easily come from a marketing background. “You've still got people who consider themselves just communicators or marketers,” he adds. “We have got to do away with that.”

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