When John Lewis announced its director of comms Peter Cross had been promoted to director of customer experience, a few eyebrows were raised.
After all, John Lewis is a brand built on advertising. So the decision to turn to its most senior PR to help lead its marketing department was a bold one.
Two years ago, Linkedin made a similar move when it promoted Shannon Stubo from VP of corporate communications to chief marketing officer. At the same time it brought its comms function into the marketing department.
In a recent interview, Stubo claimed the marketing industry no longer separated between marketers and PRs. “Ten years ago it was, ‘I’m in PR I pitch [to] reporters’ and ‘I’m in advertising, I spend money with agencies to buy ads’ – that was it,” she explained.
“Now with content marketing and social, the comms people are doing marketing campaigns and the marketers are doing PR; it’s all converging.”
The age of the PR-minded CMO
So are we now in an age where a PR is better positioned to lead a marketing department than a more traditional marketer? Matt Bourn, a co-founder of Finn PR, believes so.
He says the rise of emotive storytelling means PRs are better placed to lead marketing departments. He tells Marketing Week: “The old way of advertising was to stop, interrupt and tell you something, but that’s either dying or dead now.
“PRs are disciplined and because they are used to regularly dealing with journalists who are hard to impress, they understand it’s about engagement and emotive storytelling rather than interruption. A PR is considered and disciplined in how they deal with brand building and that’s the approach every major brands isprioritising right now.”
According to Kevin Gessay, managing director of entertainment ad firm PMK BNC, PRs are the “ultimate storytellers”, as opposed to advertisers who prioritise ROI above anything else.
“I can see why CEOs are leaning towards PR people and it’s because they are so agile,” he adds. “Their experience is so diversified. I have been in PR for 16 years and I understand how challenging it is to get a story placed.
“Therefore, as a PR I really know how important it is to understand my audience. That’s a huge asset when it comes to leading a marketing department.”
However, OpenJaw Technologies’ CMO Colin Lewis believes we’re reading too much into this so-called trend. He dismissively adds: “It’s just horses for courses, PRs will suit particular businesses like Linkedin as it’s a platform as opposed to a brand so PR messaging is key.
“These PR appointments aren’t doom and gloom for traditional marketers. Had John Lewis recruited someone with a background in programmatic or segmentation would that make it a trend too?”
Dealing with risk
Had a PR taken lead on Pepsi’s controversial Kendall Jenner ad, Bourn claims the risk would have been “significantly lower”. In an era where a crisis is always just around the corner, he says having a PR take responsibility for a brand means crisis can be more easily averted.
“It is instinctive in a PR’s DNA to second guess what could go wrong with content. A PR’s default position is to weigh up what could go well and what could go wrong,” he explains. “That’s crucial nowadays.”
Gessay, meanwhile, says the rise of editorial content on ecommerce platforms such as Asos isn’t a “coincidence” and is because more PRs – who understand the importance of editing and content – are getting top tier marketing roles.
He adds: “I don’t see this as a new trend, it’s more just that brands have evolved how they tell their stories. PR people are the ultimate story tellers and now it is all about brand storytelling. I’d say John Lewis made the right choice.”
And even Lewis, who is keen to make the point that the Linkedin and John Lewis appointments are isolated and not proof of something wider, acknowledges PR is becoming a more important tool for marketers.
He concludes: “With the rise of copy, content and social, PR is a skill base marketers need to emphasise harder than before as editorial control is everything for modern brands. But I don’t see a trend here at all.