The practice of professional communication has become highly complex, not only because of technology, social media, and the need to connect with global audiences, but also because “communication” means different things to different audiences. Further, the significant amount of crossover among the various facets of communication means there is often confusion about the roles and responsibilities of contemporary communicators. Consequently, it can be challenging for communicators, clients and audiences to glean a clear understanding of communication roles and how they function.
The concept of integrated marketing communication (IMC) was introduced in the 1980s (Schultz and Schultz, p. 19) and has since changed the way communicators and marketers interact and conduct business. The American Marketing Association defines IMC as “a planning process designed to assure that all brand contacts received by a customer or prospect for a product, service, or organization are relevant to that person and consistent over time.”
“Public Relations (PR) used to be the people who wrote press releases and distributed them, or pitches to the media,” says communication executive, Leigh Dow, of 48 West Group in Phoenix. “Now, PR teams are usually the best at thinking around corners on the message strategy and analyzing how a message will be construed. That analysis permeates content strategy. Also, now that content is used in so many different ways, such as social media, blog posts and contributed content, the more PR and IMC strategy are interlocked.”
Adding to this confusion are the many communication monikers, including:
- Strategic communication
- Public relations
- Organizational communications
- Digital communications
- Media relations
- Corporate communication
- Public affairs
- Investor relations
While some of these areas are specialties under the “communication” umbrella, most are considered general terms to describe the process of influencing, persuading, engaging and educating audiences about a particular client, issue or brand. The terms, “public relations” and “strategic communications,” are now frequently interchanged.
Dow went on to say, “Because I tend to think about IMC as a synchronized effort among specialists, I think PR is a very specialized skill set. Just as media buying is a specialized skill set, or digital media management. However, I do think the traditional definition of PR is almost gone. In our firm we often tell people, ‘if your PR agency’s strategy starts with a press release, fire them.’”
In many organizations today, public relations, corporate communications, advertising, marketing, promotions and publicity function collaboratively as part of “the IMC mix.” What this means for organizations is consistency and unification of messaging, brand promotion and audience engagement.
It’s important to note, however, that because PR is considered the “ethical compass” of the organization, it serves as the foundation upon which all other IMC elements are created, and it serves in a bit of a stand-alone capacity. That is, PR develops an organization’s key messages and then oversees the other IMC areas to ensure message authenticity, consistency and truthfulness across all communication platforms (e.g. advertising, marketing collateral, internal memos, Web content, and so forth).
As communicators, it’s vitally important that we educate clients and audiences about our profession and what it entails. I also believe that our professional community should decide on one term and one definition to minimize public confusion and misperceptions. Leigh Dow concurs. “While the message may be integrated,” she said, “the delivery is where the inconsistencies of definition happen most.”
Schultz, D. and Schultz, H. (2003). IMC, the next generation: Five steps for delivering value and measuring returns using marketing communication. USA: McGraw-Hill.
Debra Davenport Ph.D. is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.