In progress 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

Time frame

2018 - 2022


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).

Supervisory Team

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