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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Integrated Marketing Communications: Are you customer-centric? An interview with Beth Harte.

This is part one of a two-part interview with Beth Harte discussing Integrated Marketing Communications and the public relations industry.

Every day, the way in which we communicate, the tools we have to do so, and the speed at which we can do it, is changing. As the public relations industry evolves, we continue to debate where and how it fits into the greater marketing and communications mix. Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) is one concept that addresses these turf battles, yet nearly , corporations and agencies struggle with putting this into practice.

With that in mind, I approached Beth Harte, who, in addition to her marketing experience, is a nationally recognized blogger and speaker on this topic, which, in itself, has evolved since it was introduced.

In her own words, Beth describes IMC:
The IMC of the past was based on “one sight and one sound” integration of tactics, sometimes based on data (typically segmentation). However, that only worked in the best interest of the organization, not it’s customers. Today’s IMC is about being customer-centric in order to provide two-way interactions that are based in relevancy, receptivity, responsiveness, recognition and relationships.

I presented Beth with a series of interview questions asking how the PR industry can work toward an IMC model.

Here's what she had to say...

Q. What are some of the philosophical reasons that the PR industry has, historically, struggled with integration and IMC concepts?

Starting with higher education, there has always been a separation between public relations and marketing professionals. Public relations is typically taught in the Communications or English Department and Marketing is taught in the Business or Management Department. If PR students do take a “marketing” class, it’s usually advertising. Unfortunately, taking an advertising class doesn’t really teach marketing theory and fundamentals. I think if more PR students took marketing classes steeped in integration, they’d see how closely related marketing and PR actually are (the main goal is being customer-centric).

Philosophically, PR professionals have been taught to believe that they are responsible for establishing and maintaining two-way relationships with constituents and that marketers are one-way message pushers whose job is to drive demand generation. In reality, both departments haven’t done a stellar job at relationship building. Just like marketers push promotional messaging, PR folks push internal messaging that is just as irrelevant to the outside world.

Q. As silos break down, where do you see PR fitting in? What’s the umbrella, and what falls under it? (Or, is an umbrella the wrong analogy?)

If there aren’t any silos, there isn’t any “fitting in.” That’s the beauty of IMC and being a customer-centric organization. All departments (including HR, accounting, product development, marketing, communications, operations, etc.) work systematically together in a coordinated and cohesive manner to service the customer’s wants and needs. It’s an outside-in perspective.

However, I have been known to debate in the past that PR should fall under marketing because I view both PR and marketing communications to fall under marketing. That said, I wouldn’t argue that it’s a must for IMC or being customer-centric.

Q. As noted previously, IMC is more than just departmental integration – and that to truly achieve integration, companies need to focus on becoming “customer-centric," adding another layer into the mix. What suggestions do you have for PR professionals to take IMC to this level?

I just want to clarify that being “” doesn’t add another layer to the mix. It’s a cultural change within the organization. It’s about making decisions based on customer (or client) wants and needs, not on the latest products or services an organization wants to push onto the market (the “if we build it, they will come” mentality).

PR pros that truly understand relationship building can be instrumental in driving their organizations to become customer-centric. PR pros are typically ahead of most other departments when it comes to building relationships outside of the organization. As long as they adopt a data-driven mindset, they can help management to understand what it is that customers want and need based on quantitative and qualitative findings.

Q. It seems like a lot of discussions about IMC revolve around breaking down silos in large organizations, but at the same time, even independent PR consultants and agencies need to embrace these philosophies. What might be the unique challenges or opportunities for PR professionals in these roles?

There are silos that exist in agencies too! Copywriting, account services, creative, accounting, client services, account management, etc. These silos also prohibit effective relationships with clients. Sure, you’ll hear that it’s client services job to maintain the relationship, but how many times have projects been screwed up due to miscommunication when it could have been easily solved if they just let the customer speak to the copywriter? In large organizations, sales people tend to be very protective of their turf (i.e. customers). Client services can be the same way.

Outside-in thinking is key regardless of the size of the agency or consultancy. What do clients need to solve their internal challenges? What pain can be taken away? How can campaigns be better coordinated between other agencies?

Most agencies think inside-out... What are our billings or how much of a retainer can we get from Client X? If agencies were more focused on offering services that clients need, they could worry less about billings and retainers.

Will the industry put this into practice?
Customer-centric. Realationship-builing. Seems obvious that the PR industry should support (and, successfully execute) these concepts. But does it? Can the public relations industry contribute to and embrace a customer-centric, IMC model as Beth describes, or will it continue to operate independent from other departments, as well as clients and customers?

Please, use the comments to discuss, and stay tuned for part 2 of this interview next week when Beth discusses the role social media plays in IMC and offers additional insight and resources.

Read part two of my interview with Beth Harte here.

is a marketer, blogger, speaker, communicator, thinker, connector (people & dots) and Client Services Director at Serengeti Communications, where she helps clients with their social media strategies and markets the digital brain trust that is Serengeti. She is co-founder of #IMCchat which takes placeTwitter on Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. CST. Follow her on or read her insights on becoming more customer-centric on her blog, The Harte of Marketing.

Kary Delaria is a digital PR strategist and social media monitoring and measurement specialist for Kane Consulting, a Minneapolis-based social media marketing and PR firm. You can contact her via email, or on Twitter.
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