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Marketing communication should be strategically based

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

Marketing is more important than ever before in the increasingly complex and difficult organizational environment caused through continuous internal and external change.

Globalization, the Internet and the increasing availability of information have led to more demanding employees and customers. Customers are expecting progressively more customized goods and services, which means organizations are less able to forecast the direction of their markets. These factors have increased the cost and complexity of doing business and have put pressure on marketers to understand customer needs better, to secure greater profitability and to measure outcomes better than previously.

US research in 2004 found that marketers and non-marketers overwhelmingly agreed that marketing was more important than ever. Overall, 77% of marketers and 78% of non-marketers in 100 organizations in nine industries said marketing was more important or significantly more important than before. 1

However, in more than half the companies surveyed, the marketing priorities didn’t align with the CEO’s agenda. This is a recipe for trouble.

While CEOs were expecting a strategic focus, their marketers were heavily tactical and disconnected from the CEO agenda. What’s the point of rushing around on the small stuff when the CEO expects marketing to relate to more important fundamentals? The research revealed that CEOs want to achieve revenue growth; to stimulate innovation; increase speed, flexibility and adaptability to change; and to increase customer loyalty and retention.

What’s more, a surprising number of CEOs believed marketing’s most important contributions lay in areas not typically associated with the function, such as pushing for innovation and encouraging cross-functional collaboration, ie increasing communication between different areas in the organization. Yet 83% of marketers remained focused on their traditional low-level activity of providing branding guidelines. 2

Marketing organizations: areas of focus %
Branding guidelines 83
Advise operating divisions           52
Share best practices 52
Develop capability 47
Drive growth 46
Drive CEO agenda 37
Drive innovation 25

 

Source: ANA/Booz Allen Hamilton marketing organization survey 2004

 

The study showed that few of the issues important to CEOs were also the priorities of marketers. What’s worse, marketers have not been able to talk to senior management in their language about the financial return on investment (ROI) from marketing. Marketers were still using ‘soft’ terms like awareness, cost per incremental volume, share of market, and growth.

This has created pressure on marketing:

Reasons for pressure on marketing %
Measuring marketing performance is difficult 51
Marketing not appreciated by senior management           22
Marketing not appreciated by business units 19
Other 8

 

Source: ANA/Booz Allen Hamilton marketing organization survey 2004

A familiar lament

Does this discussion have a familiar ring? It does indeed! It sounds very similar to the travails of public relations practitioners. Surveys show that PR practitioners and non-PR practitioners agree that public relations is growing in importance. However, too many PR people focus on the short-term tactical agenda to the exclusion of the longer-term strategic fundamentals.

As a result, a high proportion of PR people are not aware of the priorities of top management and may find it difficult to justify the importance of their role to the organization in the long run. Despite successes in day-to-day activities like product publicity and event management, they tend to find that senior managers want more – they want a more strategic contribution from the PR area.

Furthermore – too many PR people justify their efforts in terms of ‘soft’ measures such as media coverage, reputation and attitudes rather than ROI, stakeholder decision-making and behavior change, which is the hard-edged terminology used in the executive suite. A typical soft measure of PR success is the extent of positive media coverage. Good media coverage is all very well, but it gives no insight into actual customer decisions and actions because media are only a conduit, a means to an end; the media themselves are seldom key customers and decision-makers in their own right.

CEOs often think of marketing and PR in similar terms. So it is in your interest as a public relations practitioner to strengthen your relationship with marketers in your organization and establish a solid combined front.

Firstly, you can jointly analyze your organization’s priorities as expressed in the organizational mission statement and strategic goals, and ensure your activities directly and measurably support them.

Look especially at the organizational business strategies that have the most potential financial impact and then examine the potential for communication activities to influence each of those business strategies. Focus your actions on the high-impact business strategies that communication can influence the most. Get your marketing colleagues to do this analysis for their work as well.

If clarification about organizational strategy is needed, simply arrange a meeting with your CEO (or your boss, if you don’t report to the CEO) and ask for clarification. Perhaps your CEO (or boss) hasn’t articulated their strategic priorities clearly. If in doubt, ask! The more you deal with the chief at a strategic level, the better.

If you don’t normally deal with senior management, this action is a plus for you – showing your spirit and initiative. Having achieved agreement to a meeting, the onus is on you to prepare carefully with a series of questions or issues that need to be resolved. You can provide your issues paper to the CEO or your boss ahead of time so they have the opportunity to think through their responses. 

One astute way to take the initiative is to refer to the research findings about CEO expectations, outlined earlier in this article, as the agenda for your meeting with the chief.  You can use this opportunity to confirm what your CEO expects from you and your organization’s marketers. The initiative may prompt them to allow you to play a more strategic role, to:

  • achieve revenue growth

  • stimulate innovation

  • increase speed, flexibility and adaptability to change

  • increase customer loyalty and retention

  • create more innovation

  • create more cross-functional collaboration, ie increase communication between different areas in the organization.

You can say that recent research has shown that many CEOs expect their marketing to make an impact in the above areas and that PR can as well. Then you can briefly outline your thoughts on how you would use PR to make a difference in those areas. Or you may decide to focus tightly on, say, 1-3 of those areas, with your outline strategy for making an impact with your limited resources.

As a PR practitioner, you are ideally placed to use communication to contribute to the achievement of most of these goals. Also sit down with the head of marketing and review how you can jointly achieve some of these imperatives.

If the CEO and senior management don’t seem able to articulate their strategic priorities sufficiently, you could prepare a paper based on your analysis of communication’s role in influencing the outcomes of high-impact business strategies, as noted earlier, and put it to them for comment.

Not all PR practitioners either have the intellectual firepower or experience to pursue the dream of working at a strategic level. Also, circumstances may not be conducive to this role. In this case, you can seek advice from a mentor or respected peer or gradually build up a more strategic role over time by thinking through the areas quoted above in which you can make the most effective contribution, and you can start with them. Chip away at these matters systematically and you will find you have made remarkable progress. You can start by tackling ‘the low hanging fruit’, the activities in which you can make significant progress quickly.

A large part of strategic thinking is simply thinking ahead. Anyone can do this. Look at your calendar of events and allocate thinking time about those events, particularly events that could benefit from cross-functional input. You can take on the role of coordinating the involvement of people from other areas within your organization. And ensure you compare notes with your marketing colleagues so that you can coordinate well with them.

No matter the size of your organization, insist on inclusion in marketing planning activities so that PR can contribute in a more strategic way to new marketing projects. All too often, marketing people plan the big campaign and, at the very end, think, “We’d better call in the PR people to get some free publicity for the product launch.” NO, NO, NO!

This is ignorance and arrogance in action. If you accept this patronizing approach, you will find senior managers view you as a perennial lightweight and they don’t involve you in the things that matter. Whether you are in-house or a consultant, get out of your comfort zone and absolutely insist on being an integral member of all marketing planning meetings from the start. (Having achieved this, you must be prepared to contribute ideas actively so that you add value by your presence!)

And ensure you reciprocate – you should involve the head of marketing in the planning of your communication strategies, or at the least, give them an opportunity to comment on draft communication strategies.

Wise heads of PR and marketing work in alliance because there are obvious benefits from doing this, including internal political benefits. You can attend each other’s meetings, you can learn each other’s language, show respect for each other’s function, and agree to work on joint projects that will add value quickly. Explore ways for you to work with marketing to achieve some joint wins. Look at low cost, tangible measures of the PR effort. (This cooperation is based on the crucial assumption that you believe your marketing people are sufficiently competent!)

There would also be cost advantages in joint activities such as measurement – in market research, communication audits and customer feedback activities. Also, as a PR operative, you can add value in areas such as corporate and employer branding.

When you have achieved a more strategic role in marketing communication you should communicate or ‘sell’ your strategic achievements to senior management through regular brief written reports (whether they ask for it or not), in organizational publications, in briefings when opportunities arise, such as on a topical issue, and in other meetings you may have with senior managers. Too often we promote the work of others and neglect to promote our own achievements. This communication will pay handsomely in terms of senior management respect for you and will enhance your career advancement.

References

  1. Hyde, Paul; Landry, Edward and Tipping, Andrew. “Making the perfect marketer.” Published in the strategy + business online newsletter by Allen Booz Hamilton, and retrieved from http://www.strategy-business.com/press/article/04405?tid=230&pg=all

  2. Hyde, Paul; Landry, Edward and Tipping, Andrew. “Making the perfect marketer.” Published in the strategy + business online newsletter by Allen Booz Hamilton, and retrieved from http://www.strategy-business.com/press/article/04405?tid=230&pg=all

This article is based on a chapter in the e-book, How to create a top public relations plan, by Kim Harrison, which you can access at www.cuttingedgepr.com

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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