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Enter the Engagement World

Tony Langham, Lansons Communications
Tony Langham, Lansons Communications

The days of standalone corporate PR departments may be numbered, but their distinct function will remain essential even within companies' merged communications and marketing operations, writes Tony Langham of Lansons Communications

In the next year, many of the remaining standalone big-brand PR and corporate communica­tions functions will be absorbed into marketing departments, while those that remain separate will be much smaller than before. Some of this is driven by recession, but more is driven by a wider re­struc­ture of the marketing services industry that is gathering pace.

In the past couple of months, Marketing has covered restruc­tures at a diverse range of brands and companies, including USA Today, TUI Travel, Kraft, Dyson, HMV Group, Simple and The Co-operative. In future, marketing departments themselves may well transform or disappear, as organi­sa­tions move to a completely integ­rated approach to stakeholder communication and engagement.

The drivers of this shift are clear. As Justin Basini, marketing guru and former Procter & Gamble mark­eter, says: ‘In an increasingly transparent world, all externally focused functions need to be work­ing lock-step together, as the con­sumer can see through the cracks.’

He argues that this can be achieved by forcing closer collabor­ation between brand, marketing, corporate communications, investor relations and CSR.

Chris van der Kuyl, chief execu­tive of Brightsolid, which recently acquired Friends Reunited, adds: ‘Services like Twitter have comp­letely blurred the lines between PR, customer service and market­ing. There is no room, even in the biggest businesses, for these communications teams not to have an integrated approach.’

At NS&I, where media relations has been integrated in mar­comms for nearly 10 years, head of market­ing and communi­cations Tim Mack notes that the priority is now maximising ‘owned’ and ‘earned’ communica­tions over ‘paid-for’.

In this environment, BGL Group director of acquis­itions David Lundholm argues that strong leadership is vital, asking: ‘Why wouldn’t brands centralise all their marcomms?’

Across Lansons’ 100 clients, the unification of PR and natural SEO has been the biggest driver of integ­ration so far. As Ian Williams, Mon­eysupermarket’s recently departed communications director, says: ‘We started working with the SEO team on a weekly, then daily basis, then moved next to them. The next step was to merge the teams.’

Many PR big-hitters believe the complete merging of PR into mark­eting leaves gaps. Former Aon Communications head and consultant Paul Atkinson argues that integrated internal and exter­nal communications to support change management require specialist skills. Another communi­cations director is more direct, claiming that ‘many marketing directors still don’t get PR’ and often find media relations challeng­ing as they can’t control it. Another adds that market­ing directors are rarely as experienced in handling reputational issues.

Lundholm also raises the problems of confidentiality within a single function, recognising the need to balance social media know-how with skill in handling sensitive issues.

Within FTSE-250 and FTSE-100 companies, we see less of a drive to complete integration as chairmen, chief executives and boards still value focused, discreet high-level counsel. The question is how big will these specialist, stand­alone corporate communications functions be?

In the longer term, there is good reason to believe that marketing services and customer communica­tion silos will disappear to be replaced by cross-discipline func­tions like customer engagement.

Some question whether this is a step too far. Skipton Building Soci­ety head of marketing Rachel Ramsden says: ‘Whether you’re called "Cust­omer Engagement" or "Marketing", you’re likely to be doing the same things.’ She warns against the dangers of confusion and blurred responsibility in bigger functions.

Williams is more philos­ophical, observing that the trend to integ­rate may be cyclical. ‘It’s fashion­able to merge the teams now, as we start to understand communica­tion in the content/SEO world and as marketing people learn to deal with earned and influenced media,’ he says. However, he sees no reason why the teams won’t move apart again in the future.

My bet is on a more radical longer-term change, with smaller corporate communications func­tions remaining at quoted comp­anies and cross-discipline ones (customer engagement, govern­ment relations, brand manage­ment, distribution) replacing PR – and marketing – elsewhere.

The question is which tradition­al background – marketing or PR – has the requisite mix of skills to head the new functions.

Tony Langham, chief executive, Lansons Communications

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