Matthew Carlton
Aug 28, 2013

Communications: Blending of roles may edge out PR agencies

The blurring of lines due to social media has seen marketers in charge of communications—and PR agencies have to adapt.

Communications: Blending of roles may edge out PR agencies

The task of many senior marketers is getting increasingly complex, with many now finding themselves in charge of communications. While in the past it was smaller companies fusing senior marketing and communications roles—arguably as a cost-saving strategy—some of the world’s biggest brands now see it as a logical means to achieve their business goals. For instance, Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed was given the additional remit of overseeing communications as part of his seat on the board. 

Is such an alignment a case of cost-cutting due to financial pressure from above? Not according to Andrew Pickup, senior director, Asia communications at Microsoft, who believes the blending of the roles is a necessity due to the rapidly evolving media landscape. “Media is now a far more complex and dynamic organism than ever, straddling owned, earned and paid formats that continuously feed off one another. Brands these days need to be content publishers in their own right.”

A similar view is shared by APCO Worldwide MD Amy Wendholt, who says social media is the cause of the convergence between the functions. “Communication can no longer be isolated to a single audience, as any message sent to one audience will reach others. These blurred lines have created internal and external pressures to merge the functions: internal pressures to find synergy in their work and leverage each activity to engage with all audiences; and external pressures as consumers expect brands to link the dots between communications, no matter the platform.”

According to a recent APCO global survey, 71 per cent of the 70,000 people interviewed said expectations for companies’ conduct have increased. In addition, 61 per cent said companies now serve functions in society that were once reserved for the government.

CLIENT COMMENT Agencies must step up or be made redundant

AGENCY COMMENT Marcomms must be better aligned

However, perhaps most interesting was that the interviewees felt that the best companies are those that are an advocate for things that are important to them. This means companies need to understand this new landscape and engage with all audiences on issues which are important to them, which in turn demonstrates the need for marketing and communications roles to be tightly aligned.

Communications has always been a critical part of the marketing mix, so perhaps it’s only natural to integrate this component into the marketers’ responsibilities, creating more synergy with other marketing activities and enhancing the effectiveness of the overall commercial approach. 

“Integrating communications into marketing allows it to be closer to the business; thus creating effective communications that are more authentic and consistent with the brand positioning,” says Yung C. Ooi, head of marketing communications, Asia-Pacific at DHL Express. He believes that such integration can also go beyond more effective engagement with consumers and can create stronger internal communications “that are in sync with the business objectives and brand promises to create stronger employee engagement”.

The addition of communications responsibilities means another metaphorical ball for marketers to juggle. So how are they coping with another dimension to already multidimensional roles? “For me, the essential ingredient is having a good team around you that brings skills from multiple disciplines including marketing, communications and sales,” says Pickup. 

Ooi believes this extended remit should be a natural extension of every marketer’s skillset, given that it is “one of the most visible ‘deliverables’ of a marketer’s output”. 

He encourages marketers in such positions to take a balanced approach between being data and analytically savvy, yet with “the creativity and story-telling skillsets required for effective communications”, which, he says, can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the entire marketing organisation and activities. 

Marketers are currently being confronted with the need to focus on data—a trend which shows no sign of abating—so this emphasis on communications will allow them to be creative and use their initiative rather than being at the mercy of data and measurables. 

The addition of communication responsibilities inevitably has repercussions when it comes to a brand’s relationship with its PR agency. 

While this does not necessarily mean relationships will become more strained or that PR agencies’ roles will lessen, it does place a greater importance on getting closer to the customers to really understand their business and commercial objectives, as well as the need to embrace the influence of digital in their thinking and in their work. 

“Almost everything is measurable these days and results and outcomes for initatives are almost instantaneous,” says Ooi. “So speed and response time is also critical. Agencies will need to establish closer and deeper partnerships with the client and develop a greater and more insightful understanding of the client’s business.”

CLIENT COMMENT Agencies must step up or be made redundant

Rebecca Smith, general manager, brand and communications, Fonterra

With content and consumer engagement now vital to your brand, it is harder to distinguish between the proposition, the offer, and the interaction.

Marketing and communications are merging, blending and overlapping. It is no longer a linear equation from offer to advertising idea. The medium is often part of the solution—not just a line on the media schedule.

Marketers now need to participate in consumer conversations, engage to answer questions, gauge responses, and connect.

Equally, the brand’s communications leader needs to really understand the business drivers in order to orchestrate the right mix, direct the conversations and achieve the right outcomes.

When done right, you see good ideas coming from all members of the team. Sometimes, heaven forbid, briefs become unnecessary as both teams trust each other to work toward common goals. Removing the sense of ‘them and us’ in the marketing and communications arena opens the door to real collaboration and allows the teams to build on each others’ strengths.

Of course the two teams need to challenge each other, but within the same framework and with the same measures of success.

It is rare to find one person who has the skill to do both really well consistently. I have come across people who believe they can do both—but I suspect they’re misinformed about the greatness of their work.

Just as marketing and communications is blending, it’s getting harder to distinguish between creative, content, media and engagement.

Every agency whether digital, creative or PR tells you they can create conversations, stimulate discussion or deliver compelling content across platforms. Talk about blurred lines! I believe PR agencies in general have been somewhat slower than others to broaden their business model.
With more and more customers expecting genuine dialogue and engagement to come from within your business, I sometimes question if there will be a role for the PR agency in the future.

AGENCY COMMENT Marcomms must be better aligned

Ian Rumsby, chief strategy officer for Asia-Pacific, Weber Shandwick

Technology has reprogrammed consumer media habits and in response, brands are reprogramming the user experience for discovering and sharing content.

That engagement shift has given organisations the mandate to become brand publishers, which in turn has provoked marketers to ensure there is greater alignment between the marketing and communications functions.

The disciplines remain distinct, but the way they are managed has changed. Technology has given brands the opportunity to have a far more intimate and engaging relationship with consumers. But that intimacy comes with responsibility.

Consumers are now more marketing savvy and brand-selective than ever. That means that the marketing and communications functions have to be better aligned, acknowledging that their mismanagement can be as damaging to the reputation of a brand as any product failure or operational mishap.

Public relations agencies need to be stakeholder engagement specialists. That demands of them the ability to research, analyse and interpret data, and to then create and deliver content across multiple channels, mapping it against that data.


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