Marketing: A Public Relations Discipline

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It caught me off guard for 2.3 seconds. I was just starting a radio interview about something public relations related, I don’t remember what any more. But I do remember the host getting us started by asking me: “First, what’s the difference between PR and marketing?”

I had not expected the question. But I should have. Because people get confused. Some use the terms interchangeably. Even some professional trade publications assert–incorrectly in my view– that “PR is a marketing discipline.” Others talk about work they do as “marketing and public relations” in a way that implies PR is only media relations, another minimizing error.

So what IS the difference? In the radio interview I stated that marketing is about all the activities that are required to bring a product or service to market, whereas public relations is much more broad in terms of developing and maintaining mutual relationships with many publics, not just customers.

I discuss this in my classes. As simplistic graphic above shows, marketing runs deeper in terms of bringing products and services to market, to reach consumers, with the objective of sales. Marketers engage in product development, packaging design, consumer behavior research, channels of distribution, economic analysis, pricing strategy and other aspects of what have been called the 4 Ps.

Public relations overlaps with marketing in terms of one public–consumers–and one of the 4 Ps–promotion. The tactics of both professions overlap in what is often called marketing communications, or MARCOMS.

But professions are not defined by their tactics. A mechanic, carpenter, electrician, and plumber may all use the same tools at one time or another. But they have different objectives.

So, PR has a limited contribution to marketing in terms of promotion. But in terms of objectives and publics it is considerably broader. As the graphic above shows, public relations is concerned with relationships, not only sales. Positive, honest, ethical, mutual relationships lead to good things with many publics, including sales to consumers, but also employee retention, investor confidence, community support, and more.

A fellow public relations professor who works in California said recently on social media that “marketing should report to public relations.” Exactly, for the reasons indicated above. It is broader and inclusive of marketing in terms of publics of interest and overall objectives. Another way of saying that is that marketing is a public relations discipline.

There are lots of opinions on this issue. This is just my take, albeit shared by many PR professionals and faculty with whom I speak regularly. But overall, the two professions need to have a mutual respect for each other, not demonizing or minimizing what the other does. I teach my PR students the basics of business and marketing (as well as addressing nonprofit management and the political landscape), and I am always pleased when marketing programs explain PR as something more than a product news release.

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