Public Relations Quarterly, Fall, 1994, 38-44

PR and IMC: The Benefits of Integration

Public relations....integration....marketing.....advertising.....How do these relate? The debate goes on, as it has for the last five years or so more, with arguments about silos, prisoners of professionalism, and marketing imperialism. The discussion has focused on what marketing has learned (or borrowed) from PR as well as who should lead and who follows and whether PR is being subsumed under marketing. These discussions are not only becoming boring, they are counter productive.

What has been missing in this discussion is a view of what integrated marketing communication (or integrated communication, total communication, etc.) can bring to public relations and how public relations practitioners can use IMC to develop more effective and efficient programming.

As IMC has evolved during the 1990s, it has developed its own approach to holistic communication. It is not just marketing communication revised with warmed over PR concepts like relationships and stakeholders. Something new and different is growing from the amalgamation of public relations, marketing, advertising, and promotion and this new tree is becoming identifiable as a separate species with its own theories and practices.

The University of Colorado, for example, has one of the first two IMC graduate programs in the U.S. A number of models are being developed there by Tom Duncan, the director of the program, and his faculty that help to explain IMC and move forward both theory development and practical application. Of particular interest to public relations practitioners are Duncan's IMC Message Typology, the IMC Synergy Model, his approach to zero-based planning, and the IMC Audit. These theories and practices should be of interest to most public relations practitioners and they should be of particular concern to corporate communication managers.

IMC Message Typology

The IMC Message Typology is a model of the different types of messages communicated by an organization. Some elements of the typology reflect conventional PR viewpoints; others are new; but when you analyze the whole typology, you can see an entirely new way of approaching corporate communication.

A totally integrated communication program accounts for all types of messages delivered by an organization at every point where a stakeholder comes in contact with the company. Although some contact points just happen--you go into a store and see a package on the shelf or you see a company's truck on the street--others are created such as a special event or press conference. The point is that every contact point that a stakeholder has with an organization is a communication opportunity, including all those messages that "just happen," many of which have more impact than communication that is planned. Most public relations programs, as well as advertising and marketing communication activities, are focused on the created contact points and ignore the wide range of other important contact points.

Duncan's IMC Message Typology identifies four types of messages that an organization needs to be aware of so it can control, or if not control, then perhaps influence: planned, inferred, maintenance, and unplanned. The planned messages are the ones we think of in the context of such deliberate communication activities as advertising, public relations, sales promotion, direct response, packaging, signage, stationery, etc. Most of an organization's communication programs are directed at this type of message.

The other three types of messages, however, are much harder to control but equally or more important because they may have more actual impact on stakeholders' opinions.The inferred messages are the ones sent through the impressions the company or brand makes on people, e.g. the shareholder's experience with management, the employees' perceptions of the benefit program, or the impact that the price or place of distribution (type of store) has on the customer's perception of the brand or company. In IMC theory, everything marketing does sends a message--every element of the marketing mix communicates something. For example, a $1,000 price for a watch sends a completely different messsage about a watch than when the price is $25; a watch in a box from Kmart sends a different message than one in a box from Tiffany's. Marketing managers obviously control these message points, although few of them think of their marketing mix decisions as part of a communication plan.

Maintenance messages are communicated primarily through service--how a company and its employees initiate and respond to customer contact--and that includes such things as the attitude of receptionists and secretaries, as well as user reaction to a product instruction book, or the ease of getting service. Customer service, as well as employee relations programs, deal with some of these messages although seldom in a coherent or coordinated way.

The unplanned messages include such things as investigations by reporters, announcements by consumer advocate groups, product recalls, employee gossip, and disasters. Public relations has acknowledged the importance of some aspects of this type of message in its approach to issues management, crisis planning, and employee relations. These efforts are often ad hoc, however, and may or may not be coordinated with any overriding corporate communication plan.

What this typology brings to corporate communication planning is a more logical structure for developing stakeholder communication strategies, as well as the organizational systems that are needed to implement the strategies. One problem that PR typically faces within an organization is that so many areas of communication are controlled by other departments--marketing communication, for example, operates through the marketing department; employee communication may be handled by the human resources department; investor relations may report to the chief financial officer--but regardless of administrative arrangements, they all contribute to these four types of messages.

What the message typology model suggests is that a new structural approach to corporate communication may be needed to control or influence communication depending upon the type of message. Although the present system works fairly well for accessing information for the traditional planned messages, in most cases no one has responsibility for controlling or influencing the broad range of inferred, maintenance, or unplanned messages. And yet these messages are as important both in terms of strategy, image management, and impact--perhaps even more important--than planned messages.

Research into the role of public relations in effective quality programs by Anders Grondstedt has found that the organizational structure is of less concern than the process designed to manage and facilitate cross functional communication. It is tempting to recommend a communication czar who controls all these areas of communication, but that is probably unrealistic. Cross-functional teams seem to be more effective at managing communication across the boundaries.

What is needed, however, is someone with a responsibility for monitoring unplanned or incidental communications since this is the area that is ignored in most companies. This person's sphere of influence includes all the traditional departments in an organization. Similar to the matrix model of brand management, this person could report both across departments where the various messages sources are located as well as up to the corporate communication manager. This person would also be responsible for the organization's crisis communication plan since a crisis can occur anywhere and is by definition unplanned.

Synergy

Message integration can occur in several ways and the IMC Synergy Model identifies three different components of integration--consistency, interactivity, and mission. Understanding how message strategies evolve and interweave can make public relations ideas more relevant and impactful. Furthermore, understanding the complexity of corporate message synergy can bring public relations experts to marketing planning sessions where they may previously have been uninvited. The IMC Synergy model has three components: consistency, interactivity, and mission.

In general terms, synergy means that various messages, if they are coordinated and consistent, add up to communication with more impact than any of the individual messages can create by themselves. In many companies public relations works at arm's length from advertising and marketing. The public relations program may be communicating good citizenship or quality while the marketing communication efforts are directed at various other message objectives such as explaining a product feature (advertising) or showcasing price deals (sales promotion). What's a consumer--as well as other stakeholders such as employees, suppliers, and the financial community--supposed to make of all this? How can such varied messages come together in a coherent corporate or brand image?

Consistency We know from research that people integrate messages naturally. They don't orient the message fragments they have filed in their memory banks in terms of the source--whether it came from an ad, a news story, or an article in an employee newsletter. In building an image of a company or brand, all these pieces are fit together as best they can be to create an impression. An image that holds together is one whose various communication components are saying the same thing. Without that kind of consistency, the image inevitably will be fuzzy.

The value of synergy in IMC theory is that the sum of all the messages has more impact than the individual messages by themselves. At the most basic level, it means all the messages say the same thing such as Pepsi's one voice, one look youth generation advertising and promotional programs. "One voice" communication, particularly in the arena of promotional campaigns, is the simplest form of synergy and what many people mean when they talk about IMC.

A more complex integration than the "one voice" approach is consistent voice communication where the messages are targeted for different audiences. Although the messages say different things for different audiences, there is a thread that holds them together and contributes to the overall corporate or brand image. An example of that would be Coca-Cola's "Always" campaign with different images and styles that appeal both to the MTV crowd, to their boomer parents and yuppie older siblings, as well as to their grandparents. With all that variety, all messages also contain the slogan "Always Coca-Cola," as well as some of the following: the red circle, the script, the bottle, and the distinctive jingle.

But consistency involves more than just the advertising and promotion messages. A hospital marketing department, for example, may decide that a key message it must communicate to its various stakeholders is cost containment. While that financial responsibility message can be conveyed through advertising, it must also permeate all the hospital's activities--from volunteer programs to the professional seminars produced by the specialist medical areas such as pediatrics or oncology. Every seminar, every newsletter, every press release, every contact with an HMO or other group insurance program can convey and reinforce that message.

Interactivity Another component is interactive communication that facilitates a dialog and the building of a relationship. Interactive communication depends upon a database program for identifying people who are involved or potentially might be involved in the communication program. It also needs a system for handling questions, responses, and other stakeholder initiated communication, as well as programs for stimulating such interaction.

Saturn's IMC program which has won several PRSA Silver Anvil awards, is a model of sensitive communication that leads to relationship building. Saturn buyers--as well as employees, vendors and neighbors who live in the town of Spring Hill Tennessee--believe that they are part of a special relationship. Drivers wave to one another on the highways and owners have even volunteered to work at Saturn displays at auto shows. And in the Spring of 1994 Saturn held its first ever "homecoming" inviting all owners to bring their cars back to Spring Hill, an event attended by over 40,000 owners and their cars. The entire communication program for the launch of the Saturn was managed by the Hal Riney agency which had the good fortune to work with a client that realized the need for a new form of stakeholder comunication in the automative industry. The agency was involved very early in the design of the company and its product in order to coordinate this far-reaching and integrative communication program.

Databases and new media technologies are making it possible to begin to move marketing and corporate communication programs away from mass media and into two-way communication systems that will truly support dialog based relationships. We are just entering this interactive era, so the techniques are still being designed that will make two-way mass communication feasible.

As PR people become more proficient with databases and interactive technologies, two-way communication with stakeholders will continue to increase. As it does, there will need to be some serious creative thinking about what it means to participate in communication initiated by a wide range of stakeholders. In what situations would they want to contact the organization, what kinds of questions will they ask, what messages will they deliver? What systems, beyond the existing customer service programs that marketing usually handles, will be needed to effectively manage this kind of communication? What incentives will be needed to generate such communication?

Snapple faced that problem when a few of its fanatic customers started writing letters to the company about how much they liked the product. Snapple now gets some 20 boxes of letters a month since the phenomenon has been used as the focus of extensive media coverage as well as an advertising campaign. Reading the letters is a full-time job.

Mission Finally, the last component of synergistic communication is mission marketing where the firm's mission and sense of responsibility--which can be based on a platform such as quality for Hallmark and Disney, ecology for Ben and Jerry's, and tolerance for Benetton--is a fundamental aspect of all its corporate communication. In effect, the company markets what it stands for. In this approach to IMC planning, the mission takes on a meaning far beyond the fuzzy words that hang on conference walls in most organizations. The idea is that the company stands for something beyond just its product and its financial success and that notion is embedded in all its communication.

This mission, however, contributes to the organization's financial success in multiple ways because it creates a higher level of commitment from all its stakeholders. Employees, for example, feel good when they are working for a company they respect. Likewise, investors feel better about their investment risks when they think there is a positive dimension to the company that transcends its bottom-line return. This mission, which brings strategic philanthropy into the heart of the company's long-range planning, influences all its communication and promotion activities and permeates its corporate culture.

An example of how that might work is a local sporting good retailer that has in the past sponsored many different community "good causes," sponsorships that few outside or inside can even identify with the company. By adopting a mission of bringing sports to all members of the communication regardless of their income, age, or education, the company is able to focus its philanthropy and develop a mission that holds together in the minds of its various stakeholders. A tactic in support of that mission, for example, might be to encourage customers to trade in their old sporting equipment which is then donated to community centers in low-income neighborhoods, child care centers, senior centers, etc. Everyone wins--customers feel good about upgrading equipment, the community centers have more resources, the users are added to the athletic population creating more potential customers, and the store retains its dominant position in the marketplace and the community.

When practicing mission marketing, it's difficult to sort out the role of the various traditional communication functions such as advertising and public relations, and separate them from other communication sources such as the owners and the corporate philosophies. A mission focus seems to work best with an entrepreneurial company (Southwest Airlines, Ben & Jerry's, Ryka) where the owner is heavily involved in all aspects of the promotion of the company. The owner's involvement and personal style becomes the focus of tremendous media interest which can reduce or eliminate the need for conventional advertising.

But a carefully defined mission can transcend the owner and drive the corporate culture on the basis of its own power. Hallmark has been able to retain and maintain its quality focus even though the company has grown far beyond a personal identification with the Hall family, as has Disney with its emphasis on quality family entertainment. Both of these companies use mass media advertising sparingly relying more on effective public relations and special events like the Hallmark Hall of Fame.

The problem comes with existing companies who have not made as successful a move from founder-oriented to manager-oriented missions. And this shows up in their mission statements which often seem to be hot air and puffery. It's particularly a problem in bottom-line focused companies in heavily competitive markets. It is difficult to make the argument that there is a greater mission for the company beyond selling the product. However, if and when that mission is figured out it will, in fact, invigorate the company, add a competitive advantage, and help sell more product.

High level public relations counsel is needed both to figure out the mission strategy and to create buy-in throughout the organization. It's very similar to the problem of instituting quality programs. If imposed from on top without a total commitment from all employees, managers, directors, and shareholders, quality programs will rarely be successful. Nurturing relationships and involving and motivating people could be considered to be part of the PR mission but it's a role for which PR people are often not well trained. Involving everyone in the development, as well as the implementation of a corporate change, calls for a change agent specialist, and that is an opportunity for public relations or corporate communications managers to extend their sphere and make an important contribution to the organization.

Mangers of corporate communication, with their reputation management responsibilities, should be particularly interested in this IMC Synergy Model because it identifies not only how a corporate or brand image can hold together, but also the points where an image can fall apart. Advertising and promotion are probably more concerned with the first component--consistency--although public relations advice is needed to determine what that consistent message should be and reinforce that strategy in all of its work in media, financial, government, and employee relations. Interactive communication and mission marketing, in particular, represent fundamental concerns of public relations and corporate communication managers. Clearly all these IMC components are important to public relations and public relations managers should be involved in planning and managing them.

Zero Based Planning

In the Colorado model of IMC, annual planning begins with a clean slate rather than with last year's communication plans and budgets. What makes IMC planning different from conventional communciation planning is that it first identifies the communication objective and then matches that objective to the communication area that can best deliver success. At this level of planning, public relations is equal to the other IMC communication areas in that they all have their own strengths and can be used effectively to solve certain types of communication problems. The plan doesn't start off, in other words, with advertising getting 75 percent of the budget because it has in the past,and the other areas getting pieces of what's left.

If, for example, the message objective is to create broad public awareness of an issue or product, then advertising may be the appropriate function to lead the effort. If it is to create believability, particularly about product claims or corporate viewpoints, then public relations should lead. If you want to increase involvement, then perhaps a special event should lead the effort. The other communication areas are not fogotten; they provide support in reinforcing the main message strategy.

IMC planning also acknowledges a principle that public relations practitioners have long known and that is that every organization has more than one target or stakeholder audience with whom it must communicate--not just consumers--and these audiences have different message needs. If a new product is being announced, then stockholders may want to know about the R&D costs and the projected breakeven point and what these two aspects of business development planning mean in terms of shareholder returns. The local community will be interested in whether the new product means more jobs and plant expansion. Employees must be kept informed because they are often sources of information for family and friends. The media, of course, will be interested in the project as business news as well as other aspects of the product development that impact upon the community.

Specifying this range of target audiences in a structured way helps determine which communication specialists will be addressing which targets and with what messages, thus ensuring that each audience is reached in the most effective and efficient manner. If also provides a mechanism for checking for message conflict--i.e. telling the shareholders that this will be a banner year at the same time the employees are hearing that their salary increases will be held down because of unanticipated costs. Since stakeholders overlap, it is very likely that some employees are also shareholders and these conflicting messages will be sent to the same person. Public relations professionals, who have been aware for a long time of these cross-message conflicts, are in a great position to help manage this aspect of communication integration.

Another aspect of planning in a campaign is timing. The effectiveness of product publicity, for example, depends upon its ability to announce something that is news, so public relations frequently makes the announcement before the message appears in advertising and sales promotion. If public relations is working on its own, then that kind of timing will rarely happen by chance. Public relations has to be sitting at the planning table with all the other marketing communication functions in order to be able to execute integrated strategies effectively. Once again, an integrated communication plan provides the mechanism for planning this cross-function timing and for PR to be recognized, in many cases, as the first soldier onto the beachhead.

Finally, IMC planning should begin with communication audits, as well as opinion and consumer behavior research. The Colorado IMC approach has developed an IMC Audit to identify communication contact points as well as the activities of all the various communication functions. It maps the message objectives as well as the messages sent to the various stakeholders and evaluates consistency through content analysis. The audit also investigates the communication network within a company using a knowledge and attitude assessment to identify integrative and specialist attitudes and practices. Most public relations practitioners are familiar with communication audits and can take the lead in adding this dimension to the planning for integrated communication.

Communication Management

As the new models of integrated communication programs are being developed, it is important that all the subfunctions of public relations--public affairs and corporate, financial, media and employee relations as well as marketing public relations--be incorporated into these new communication planning models and organizational structures. IMC is a wake-up call for public relations, just as it has been for marketing.

For cutting-edge companies it is essential that a total communication program be integrated. IMC isn't an option but a requirement for many communication managers who are in companies where top management is insisting on communication coordination. The issue then becomes who shall manage such a program and that leads to such debates as the one on imperialism. This is where turf battles begin to destroy the ideal of integration, a factor clearly identified in a study by Colorado faculty members Tom Duncan and Steve Everett and reported in the Journal of Advertising Research which found that egos and turf battles were the primary obstacles to integration.

But it's more than turf battles. In discussions of the communication mix, as well as budget shoot-outs, the old thinking ("I have money left in this budet so I have to spend it or I lose it") has to go away and be replaced by a boundary-spanning analysis of the objectives and the tasks that can best accomplish them. Rather than debate whether advertising, marketing, or public relations should be in charge, whether public relations is being subsumed under marketing, or whether marketing and advertising people understand the full breadth of public relations, it might be more profitable to look to the management requirements and obstacles.

Cross-discipline mangement skill is the biggest barrier to IMC. It would seem obvious that no one person can be proficient in all the various communication areas. What is demanded, however, is an understanding of and an appreciation for the contributions that all the areas can make--a generalist, in other words, which is contrary to the career track that most people take as they advance by becoming more "expert" in some area. And given the bottom-line focus of most companies and organizations in this day and age, effective management also demands an understanding of and an appreciation for marketing strategy. The person in charge doesn't have to have an MBA, but whoever it is needs to be at least marketing saavy. In managing an integrated communication program, however, leadership is more important than expertise or specialist skills.

But the thesis of this article is that public relations is particularly aligned with the focus and objectives of IMC and has much to contribute as well as benefit from IMC thinking. Since IMC is focused on the total corporate or brand image, it is important to turn to public relations for a more global understanding of how impressions are created. Organizational communication factors such as relationships, motivation, and involvement are often addressed by PR programs and PR practitioners may be the people in an organization who are most competent to function as change agents--a critical task in creating and managing IMC programs.

In other words, in the IMC program at Colorado we feel that the full breadth of public relations, not just MPR, is needed in integrated communication programs. Public relations has much to contribute--much of IMC is, in fact, based on public relations theories and practices--but it also has much to gain from the evolving IMC thinking in terms of ways to expand its sphere of influence and develop more effective strategic planning, as well as more efficient execution of those plans.






September 9, 1994


Public Relations Quarterly

Dear :

Enclosed you will find an article for your consideration for publication in Pubic Relations Quarterly.

The focus of the piece is on integrated marketing communication (IMC) and its relationship to public relations--in terms of both what PR has contributed to the evolving models of IMC communication and what PR can learn and apply from this new area.

I hope you will find this topic to be of interest to your readers. If you have any suggestions about the focus or treatment, I would welcome your ideas.

Most sincerely,


Sandra E. Moriarty, Ph.D.

Professor