The question to be debated: Are corporations’ PR and marketing departments merging — or at least converging?
They should be. In this information age, a company’s corporate reputation, often seen as the domain of the PR department, is inextricably linked to its ability to sell stuff and build brands, usually seen as the domain of the marketing department. You’ll struggle to peddle your eco-friendly detergent if your company is being slammed for pouring chemicals into a river; no one will want to know if your tacos are filling while a family of rats is partying on video in one of your eateries, and so on.
The language barriers are coming down too. The marketing executives who focused more on unique selling points, brand messages and recall are now starting to talk about trust (“Market share is trust materialized,” Jim Stengel said at the recent 4A’s Media Conference) and transparency, long watchwords of the PR mavens.
That transparency means that marketing departments, so often home to hyperbole in the past, are also confronting the fact that an over-claim in promotional material can be exposed as a lie in the time it takes some blogger to write that his whites don’t wash whiter and his phone service actually drops calls every other conversation.
Conversely, many companies’ PR executives, who once massaged other people’s messages and left most content creation to the marketing department, are now building and populating websites, social networks, message boards, blogs, vlogs and podcasts. They’re no longer just intermediaries; today they’re becoming media and message originators, too.
Despite this apparent convergence of purpose, the two disciplines are still separate and isolated fiefdoms in many companies, to the extent that lots of PR people Ad Age reporters speak to have little knowledge of what’s happening in their marketing departments. While Richard Edelman, one of my fellow Arthur Page panelists, said his PR agency is interacting with more CMOs than it used to, it is still far more common to find PR controlled by a corporate-communications chief, while advertising, direct marketing and so on are under the auspices of the CMO.
It’s also interesting to note that the two departments are moving in opposite directions when it comes to the issue of consumer control. While marketers are all talking about giving up some degree of control of their messages, PR teams are becoming ever more officious controllers of the message. They seem frequently unable to countenance anyone — internally or externally — saying any thing they construe as off-message, and often employ techniques honed in the political arena to undermine the reputations of people or media they perceive as having crossed them.
In fact, arguably the biggest divide between the two departments in most corporations is cultural. Marketing executives are typically offense-minded: “How can we sell more or improve margins?” PR executives, on the other hand, often seem to be reactive and defense-minded: “How do we stop this potential horror story from ever reaching the outside world?” On several occasions I’ve heard top corporate-communications execs say their best work is the stuff you’ll never hear about.
That’s a big cultural gulf, but as the internet makes the relationship between corporate reputation and brand equity ever more transparent, the two departments will have to use their new found common language to bridge it.