By Lou Capozzi

Integration has become the holy grail of communications as marketers look for new ways to cut through the increasingly difficult environment of the 21st century. The decline of advertising effectiveness, increasing audience skepticism, unbelievable noise levels and the 24/7 realities of the Internet are driving the trend.
There’s lots of agreement in the marketing community about the need for unified strategies that form the foundation for all of a brand’s communications.

But who should lead the development of those strategies? After all, putting together a team with representatives from all the communications disciplines might lead to a strategy “without prejudice,” but only if the team leader is truly objective.

Until recently, the “golden rule” has applied to these integrated teams: “he who has the gold, rules.” On branding programs where there’s $100 million in advertising on the table, along with a PR program and some ‘below the line’ promotional work, there’s little doubt the advertising person will take the lead on the integration team.

But is the ‘golden rule’ best for the brand? Are other approaches being adopted that produce better results?

The premise of a recent BusinessWeek special report on “The Vanishing Mass Market” (July 12, 2004) is that “it’s a whole new world” for marketing. And Procter & Gamble’s Jim Stengle echoed this statement at the annual meeting of the Association of National Advertisers, saying that “the traditional marketing model we all grew up with is obsolete.”

As marketers scramble for ideas on how to respond to this changing environment, public relations professionals are strongly positioned to take the lead for several reasons.

First, at the same time as the communications environment has grown more complex, the advertising business has gotten narrower. The largest agencies have become focused on the creation of TV commercials, stripping away other activities like planning and research to be able to deliver top-flight “creative” (which is nearly exclusively TV advertising) while keeping client purchasing departments at bay.

The result: today’s advertising professionals are narrowly focused on the “bulls-eye target” even as marketing has shifted from mass to micromarketing.

At the same time, public relations professionals have had to deal with an increasingly transparent business environment where they help their clients balance the interests of the many constituencies that must be satisfied to succeed. Those audiences overlap and interconnect like a spider’s web. PR people learn to balance the interests of these constituencies, deal with the overlaps and watch for the inevitable shaking of the whole “web” when one strand is plucked. 

The bottom line is this: the training and skills required to deal with this complexity make PR professionals very well suited to the job of creating total communications strategies, while increasing specialization in advertising makes that a less fertile training ground.

So, what do PR people need to do to prepare themselves for this role?

First and foremost, to effectively compete in an increasingly competitive environment, public relations professionals need to become more serious business people. We need to train staff to be more capable of handling higher business relationships. And we need to attract more people who are capable of working in this capacity. Many public relations professionals have very little knowledge of the elements in the marketing mix outside of PR or advertising. To truly understand the value of our industry and to seize additional opportunities in the communications business, we need to understand all aspects in the mix, not just our own.

Just as important is a commitment to strategy and evaluation. We must continue to move away from the perception that we are just executors, and not creators, of a strategy. It isn’t enough to say our programs are strategic; we must show this by ensuring that at its core, our work is rooted in strategic audience insights. And of course, our strategies must always link to overall business objectives and goals.  As the creators of strategy, public relations professionals need to fully understand the importance of measurement—and how best to measure a program’s value and impact across industries and geographies.

Whether public relations leads or supports another discipline, we would all be well served to use our expertise and talents to make integration work. Only when we do this can communications programs really reach their full potential.

Lou Capozzi is chairman and CEO of Manning Selvage & Lee, a unit of Publicis Groupe.