Arun Sudhaman 25 May 2012 // 10:09AM GMT
Question: Can the public relations profession ever take on a more central brand-building role while its clients remain hopelessly Balkanized into archaic silos? The answer to that question, upon which much hinges for the PR industry, still seems difficult to assess. I raise this point as an addendum to Paul Holmes’ bracing call-to-arms for the PR profession, which I would suggest is worth reading. It becomes even more relevant in a week when Procter & Gamble, perhaps the world’s biggest PR spender, opted to merge its “external relations” department with its brand management division, under the overall leadership of chief brand-building officer Marc Pritchard. One fairly evident reason, I would suggest, why PR firms have felt the need to rebrand themselves as ‘communications firms’ is simply to mirror the structure favoured by most of their clients: a communications department that sits apart from other relevant functions such as marketing, human resources, customer services and - occasionally - social media. It has become fashionable for PR people to tout their ability to provide C-suite counsel. But the C-suite is not a monolithic entity; it consists of differing - often competing - functions, departments and egos. With that in mind, one observation is that PR firms are dependent on comms departments for most of their income. This has formed on effective glass ceiling on the industry’s growth ambitions, because comms heads tend to wield puny budgets when compared to their better-funded peers in marketing. Enterprising agencies of all stripes have made inroads into marketing budgets, and some have been successful. But few PR firms can credibly claim to provide the bulk of their services, and draw their earnings, from a range of departments beyond the communications function. The corollary to this is that a ‘communications’ label also fits PR firms trying to sell themselves to marketers who may have a limited perspective of their capabilities. It has often struck me that corporate structures are not necessarily fit for purpose in the social media age. At the very least, they are not optimised to deal with a situation where a company’s brand is so easily accessible, via a wide range of channels. Separating communications from marketing, or social media from customer service seems like a ineffective response to today’s reputation reality: that people can and will interact with, discuss and even attack your brand wherever and whenever they choose. Doubtless, there are some sensible reasons behind the existing division of duties. But the corporate model does require re-examination. Accordingly, it has been unsurprising to see a convergence in communications and marketing departments. Companies like IBM, Xerox and Nissan have all combined these functions to create a division that hews a little closer to the genuine public relations mandate described by Paul. The latest addition to this trend is Procter & Gamble. The company, and in particular Pritchard, has long emphasised the central role that public relations thinking should play in its consumer engagement. Even if the rhetoric does not always match the reality on the ground, the company appears willing to accept a more strategic role of PR, albeit one that is largely deployed in pursuit of consumer marketing goals. One question that regularly accompanies these types of mergers relates to who should lead the newly-combined entity. This is not idle political chatter. Companies often seem happier to hand over leadership to a marketer, due in large part, presumably, to the influence that comes with a weighty budget, along with a continuing tendency to characterise communications as a cost, rather than a driver of value. This is particularly true of consumer-facing companies. It is probably not a coincidence that of the handful of companies where public relations people rule the roost, two - IBM and Xerox - are business-to-business players, while a third - General Electric - is significantly diversified. That is not to say that marketers should not necessarily assume the fuller range of public relations responsibilities demanded by a modern, combined function. In my experience, they are often more proactive; more willing to take on risk and experiment; younger; and, more comfortable with ambiguity. Contrast that with the stereotypical CCO: a gatekeeper that often appears happier to deflect and deter attention and scrutiny in an organization and its CEO. These are broad brushstrokes but, hopefully, they paint a useful picture. The flipside of the rather neat characterisation offered above is that marketers often appear focused on one thing, and one thing only: shifting product. CCOs, meanwhile, ought to have a much more intuitive understanding of the unique blend of policy, conversation and relationship-management that should define modern public relations. Despite the interest generated by these reorganizations, they remain few and far between. The emergence of social media has complicated matters. In some cases it has resulted in continued isolation between different functions, each of which opts for its own unique approach. In other companies it has fallen to one department or another (typically marketing or comms) to lead social media engagement. In many cases, moreover, companies have scrambled together a consensual cross-functional digital bureaucracy. More common are the complaints about companies where “comms and marketing don’t talk to each other”, to say nothing of the silos that surround human resources or customer services. Overcoming decades of organizational atrophy is no easy task, but it is of critical importance if the PR industry truly wants to embrace the role that it craves. For starting to think boldly, P&G deserves credit.