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