As Renault and Nissan become the latest brands to integrate their PR and marketing functions, several questions remain about the motivation behind such changes.
Do they represent good business sense, or are they a simple cost-cutting exercise? Could they be proof that in a social-media age the lines between the disciplines have become blurred?
Whatever the rationale, the idea that brand communication is best served by one integrated team seems to be gaining momentum. Whether it's a full-blown trend yet is less clear, but by deciding to put a chief marketing officer at the head of a combined marketing and communications team, the car marques have joined a cross-sectoral list of companies that includes Warner Bros, Unilever and Aviva.
According to Simon Sproule, who has taken on the role of corporate vice-president, global marketing communications, at Nissan, the approach is in line with international brands' need for consistency and clarity of message. 'We believe integration helps build a more coherent, common communication platform,' he says. 'When a stakeholder can instantly compare what Nissan is saying in Japan to the UK, it makes no sense to have all functions off doing their own thing.'
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This sentiment is echoed by Amanda Mackenzie, chief marketing and communications officer at Aviva. 'It has huge benefits because a brand is holistic,' she says. 'The more you manage it as a single entity, the more likely you are to get the results you want.'
Such arguments in favour of integration of PR and marketing are supported by many industry observers.
Tim Ambler, honorary senior research fellow at London Business School, is scathing of any organisation that has not considered adopting this approach. 'In some companies, especially business-to-business companies, PR is more important than advertising,'
he says. 'It's the main tool that the chief marketing officer uses for communicating with customers, so it's idiotic not to have it as part of marketing.'
If there was once a time when these disciplines could operate effectively without reference to one another, it changed with the advent of the internet and, in particular, social networking. Does a brand's Facebook page, for example, count as PR or marketing?
Mark Blayney Stuart, head of research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, believes that a major advantage of integration is how it enhances risk and reputation management. 'If you have to respond to something quickly, a combined department can cut straight to it and prevent problems escalating.'
Of course, not all companies are going so far as to merge the departments. At Disney, marketing strategies follow product life cycle and involve both departments, but not under the chief marketing officer's remit. 'At a regional level we have separate marketing and PR/publicity, but when we plan our marketing strategies, it's one team,' says Tricia Wilber, chief marketing officer for Walt Disney EMEA. 'We create virtual teams and reporting structure doesn't really matter. We all provide pieces of our expertise.'
In an era of ferocious budget management, it would be easy to assume that all this talk of integration is just a delicate way of reducing headcount without the headlines. Sproule insists this was not the motivation at Nissan. He and Mackenzie both point out that integration does not mean those working in the combined department are now doing hybrid jobs. 'We're not going to have loads of generalists. There's no replacement for people who are brilliant in their field,' says Mackenzie.
With the combined departments reporting to the chief marketing and communications officer, some may argue that traditional PR is losing out to marketing. Indeed, restructures of this type have put more than a few communications directors' noses out of joint. However, in the case of Nissan, Sproule, with his communications background, is proof that marketing will not always come out on top.
For such a structure to work, petty rivalries have to be put to one side. That means discarding prejudices such as the notion that strategic thinking is the sole preserve of marketing. As Sproule says: 'We looked at the best way to communicate our brand - at the structure and processes first, and then at the people.'