PR Execs Make Way as Integration Takes a Seat at the Table


The concept of integration has a long and storied history of dipping its lithe finger into wading pools of every sort, from the politics of civil rights to the logarithms of calculus, to the bandwidth highways of cyberspace. But, as the PR profession slowly transforms into an emboldened carbon copy of its former self, integration has become an integral part of every successful business function. Members of the Arthur Page Society will explore its impact on PR in their upcoming spring meeting, and Paul A. Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, has written extensively on the subject. This increased attention to the concept confirms one thing: Integration - or the practice of streamlining processes - of communications is quickly becoming a necessary practice across the entire corporate spectrum. "Senior corporate communications professionals are all talking about how to integrate what they do with other functions," Argenti says. "With an integrated communications function, companies can respect different constituency viewpoints, concern, and "hot buttons" while still ensuring consistency in its message content." An integrated communications department - or one in which PR sub-functions such as investor relations and media relations are not relegated to silos - plays a roll in solidifying the oft-maligned complexities of public relations, including transparency, crisis communications and reputation management. And, Argenti says, coordinated integration efforts are becoming even more essential with the changing legal and regulatory environment, as well as the growth of sophisticated, overlapping constituencies. "The attention that both New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have focused in recent years on everything from illegal fund trading to executive pay practices has served as an additional driver behind the need for more coordinated communication activities for many financial services companies," Argenti writes in his white paper, "The Power of Integration: Building a Corporate Communication Function That Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts," commissioned by the NIRI Center for Strategic Communication. He continues by noting the "democratization" of investing that has blurred the line between customers and shareholders, citing Starbucks as a corporate example that benefits from this dynamic with its understanding of communications integration in, for example, its investor relations and annual reports. Because of these legal and financial catalysts, many corporate behemoths are taking the lead and facilitating integration within their own structures. The steps to doing so are multi-faceted, dependent upon the bifurcated integration you want to strive for: centralized (The Times Company, for example), where all communications sub-functions report to one senior officer, or decentralized (as is Johnson & Johnson), where communications execs "nest" in individual business units. Either way works (as does a blending of the two approaches), depending on the company's starting point. From there, it's important to consider the following options for the corporation's PR/communications repertoire: The creation of informal communications councils that, according to Argenti, "draw key executives from various areas of the business to make sure everyone is 'on the same page' at the highest level." He quotes Catherine Mathis, VP of corporate communications at the New York Times, as concurring: "One of the purposes of The Times' communication council is to ensure that everyone is singing from the same songbook," she says. Create an integration manager position, as Harley-Davidson did, to oversee and unite all communications functions. Use technology to your advantage, as it assists in the integration of communications across the barriers of time zones and cultural gaps, especially if the business is international. Argenti's paper was based on more than 50 interviews with CEOs, CFOs, and senior investor relations and corporate communications professionals from a wide range of industries, and the research found that while many companies are still lagging when it comes to integration, there are a few shining success stories. Johnson & Johnson was able to manage crises through integrated communications, which allowed the corporation to speak to its problems with one unified, streamlined message. FedEx also depends on its successful integration practices, as they are imperative to managing a company largely based on reputation. According to Lourdes Pena, senior communications specialist at FedEx (see PR News, 12.14.05), "When you don't have a tangible product, you're really selling reputation." Because of the nature of its business, FedEx communications managers are heavily dependant on solid messaging and branding, as well as alignment between communications managers and the CFO. Coordinating the management of press-release writing and investment position underscores FedEx's "One Vision, One Voice" platform. "We are a service company, and employees are a critical part of FedEx. They are our product, the essence, the brand. If they don't get it, the external world doesn't get it. If you want the correct takeaway externally, you have to get it right internally," Eric Jackson, VP of corporate communications at FedEx, was quoted as saying in "The Power of Integration." Integrating communications practices with overall business strategies also optimizes business outcomes through managing reputation risks and maximizing transparency. An example of the ill effects of avoiding integration is Wal-Mart. The retailer faced mounting criticisms on its labor practices and responded with evasive comments from various departments, resulting in swelling public discontent. With an integrated communications function, PR/communications managers would have been able to handle the crisis at every level of the corporation and respond with a unified voice. If integration represents the dawning of a new horizon in public relations, then the only thing PR managers need to set things into motion, Argenti says, "is the will of senior management to make it work." Contacts: Paul Argenti, 603.646.2983, paul.argenti@dartmouth.edu; Lourdes Pena, 901.454.7221, lourdes.pena@fedex.com; Eric Jackson, eric.jackson@fedex.com Break It Down The idea of integrating communications isn't breaking news. It is, however, still a process that many businesses can't wrap their arms around. Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, summarizes the process of integration in his white paper "The Power of Integration: Building a Corporate Communication Function That Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts." Here is a breakdown of integration's catalysts, approaches and benefits: Catalysts: The legal and regulatory environment Sophisticated overlapping constituencies Organizational growth and complexity Technology Approaches: Reporting relationships Creation of informal communication councils Creation of a unique "communication integration manager" position Leveraging technology Benefits: Preservation of the corporate brand; enhanced reputation Ability to more effectively weather crises Optimization of business outcomes

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