PR in marketing: A structural issue?
The marketing and public relations functions have mostly sat apart in an organisation, but social media is causing that tructure to crumble. Elizabeth Low explains why.
Earlier this year, as its global external relations officer Christopher Hassall retired, Procter & Gamble, traditionally one of the biggest spenders on public relations, restructured its huge external relations group to a smaller, nimbler one, and then dispersed staff from this group into various departments such as research and development and government affairs.
It also put about a hundred of these staff specifically in charge of social media. Classified under P&G's "communications" umbrella, these staff now report to global brand lead Marc Pritchard.
Pritchard argues these changes are expected to give P&G's marketing efforts a more lucid perspective, with public relations more closely interlinked with its various departments.
P&G's move is an interesting one to note. With the rise of social media and its overarching ability to blow up a minor issue into a major crisis, the idea of having public relations take a more central role in the organisation is a logical move. (A disgruntled employee, consumer, even an angry janitor could be the catalyst for your next media crisis - this being written as JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon prepares to meet a protesting janitor about her salary).
Social media has made a compelling case for marketers to consider bringing PR into their fold and, as the Health Promotion Board's director of corporate marketing Vernon Vasu says, in his view every client-side marketer must have some PR experience.
The marketing function increasingly calls for the communications expertise of the public relations professionals, especially in today's scenario where brands and agencies are forced to communicate with customers.
"That's not normal for marketers, not normal for comms people or creative agencies. They never had a dialogue. It was all about how good the monologue was. But today, it's all about dialogue and it's a totally different skill set. Today the only people with that skill set in comms are PR people," Vasu says.
Where the two meet
Sure enough, we do see examples where the two disciplines that have historically sat in separate corners, converge, for example, at The Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), McDonald's and Cathay Pacific.
At WRS, which manages tourist attractions, the Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park, its corporate communications team sits as a separate unit, but within the marketing team, reporting to the marketing and communications lead. For the organisation, PR works to support advertising activities.
"This structure enables better communication synergy when launching advertising campaigns," says Isabel Cheng, director of sales, marketing and communications for Wildlife Reserves Singapore. Cheng oversees corporate communications, advertising and promotion, as well as sponsorship, membership and adoption.
Meanwhile, the company has also stepped up its in-house PR capabilities and expanded its corporate communications team, largely doing away with the need of external agencies, except for "very corporate strategic issues".
An example of how WRS used PR to advance its advertising efforts was the recent launch of Jurong Bird Park's Breeding and Research Centre (BRC) in May.
While the marketing team focused on an advertising campaign that included in-park activities for the June holidays, corporate communications came up with a PR strategy, a 1.3m tall giant egg in pink sunglasses with feet and wings in a deck chair under a beach umbrella.
The roving giant egg getting a pedicure and being pampered was paraded in Orchard Road over a weekend to gather public interest in the opening of the BRC. Related stories on the avian life being cared for by BRC staff were pitched to the media and published as well.
The zoo also did a publicity blitz on the birth of its baby giraffe last December.
To complement the advertising campaign, corporate communications came up with a host of publicity ideas for further awareness, launching an animal blog to journal the calf's growing journey. The blog included photos, videos and keeper interviews, and was updated weekly over seven instalments. A 2.1m pram holding a replica of the baby giraffe also made an appearance in Orchard Road, which was well covered by the media.
For McDonald's the trend runs in a similar vein. Diane Chiu, vice-president and chief marketing officer for McDonald's Restaurants Hong Kong, says it integrates all its marketing strategic plans with corporate and marketing communications and this not only applies to organisation design and programme execution, it also extends to its partner agencies.
"For example, DDB's account team has integrated traditional and digital creative offering, servicing and programme management, and so has our media agency. It is a natural patch in line with consumer lifestyle products and a more complex media landscape," Chiu says.
An example of how McDonald's runs such a campaign was its Chinese New Year campaign this year called "Sharing the blessings with one and all".
McDonald's dedicated the campaign to people who could not celebrate the festival, for example, people who drove the buses, sold flowers, played the New Year drums, and kept the city running during the widely celebrated Chinese festival. It hired two of Hong Kong's most loved comedians - a duo called "Soft Hard" - and created an app allowing Hong Kongers to share greetings via a "blessing generator", and allowed people to interact with Soft Hard using augmented reality technology.
It also sent its brand ambassador Soft Hard travelling though the city to pay tribute to the unsung heroes. On the PR aspect, it lined up a series of feature stories in two local dailies to promote the spirit of the unsung heroes where McDonald's brand messages of spreading love and care were embedded. Chiu says in terms of business objectives, it achieved record-breaking sales and customer visits.
Another brand which champions the convergence of marketing and PR functions is Cathay Pacific.
Maylin Loo, manager of marketing and communications for Cathay Pacific Airways, says marketing and PR work very closely together for the airline's strategies and campaigns to ensure these are well communicated and delivered.
An example of this was when the airline launched its fourth daily flight from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, and 10 weekly flights from Penang to Hong Kong earlier this year.
The launch events were supported by print and online ad campaigns, as well as media and travel trade PR events, which further enhanced the publicity and message.
"These combined marketing and PR initiatives also allowed us to better communicate and share on how much we've grown together with the Malaysian travel market," Loo says.
According to Loo, while PR operates to further marketing initiatives, it also runs as an essential function of the business.
"It should form a strong foundation of all communication within a company as well as with its customers and stakeholders," she says.
Cathay Pacific works very closely with its PR agencies on various communications initiatives and ideas, but the focus and direction of the piece of communication is decided by the company itself, which is vital to ensure comms strategies are well-integrated with the overall marketing objective.
The above are just some examples, but the PR profession still has a long way to go before being totally inclusive with marketing.
Time for a rejig?
Simeon Mellalieu, chairman of the Council of PR Firms of Hong Kong, says the role of PR and where it should sit in an organisation remains impossible to generalise.
A lot of the convergence also depends on the kind of business in question. For example, the communications needs of a FMCG or technology business can be very marketing-oriented, based on product branding and communications, advertising and marketing campaigns and tactical efforts.
For such a company, it would make sense for marketing to take the lead in all communications efforts at the strategic business unit (SBU) level.
"How the PR function is positioned is determined by the communications goals and needs of the company. The relative importance of PR versus marketing in a B2B compared to a B2C company, for example, will be quite different. In some cases PR may ‘lead', in other cases it may be marketing," Mellalieu says.
However, he adds bigger organisations such as multinationals seem to prefer to separate PR and marketing teams, but reporting to a director of marketing communications.
"The director sets the strategy for the separate teams to execute on and reports the results up to the senior leadership," he says.
"In smaller firms you tend to see teams with combined responsibility over both marketing and PR."
According to Ng Wei Joo, partner at Tulchan Communications and president of the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore, typically, most big organisations have or can afford different tiers of PR and communication support - at the corporate, C-suite, product, segment and business unit levels.
"At the business unit level, it exists to directly support and drive business strategy and goals. Where, how and why each function fits within a company - whether it's PR within marketing, or marketing within PR - depends a lot on the company's business strategy, focus and direction," Ng says.
Ng, who has held senior roles in communications at United Overseas Bank, CapitaLand and DBS prior to this one, says lining PR with more measurable units such as a strategic business unit carries benefits for PR as well, with more justifiable contributions (and ultimately bonuses).
There is also the "faster gratification" factor he says, where typically, a business, segment or product campaign usually produces faster results and feedback than say a corporate branding initiative that may take longer to generate awareness and disposition.
"That way, it allows for a faster tack in approach, and the feedback loop is shorter and the process is more dynamic."
However, Ng warns that should a company become overly focused on business or operational goals, and allow its SBUs - or any other unit such as human resources or legal - to dominate its communication agenda and overshadow its corporate narrative, then it may win the battle, but will lose the war in the long term.
The real worth of PR
Unfortunately, from a marketing perspective, for years PR has either been looked down upon as the cheaper option or a cost centre when it comes to in-house corporate communication capabilities. In other words, an investment with no "measurable returns". The top management has also tended to be much more receptive to the measurable marketing function than to PR.
While most marketers and public relations professionals Marketing spoke to were for a stronger integration of public relations across all touch-points in an organisation, what most also acknowledged is that for now, the wider practice is to let marketing or other more measurable business units take the lead.
In a roundtable discussion held by Marketing to further analyse the issues (take a look on page 36 for our discussion with key senior communications leaders for more), most of the attendees acknowledged measurement of the function has always been a moot point for PR professionals, and most have settled on the conclusion that measurement tools are simply insufficient to weigh the function in its entirety.
For example, with social media, it is now possible to measure what is said to an audience and how a PR professional can react, says Andrew Woolnough, head of corporate communications at Visa, in the Asia Pacific, Central/Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa.
But he adds: "By measuring a two by four in PR, it doesn't take into account any concept of perception."
However, this is not to say the situation will not evolve in the near future. When talking with several public relations agencies, a few mentioned they have already started pitching for marketing briefs, a possible indication of the convergence of both functions, judging by demand.
And, as Andrew Thomas, managing director of Singapore and regional director for Southeast Asia for Ogilvy PR, says, in the past the CEO would hear more from the CMO and only touch base with the corporate communications lead. This is now changing. "The communications lead is having a more engaged voice across the company with all the board members."
While convergence remains academic at this point, the issue ultimately comes back to whether the public relations function can convince senior management of its necessity and influence, which will determine how widely this trend will take place, especially in many of the emerging Asia Pacific markets.
Boxout: PR in Luxury Marketing
One sector that places a central focus on public relations is luxury goods. At the recent luxury marketing summit held by Marketing, most of the luxury brand marketers mentioned that public relations played a vital role in their marketing strategy, with it being the number one option in most cases.
Manmeet Vohra, marketing director of TAG Heuer, LVMH Watch and Jewellery India, says PR is a key aspect of the brand's strategy.
"Image is everything in luxury brands," she says, proceeding to talk about TAG Heuer's use of brand ambassadors such as Maria Sharapova, Lewis Hamilton, Leonardo Di Caprio and Shah Rukh Khan, "who reflect the brand values of passion, precision, performance and perfection".
Besides creating awareness of TAG Heuer's products, these ambassadors help connect with the luxury watch brand's target audiences through event appearances, photo shoots, interviews, special features and more.
In one recent example, it did a photo shoot at Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan's house.
"His house is a tourist attraction in Mumbai and to get glimpses of it from inside through the photo shoot received a lot of interest from most magazines. It also worked very well to promote the brand," Vohra says.
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