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PR director of the future: is the CMO eating the PR director’s lunch?

Posted by Debby Penton on 5th November 2015

In the first of our ‘PR director of the future’ blog series, we spoke to Arun Sudhaman, editor in chief at the Holmes Report – which produces the World PR Report in conjunction with ICCO – to find out more about his views on the future of PR.

Why do you think the CMO is eating the PR director’s lunch?

There is no doubt that PR and marketing are under pressure to integrate their functions. This trend has been spurred by the growth of social media and digital communications more generally. The technology has forced marketers to take on board what I would call ‘PR considerations’.

In other words, social and environmental concerns, regulatory issues and even disgruntled employees, which were previously the preserve of PR teams, are now very important to the marketing process. If there is an issue, it will come out on social media and it will impact on sales.

Conversely, the PR team in the past only really cared about ‘issues management’ and telling a good story. Now they can’t really divorce that from customer complaints and the sales process.

Of course what we have seen in the last few years is that the CMO has been the one person within organisations to grasp the nettle, not the PR director. As a result they have tended to assume the more senior role required in the new integrated world.

This hasn’t happened because of the CMO’s technical capabilities; generally speaking I think comms directors are much better at crisis management and storytelling for example. However, CMOs are generally younger, have bigger budgets to begin with, and are far ‘savvier’ politically. Whereas comms people have tended to align themselves with the CEO, marketers are much better at building a base of support across the institution with HR, sales and other functions.

Because CMOs have been more willing to push themselves forward I suspect they will continue to prosper at the expense of PR directors.

So are there areas where PR people still have the advantage over marketing?

I believe that a PR understanding of the world is more important than a marketing view. There has to be something more than just boiling everything down to sales.

For instance I think the broader influencing role of PR — the ‘attract’ part of the equation and getting people into a position where marketing can be influential — is something many marketers miss.

So there is a lot that comms people can bring to the party — but at the moment I feel that if the PR director is going to oversee an integrated PR and marketing team, it is down to the person, not the job function.

In many organisations the PR person is becoming the ‘media relations person’. To a certain extent that’s fine of course, assuming the CMO can handle everything else. I’m not completely convinced that that is the case.

Interestingly, the marketers I speak to increasingly recognise that they need better PR understanding, but we are not seeing comms people ‘meet them in the middle’. At the moment it takes exceptional people to effect change as the comms person.

How can PR directors and comms officers not become obsolete?

The problem is not about substance; it’s about style.

Comms directors need to be much more vocal, much more confident and much more accepting of risk. Many comms people don’t inspire like marketing people do. The PR director is a gatekeeper — reactive. They’re not out there achieving proactive goals.

PR people also need to decouple themselves from the CEO. It leaves them very weak within the organisation. They need to focus on building that broad base of support across departments.

Fundamentally, comms directors have to demonstrate how their intimate knowledge of owned media has broader value for the company. PR is 100% not just ‘talking to journalists’. Owned media is key and comms people need to start using that as their starting point.

Should in-house comms teams be looking to PR agencies to ‘educate’ them?

To a certain extent yes. Hiring a traditional PR agency just ties you to the traditional way of doing things.

But PR directors need to be driving change themselves though; they shouldn’t be relying on agencies. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the PR agency just go and pitch to the CMO?

Can PR agencies be doing more to help in-house teams demonstrate the value of PR?

Well interestingly a lot of what I would say is the best ‘PR work’ actually comes from ad agencies. So why aren’t PR agencies doing it?

The best PR work is ultimately much better than advertising as it brings much more social appreciation into the equation rather than a purely product focus. The guys that get this are doing phenomenal work. There is a lot of great PR work coming out of Sweden, London and Australia at the minute.

That said, I think PR agencies could be doing a lot more to invest in the things that ad agencies are — behavioural economics and so on, and really adding to the understanding they already have.

If you have an interesting perspective about the PR director of the future and would like to take part in our interview series, please contact, or leave your comments below.

To download the PR Director of the Future report click here

Debby Penton

Motivated, competitive and highly experienced, Debby drives excellence across the agency and leads by example, going the extra mile to create stand-out campaigns and a dynamic agency culture. As CEO, Debby champions a new breed of PR that meets the evolving communication needs of today’s tech companies.