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.

Blind Men, Elephants, and Public Relations

UnknownThere’s an old proverb about  blind men describing an elephant. One strokes a leg and says “it’s a tree.” One touches a tusk and says “it’s a spear.’ A third grasps the trunk and declares “it’s a snake.” And so on.

All are offering somewhat correct descriptions of what they experience. But they don’t see the big picture. No one points out they are touching only a part of an elephant.

Such is the nature of describing and defining the field of public relations.

The problem has existed for years, but I’ve noticed it in increasing instances recently:

  • a dialogue with a practitioner on LinkedIn who characterizes public relations as pitching reporters;
  • a New York Times article about Facebook’s “PR firm.” But upon upon careful reading  the firm, Definers Public Affairs, is NOT a PR firm but a political opposition research firm. They do talk about earned media, but even so it’s only a limited aspect of PR.
  • An article in Forbes that purports to predict the future of PR, only to characterize the profession as merely media relations and the future as digital storytelling. Most professionals and academic programs are well into the digital future, and storytelling is one aspect of what PR professionals do.
  • a business publication article characterizes PR as “putting your organization in a positive light,” which is cringe-worthy for its unethical implications and the ability to be synonymous with “spin.”

In short, characterizations of public relations–by the news media and, sadly, even by some who work or claim to work in the profession–either demonize what we do as dishonest or minimize what we do as mere publicity. They are blindly describing the only aspect of something huge, the one thing they touch.

What is really frustrating about all of this is that we are 100 years beyond PR being hucksterism or mere publicity seeking. I wrote a journal article about this some years ago, recounting how early practitioners like Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, and Arthur W. Page proclaimed they were beyond news releases and focused their time counseling management about their relationships with their publics. This was in the 1920s!

We still have a media-cultivated view of PR. The articles I mentioned above are bereft of any reporting that seeks out a comment from a PR professor or a professional organization such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Arthur W. Page Society, The PR Council, the Institute for Public Relations, or others. These organizations would provide a much more accurate and complete characterization of the profession of public relations. They would describe the whole elephant, you might say.

So what is PR? It is many things. That’s the point. But here’s the key–don’t define “PR” by a tactic, but by the publics and the objectives. Public relations is essentially about relationships between an organization and ALL of its publics, also called stakeholders. “Stakeholder Theory” is a model taught in many public relations programs to stress the ethical nature of public relations being responsive to all people affected by an organization.

So public relations could be called any of the following focused on specific publics–consumer relations, investor relations, employee relations, donor relations, and yes, media relations–the media are both a public and a channel to other publics.

Public relations also involves all aspects of communication tactics, including but not limited to media relations or ‘earned’ media. Many in PR discuss the PESO model to emphasize that a PR campaign could use any and all tactics available–Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned. PR writing classes in the curriculum where I teach cover all of them.

Here are some more body parts of the elephant:

  • PR is a management function, all about counseling the CEO and others in the C-suite about the organization’s relationships with its various publics, all in keeping with organizational  mission and objectives.
  • PR is two-way–it is more than “getting the word out” or “raising awareness.” It involves emphatic and ethical listening to publics and adjusting to maintain mutually beneficial relationships.
  • PR is strategic. See above bullet. Many communication theories are vital to not just informing but developing understanding, positive attitude and motivation to action among publics with whom PR professionals communicate.
  • PR is inherently ethical. There is growing research that asserts that many PR professionals embrace the role of the ethical conscience of their organization, because PR is the one management function that considers ALL publics in terms of mutual relationships.

I could go on. But suffice it to say that PR is–and has been for a century–far more than many journalists and even current practitioners make it out to be. It’s not that hard for self-proclaimed gurus in the industry to take off the blinders of their solitary experience and see the whole elephant. My hope for the future is that people who don’t will be laughed at, or stepped on.