Should PLCs have one comms team?

After Vodafone's decision to merge its group and UK comms functions, with the aim of forging consistency of message and cutting costs, David Quainton investigates the PR structure of other UK-listed companies

BT: opinion is split as to whether unified comms works best
BT: opinion is split as to whether unified comms works best

Mobile phone firm Vodafone is bringing together its UK and group PR functions (PRWeek, 19 May). Such restructuring of comms is increasingly being adopted by the country's largest corporations.

Group director of corporate affairs Simon Lewis says the restructure will not only save money, but improve ‘consistency of message' for the FTSE 100 firm. But do such large operations really need to pool their UK and group PR to avoid confusion, or is Lewis merely sugar-coating a bitter pill?

‘There is always a case for bringing UK and group teams together when a strong consumer-facing brand shares an identity with its corporate side,' points out Tulchan Communications founder Andrew Grant. ‘In these cases, consumer PR can drive the success of the parent company.'

Former Cable & Wireless director of corporate and public affairs Lesley Smith says: ‘More and more firms are merging [the two functions] because of cost constraints. We did it while I was at Dixons. Although there was a different set of skills involved, we found the teams could grow organically together.'

Trend towards unity
Other in-house comms chiefs and City PROs agree that merging group and UK comms is in vogue.

‘The trend started a few years ago to bring them together,' says Food Standards Agency director of comms Terrence Collis, a former PR chief at LloydsTSB and NatWest. ‘At NatWest we did so. There was an identification between brand and corporate identity, so it made sense to merge them.'

The decision to merge PR functions is driven not by the company's area of business, but by the structure preferred by the comms chief. This is highlighted by FTSE 100 banks, which tend to keep UK and group comms separate.

On results day, HSBC for example will call a press conference announcing the figures to the City, followed by a separate briefing for consumer journalists. For this reason, Barclays director of corporate affairs Stephen Whitehead believes that keeping the functions separate is crucial.

‘UK PR is driven primarily by the needs of the UK bank, whereas group PR reaches very different audiences,' he says. ‘It makes no sense to put them together for our business model.'

He adds: ‘The UK is an important market. To try to serve its needs from the centre in my view would be misguided. The business knows what its needs are better than anyone sitting at the centre.'

Whitehead also dismisses the notion that keeping the functions separate wastes money. ‘By clustering our comms approach into our businesses and establishing tight ways of working and governance rules, we have reduced costs, not increased them,' he says. ‘Why would you say it is OK for France or Spain to have their own communications function but not the UK? It makes no sense.'

Interestingly, Smith argues that bringing group and UK functions together does save money, via staff cuts and streamlining. When at Cable & Wireless, Smith merged UK and group comms teams in the face of fears that such action would reduce their effectiveness. ‘But the perception of the UK business drove the group's success,' she says. ‘Merging the functions did not dilute comms value.'

Some in-house comms operations work in a different way, whereby group and UK functions remain distinct, but with the heads of each reporting to a third director, whose job it is to ensure consistency. College Hill founder Alex Sandberg argues that what really matters is comms teams working towards the same goals. Whether or not UK and group PR operate together, they need consistency of message.

‘Team spirit is crucial,' says Sandberg. ‘There has to be cross-unit discipline. Everyone has to know the goals of the company and that has to run consistently via any messages delivered.'

In search of consistency
BT group director of comms Peter Morgan says: ‘There is always a danger that "the group" can become isolated from the business, which is disastrous when the perception of the business can have so much bearing on the group's performance,' he argues. ‘Everyone is concerned about consistency of message.'

That consistency is driven by both a strong comms figurehead and a company-wide understanding of core
messages. ‘Almost any system can be made to work if the people within it make it work,' argues Collis.

As with in-house PR staff, successfully managing agencies depends not on whether comms teams operate
separately, but on keeping them informed. ‘If you are using several agencies they must have a common understanding,' says former Boots director of corporate affairs Alastair Eperon, who founded OFR Consulting.

FTSE 100 comms chiefs generally offer sympathy for Vodafone's position. Shorn of the money it had while business was booming in the late 1990s, and experiencing a tumultuous time at board level - as ex-CEO Sir Christopher Gent cuts his ties - they feel Lewis has been forced into cost reduction.

But merging group and UK comms will not necessarily blunt the effectiveness of Vodafone's PR. As College Hill's Sandberg puts it: ‘Comms is multi-dimensional. It does not matter what the structure is as
long as it is robust and the message is consistent.'

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