Change all around: A multi-level study of practice, identity and professional change within marketing and communications



The marketing and communication functions in organizations and agencies are fundamentally being redefined in most corporate organizations and agencies around the globe. This trend is triggered by changes in media spending and the game changing impact of social media. The proposed research project takes place in this changing context of the marketing and communication professions, and the way in which these are currently practised in corporate organizations. Through a combination of case studies and survey and content analytic methods, the research will develop theory on how practice changes (such as the emergence of branded content ) have led marketing and communication professionals to redefine, or reframe, their work and their professional identity, and how such a reframing is in turn at a macro level changing the field in the direction of a new, emerging profession (of integrated content communicators ). In this way, the research aims to draw out in detail and across levels of analysis the effect of specific practice changes on the nature of the communication profession and its changing professional identity.


identity, identification, materiality, profession, sensemaking


In the 1990s, corporations increasingly started to recognize the value of corporate communication and particularly its strategic role in building and maintaining strong reputations – reputations that have a direct cash value, in that various stakeholders would prefer to do business with a reputable organization, and choose it over its competitors. Reflecting this recognition, new terminology and models emerged that allowed corporations to “manage” these strategically important reputations. Better metrics and positioning mantras came in to help communication professionals, and so as to ensure that their corporations would continue to thrive and prosper. The key downside of this positioning thinking was that that at times it reinforced an assumption that the minds of stakeholders can in a sense be managed, and even controlled. Models of reputation management often linked corporate messages to direct outcomes in terms of awareness, attitude or broader reputational change on the part of stakeholders. The assumption was, in other words, that corporate communicators can strategically plan and design their messaging in order to in effect ‘take up’ a reputational ‘position’ in the minds of stakeholders. This implies a somewhat linear model of communication that assumes a relatively straightforward process of sending and receiving messages, where any outcomes are already largely predetermined or given. It also neglects stakeholders as active agents, who instead are cast as passive pawns in the skillful hands of a communicator.

This thinking has to some extent been overtaken by current events. Stakeholders have in recent years become much more active in voicing their expectations towards organizations and empowered by new technologies have also started to expect more interactive and dialogue based forms of communication. This in turn has led to some in the industry proclaiming that the old models of corporate communication are obsolete or ‘dead’, and that we are seeing a wholesome change towards interactive models of communication. A recent Harvard Business School book for example proclaims the virtues of interactive, conversational forms of corporate communication as in effect replacing “the traditional one-way structure of corporate communication with a dynamic process in which leaders talk with employees and not just to them” (Groysberg & Slind, 2012). It is no doubt true that more interactive forms of communication are enabled by new technologies and social media (in comparison to broadcast media) and such forms of communication are increasingly expected by stakeholders. This trend has also triggered in recent years a real revolutionary change in the marketing and corporate communication professions, the two functions that traditionally defined how corporate organizations approached their internal and external communication with stakeholders. Both have been drawn more closely together in many corporate organizations and in agencies, structurally as well as operationally, with profound consequences for the way in which both practice areas are being defined (Cornelissen, 2014). This integration reflects the fact that, for example, specific practices such as delivering branded content or managing certain social media channels are hard to define as the jurisdiction of the one or the other, and thus traditional notions of professional practice areas (of marketing and communications), and an associated sense of professional identity are being challenged, and are already being supplanted with new definitions.

The proposed research project takes place in this changing context of the marketing and communication professions, and the way in which these are practised in corporate organizations. The focus will in the first instance be on a number of evident practice changes that are associated with social media and whether and how these have led marketing and communication professionals to redefine, or reframe, their work and their professional identity. We will then in turn study the impact of these practice and identity changes on the broader institutionalized professions, and specifically on how a new, emerging area of practice and profession are being negotiated. Here, we will also focus on the framing battles between actors and groups in the broader field, including industry analysts, policy makers, professional bodies, and trade associations. In this manner, the PhD project will connect the micro and macro levels of analyses, and will do so in a theoretically coherent manner by focusing on acts of framing and framing contests across these levels (Cornelissen and Werner, 2014). A particular interest at both levels will also be whether and how material elements (such as marketing metrics, produced content or the control over media channels) are being drawn in by individual actors and groups to frame and define the nature of the emerging practice and profesion, its remit and its distinction from its predecessors (i.e., marketing and corporate communications).


The proposed research entails two interrelated projects which together aim to advance our understanding of the interrelations between practice changes and professional identity as well as broader professional change. Both projects each operationalizes part of the overall research question ( how is practice change affecting the communication profession, including the professional identity of its practitioners? ) and will involve different specialist methods; case study methods at a micro level on the one hand and content-analysis and survey methods at a macro level on the other. In this way, the research project is able to combine the richness, explanatory depth and ecological validity of qualitative case study methods with the formal character and theoretical generalization associated with survey and content-analytic methods. A further reason for this particular combination is that it leads to a cumulative and increasingly fine-grained understanding. The first set of case studies build a theoretical base for more deductive theory elaboration through survey and content analyses.

Literature references

Cornelissen, J.P. (2014), Corporate Communication: A Guide to Theory and Practice. London: Sage, fourth edition.

Cornelissen, J.P., and Werner, M.D. (2014), Putting framing in perspective: A review of framing and frame analysis across the management and organizational literature, Academy of Management Annals, 8, 181-235.

Groysberg, B., and Slind, M. (2012), Talk Inc: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power their Organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Expected output

Over the course of the research, findings will be disseminated to academic peers through journal articles, contributions to books and presentations at conferences. The expectation is that the PhD thesis will yield 2-3 articles reporting empirical findings and new theory in high impact international journals at a level similar to that attained in our previous work (e.g., Academy of Management Review, Organization Science). The novel theoretical value of the research provides a strong basis for publication in top-tier journals. Furthermore, the PhD thesis will be made publicly available (as a booklet). We also plan to develop proposals for panel symposia and tracks related to the research at the Academy of Management and EGOS conferences. Both supervisors will attend these and other major conferences alongside the PhD candidate to showcase the research internationally.


The PhD project will be supervised from within the Centre for Corporate Communication (CCC); a designated centre of expertise recognized worldwide for its research and executive education in the area of corporate communication. Members from the centre (Cornelissen and Berens) will be responsible for the daily supervision of the project, and will also assist the PhD candidate in securing access to data and guide the project to completion. Both members also have extensive experience in publishing and editing papers, and will work with the candidate to get the research published in top-tier business and management journals. The CCC is situated in the Department of Business-Society Management at RSM, and has strong working relationships with faculty from the Department as well as with other Departments (Strategy and Organization). The project may, depending on the direction that the research will take, also involve a collaborative element with faculty members from each of these departments.

Societal relevance

Besides the dissemination of the research through journal articles, the research is also highly relevant for practice. This relevance concerns the changing practices and field of communication within corporate organizations and agencies. In addition, the research speaks also more generally to questions of practice and identity change across areas and functions in the modern corporate organization. The findings of the research will be tuned towards practical outcomes and particularly towards directly helping communication managers and professionals think about and support the process of practice change within their organizations. We will liaise with various public relations and communication bodies and professional associations (EACD, EUPRERA, Global Alliance, Logeion) to bring our findings to a practitioner audience. In partnership with Logeion and the Platform for Reputation Management (a platform managed by the CCC) we will run a series of practitioner based workshops in the Netherlands where we will summarize the research findings in non-technical language in order to help managers and professionals improve their understanding of the changing nature of their practice and field. Finally, we are also committed to broadcasting the findings to the wider public through the news media, including the Financial Times and het Financiele Dagblad.

Scientific relevance

The thrust of the research is at the same time fundamental and applied, combining theoretical innovation with findings that support management practice. Theoretically, the research is original in its aim to combine multiple theoretical strands (on identity, materiality and practice) to explain the evolving nature of a particular area of professional practice. The research will in the first instance be abductive and qualitative in its orientation, where the combination of different lenses provides fertile ground for theoretical innovation. The supervisors have extensive experience with the proposed theoretical ideas and methods, as well as with this abductive approach, and have gained multiple awards for their research (including the award for the best published paper in 2014 of the Academy of Management).

PhD candidate profile

  • The candidate needs to have completed a MRes (or MPhil) degree in business and management or a post-graduate masters degree with a strong research component, in either the business and management field or a closely associated social science field (such as psychology, communication science or sociology).
  • The candidate needs to be fluent in English; have a general interest in the communication and media industry; and be interested in pursuing a career in academia.
  • The candidate is a motivated, self-reliant and organized individual, who not only enjoys collaborating with others as part of the CCC team but is also able to work individually towards pre-defined targets.

Contact information

For academic questions only. For procedural questions, contact the Doctoral Office.


Thursday, 30 November 2017

Supervisory Team

Joep Cornelissen
Professor of Corporate Communication and Management
  • Promotor
  • Daily Supervisor