ITL #345 Marketing and public relations: crossover or crossed wires?

8 months ago


An integrated communications model can be a hugely effective and efficient way to manage an increasingly complex and interconnected stakeholder universe. By Simon Sproule.

Many will debate the first true crossover vehicle. For the purpose of this essay let’s assume it refers to the combination of traits commonly found in regular passenger cars with those of sport utility vehicles (SUV).

Many find an SUV too ‘truck like’, trading off the high ride height with the comfort and handling commonly associated with a lower riding saloon car. In response, some clever people in the auto companies came up with something that delivered the best of both products and Hey Presto…the crossover is born, giving customers the visibility, they love from an SUV but with the road manners of a car.

And they’ve been a huge commercial success. In 2020, Aston Martin will launch its own entrant into this market: the DBX, created to be a sports car in feel and a family car in practicality.

However, not all corporate marriages are made in heaven and so it goes that seemingly obvious bedfellows can end up as compatible as oil and water. Back in 2009, I was faced with this exact question while working at the Renault-Nissan Alliance. As someone who’d spent the prior 20 years in pure public relation roles, I was part of a team looking at brand management, marketing and communications across the multiple brands of the Alliance.

In the research process we dived deep into the data that drove brand reputation and how that connected with sales, share and profitability. No surprise that – and this was across almost any given product or service category – strong brands commanded a higher quality (price and volume) share of their given market. The study then looked at how great brands behaved and in particular, how they communicated with customers, employees, suppliers and other stakeholders.

Absence of crossover management

Over the course of my career I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with many inspirational leaders in both public relations and marketing. Yet I had never worked with anyone who had deep experience in both fields. In short, the world of marketing and communications was bereft of crossover management.  

I’d always been an enthusiastic proponent of marketing and public relations working closely together; it just seemed to make sense in a world of multiple communication touch points that the message was consistent.

However, as I researched across multiple companies and industries, the practicality of bringing together the two disciplines under a single function and leadership has long been fraught with complications and politics. These tensions surfaced acutely with the rise of social media with each function arguing they ‘owned’ these new channels.

An oversimplification maybe, but the public relations side would argue that their experience in delivering earned media makes them more suitable custodians while the marketing teams were focused on owned and paid channels which were fast substituting other media such as print and broadcast.  More recently, the rise of ‘influencers’ has once again led to the same passionate debates; are they simply paid product spokespeople or a new crossover (that term again…) between a journalist and a brand ambassador?

Reluctance to play second fiddle

On the personnel side, there was also the pushback that neither marketing nor public relations functions seemed to like the idea of being subordinate to the other. In the absence of leadership with credible experience in both fields it was a natural concern from each side that their craft would be marginalised or consumed by the other.

Unfortunately, the benefits of integrated communications were often overlooked in the belief that a crossover function would have winners and losers.        

I saw social media as the proxy for a broader debate on how a brand manages its reputation at the same time as ensuring products or services are achieving sales objectives. In truth, there is no single marketing communications model that works for every organization. But, having now been engaged in crossover roles for almost a decade, I do believe that an integrated communications model can ultimately be a hugely effective and efficient way to look a managing an increasingly complex and interconnected stakeholder universe.

Switching bright minds on to integration

As much as my resolve has been strengthened in favour of this route, I am more conscious than ever of the value and need for deep functional expertise. In the past, I have urged universities and colleges to be teaching beyond the confines of the marketing or public relations disciplines and look to open bright minds to the benefits of integration and to create future leaders comfortable in both areas.

But, just as any good sports team is a blend of teamwork and individual skills, so we must develop leadership with specific abilities, especially given the rapidly changing nature of our communications landscape.

Consequently, I’ve never seen integrated communications as the beginning of the end for public relations, nor the same for pure marketing disciplines as the tasks required of both are not that simple or binary. Ultimately leaders of a corporation or organization must create the conditions and business imperative for change across brand management and communications. And with the way in which every person on the planet is now receiving (and creating) thousands of messages every day, organizational leadership will have to either address this question on their own terms or be forced into change as the external communication environment continues to evolve.

It is a fascinating and exciting time to be in public relations but perhaps even more so if you are also ready to embrace integration and a crossover mindset towards the broader communication challenges faced by every organization.




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The Author

Simon Sproule,

Simon Sproule, Chief Marketing Officer, Aston Martin Lagonda.

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