In our third blog in the ‘PR director of the future’ series, we spoke to Nick Bowman, senior manager of Corporate Communications at F5 Networks about whether ‘integrated communications’ looked likely to feature heavily in his future. Nick explained that his department had indeed undergone some fairly radical restructuring in pursuit of the “better alignment” goal.
“Comms used to be an isolated function within F5 reporting directly to the C-suite, but then two years ago the CEO decided to merge comms within the field marketing function. Initially people were worried about these changes after 15 years of reporting to the CEO, as there was the concern that comms would be marginalised and we’d be a glorified content creation execution department focused on field marketing goals, but not wider comms goals.”
Nick, like most communications professionals, argues that PR people understand how to change hearts and minds and educate a wide variety of audiences, where marketing people are often more focused on the funnel and pushing product and feature messages.
Thankfully, the merger of the two functions was done thoughtfully and now comms is totally in sync with field marketing, which has led to greatly improved results:
“Since the realignment 18 months ago, our customer story pipeline has tripled, as have our thought leadership results. Comms, marketing and even sales have the shared goal of generating and sharing this content, which makes it much easier for the comms team and our agencies to get access to customers as well as the attention of front line employees who often have the most interesting opinions and stories to share.”
And it’s important not just to pay lip service to this concept of “shared goals” in order to make a real difference. F5 measures its success against 6-8 metrics, which are shared throughout the business and cascaded through to the agencies. True integration, supported by clearly defined, measureable goals shared across the organisation, really has generated greater success.
However, Nick admits that this integration hasn’t come without its challenges:
“Integration makes comms more visible and more accountable, and the blurred lines between marketing and comms means we can’t say no to much these days, as we all work harder together towards shared goals.”
Nick recognises that the situation could be quite different in other organisations, and largely depends on where the HQ of the organisation is. For example, if the company is headquartered and publically traded in the UK, the CEO probably relies on a more traditional structure where the PR person is kept very close and advises more on reputation, communication of shareholders all while keeping a close eye on the share price.
But for the majority of technology businesses, grown out of the US, where regional offices are more sales focused, this alignment with field marketing appears to be where the future lies.
And the scope of comms is increasing too, in line with a growing trend in the industry. “One key goal is about driving traffic to F5 properties, and while the content we generate, shared through traditional and social media is incredibly important to helping achieve that target, paid channels are becoming more important too. The business doesn’t care where the clicks are coming from if it helps accelerate quality traffic.”
While integration also blurs the lines between different communications agencies, Nick sees this as a real opportunity for PR. He doesn’t want an advertising agency that says they can do content, because they don’t do media relations, which Nick believes is still vital in the amplification of content, and they typically only have a sketchy idea of what clients do. Nick thinks that PR agencies are very well placed to demonstrate they develop the best content and they need to grasp the opportunity, especially where comms is increasingly part of field marketing.
“PR budgets are typically quite small compared to marketing budget, especially where you have access to marketing development funds from partners, so if goals are aligned, the idea is right and PR teams can demonstrate the impact for field marketing as well as PR, then it’s possible to tap into much bigger budgets.”
Nick cites content creation that can support lead generation and customer videos as simple examples.
F5 appears to be pioneering a change in how the communications function fits within the organisation, and whether bringing together comms and field marketing is right for every organisation remains to be seen. But what is critical to success here is that F5’s CEO had a clear vision of what will work best for the organisation and then put structure and goals in place to make sure it worked.