The trend toward the convergence of public relations and marketing is as worrisome as it is inevitable.
Two important surveys reveal how unstoppable the trend is. Nasdaq Corporate Solutions, in its CCO Measurement Survey, concluded that the metrics Chief Communications Officers are likely to use illustrates the convergence of public relations, corporate communications, and marketing. The 2nd annual Global Communications Report from the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations is more blunt. Half of the respondents predicted that PR will be more aligned with marketing in five years while only 8% believe it will continue as a distinct and separate function. Eighty-two percent said that the "public relations" won't accurately describe the work they will be doing by 2022; the term, they said, needs to be more broadly defined.
The two studies are worth some side-by-side analysis. The Nasdaq study focuses on key performance indicators (KPIs) for which chief communication officers are held accountable. Revenue responsibility has already become more common among chief marketing officers (CMOs). Some companies are taking even bigger steps to ensure marketing contributes more measurably to the bottom line. Organizations are eliminating the CMO position altogether, opting instead for a “chief growth officer” accountable for marketing, customer, and sales strategies. Other companies have unified global consumer marketing, U.S. advertising, media, and entertainment under a single CMO. One analysis called these “hybrid CMOs, ” whose breadth of responsibility enables the company to speak with one voice across all communication functions.
Most CCOs report directly to the CEO, but the Nasdaq and Annenberg studies make it clear they are expected to fall in line. The fact that most of the metrics CCOs employ to demonstrate their effectiveness are marketing-focused cements that impression.
Speaking with one voice is an admirable goal. Ensuring PR, marketing, advertising, and corporate communications aren't tripping over each other's messages is important for the sake of credibility and consistency. Further, the nature of public relations has been changing with the unprecedented evolution of the media landscape. Not long ago, PR confined its efforts to earning media coverage. Today, the PESO model (paid, earned, shared, owned) is at the heart of most PR efforts. Among in-house PR practitioners, according to the Annenberg study, earned media work is declining while owned media is on the rise, along with branded content and influencer marketing.
Measurement and accountability should be at the heart of any PR work. That, however, is where the problem arises. The Annenberg survey points to one problem: Only 34% of respondents rank measurement of results as their top choice for demonstrating PR's value. Most are focused on how PR achieves business objectives, a form of measurement that "focuses on less-tangible variables like brand reputation and purchase intent." Many respondents also found leadership and creativity as more important than fundamental measurement.
As for the Nasdaq study, the KPIs most CCOs are using are clearly focused on marketing results, not PR outcomes. Website traffic, search ranking, and sales/lead conversion topped the list. No common PR metric, such as reputation, awareness, comprehension, and share of voice, make the list of the dozen KPIs CCOs monitor. There is no mention of measuring outcomes of PR efforts that may not have a customer focus, such as campaigns aimed at curtailing new government regulation or drawing attention to a corporate social responsibility initiative.
Even more troubling, the number one KPI for 10% of respondents -- making it the third-place winner of the most-important KPI category -- is Advertising Value Equivalencies (AVEs). In mid-May, the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) launched a drive to eradicate AVEs and its derivatives as metrics for use in PR. In the UK, the Chartered Institute for Public Relations voiced its support of the initiative, saying it "will identify the use of AVEs in public relations as unprofessional." Members have one year to switch to "valid metrics," with anyone still using AVEs after that "liable to disciplinary action."
While some communicators have taken issue with the CIPRs punitive approach, the rationale for consigning AVEs to the list of PR no-no’s is simple: Advertising and PR seek different outcomes. Measuring the effectiveness of PR by calculating what it would have cost to buy the same amount of space is tantamount to assessing how well PR worked at achieving objectives it wasn't trying to achieve.
Focusing PR on advertising and marketing goals could have serious consequences because PR is sometimes at odds with revenue generation. Consider the Tylenol product tampering case, which has achieved legendary crisis communication status. The response by McNeil Consumer Products, Tylenol's parent company, resonates across the decades specifically because revenue goals took a back seat to salvaging the company's reputation. Tylenol demonstrated that patient safety was its highest priority by pulling product not just from store shelves in the Chicago area, where all of the tampering incidents had occurred, but nationwide. Once the immediate crisis was over, the company then decided to delay returning the product to store shelves until it had innovated a way to ensure patient safety, leading to the invention of the safety seal.
Ultimately, Tylenol reaped the financial rewards of its decisions, capturing market share from competitors that had no safety seal. Although if marketing lead the crisis effort rather than PR, it’s easy to imagine the company leaving bottles in stores beyond Chicago and restocking local shelves as quickly as possible. That's not because marketers are heartless. They're not. It's because they are driven by revenue goals.
Closer relationships and unity among PR and its communication brethren is a good thing. Maintaining a distinct identity with clearly understood PR-focused KPIs is vital. Convergence is fine. Being subsumed by marketing is not. PR practitioners need to be aware of the trend and take steps to ensure the focus on the outcomes it delivers doesn't get lost in the process.
Shel Holtz launched Holtz Communication + Technology in 1996 after two decades of corporate communications work. He led the corporate communications teams for two Fortune 500 companies and worked with clients as a senior consultant and regional communications practice leader at two global human resources consulting firms. Today, he counsels organizations on digital and social media, employee communications, and crisis communications. Shel has written six communication-themed books, including "Public Relations on the Net" and "Tactical Transparency." He has blogged since 2003 and is a pioneer podcaster, launching "For Immediate Release," a podcast for communicators, in January 2005.
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