A while back, maybe a decade, I attended a lecture by Plain Dealer columnist Dick Feagler. Dick opened his talk by telling our students he writes 12 columns a month for Ohio’s largest newspaper. About twice a month, he said, “I actually have something to say.”
In the grand scheme, few people will care — as the headline says — why I don’t trust marketers. But since it’s been gnawing at me for, oh, 15 years, I figured I’d put it out here for your consideration and feedback.
Blame it on the blogosphere. I see too many 30something PR bloggers who don’t or won’t differentiate between PR and marketing. Most use the terms interchangeably, and I worry that a generation of practitioners may come of age not knowing the difference.
I started using the pet name “evil twin” about a year ago –my flippant way of differentiating the PR function from the distinct discipline of marketing. My concerns took root in the early 1990s, when the folks at Medill coined the term “integrated marketing communication.”
Under IMC, public relations becomes part of the “marketing” effort. That’s OK in some instances but not others. Without question, PR professionals must support the marketing effort. When the challenge is to sell something — a product, service or brand — PR’s gotta be on board.
At the same time, marketing must never dominate the partnership, since marketing is not the answer to every communication challenge. Marketing is too vested in the sale.
By definition, marketing is the process of getting goods and services to customers using those 4 Ps we learned about in college: product, price, placement and promotion. Notice, there is no “PR” on that list, but those who edited the wikipedia entry about marketing were happy to list PR as a “specialist area” of marketing. Yes, some newer marketing models include PR in the marketing equation, but mostly for its publicity function.
Most marketers value what PR brings to the table, but I’ve yet to meet one who really understands the function in theory and in practice. Most marketers never take the time to learn it, and PR is partly to blame for not forcing the issue with business schools. At Kent State, PR undergrads take between 3 and 6 marketing classes (depending on if they want a minor in the subject), plus courses in management, accounting, and economics. But it’s rare to see business students in our classrooms. Damned rare.
As such, business and marketing majors seldom learn of PR’s 2-way symmetrical model, and they rarely discuss PR’s role in the context of relationship management or conflict resolution. That’s precisely why we can’t surrender the tools of PR to those who live and die by the sale. If we do, then we abdicate the role for PR so clearly outlined by the symmetrical model.
Some background. The symmetrical model, proposed by Grunig and Hunt in 1983, is grounded in the idea that success grows from mutual satisfaction between organizations and their publics. Along with clear and meaningful communication, PR involves adaptation of behavior — a process through which organizations work to align themselves with the needs of publics.
The symmetrical model, over the past quarter century, has redefined PR’s role as that of boundary spanning. As the textbooks tell it — and as I preach it — PR professionals must live with one foot inside the organization and one foot outside it. We must advocate for our clients but also for the stakeholders they impact. We walk a fine line between organizational goals and goals of society — kind of like an ombudsman or arbiter.
For the most part, cheerleaders of social media understand the concept of symmetry. They see social media as giving voice to stakeholders and empowering organizations.
Sadly, no matter how hard we try to counsel our evil twins, marketing-driven clients are abusing social media for surreptitious selling and to infiltrate influencer groups with fluffy and misleading messages. For communicators driven solely by product sales, blogs aren’t a conversation but an SEO booster.
Under the marketing banner, PR tends to focuses on image and presentation — on the sell. Grunig and Hunt model, that’s called “two way asymmetrical.” You may want to call it the fine art of persuasion — or the sell job.
This isn’t a new idea. PR practitioners have understood (though not always practiced) a form of symmetry for a century now. Ivy Lee embraced it when he penned the Declaration of Principles in 1908, Arthur Page when he became the first corporate PR exec at management’s table. Even Ed Bernays, sometimes better known for his mass persuasion techniques, acknowledged the importance of organizational adaptation in his 1955 classic, “The Engineering of Consent.”
Marketing is critical to any organization, since it drives sales, and that drives bottom line. But can we count on marketers to oversee important relationships with internal and community publics? Are marketers schooled in public affairs or crisis management?
Perhaps I’m fighting a war of semantics. Does it matter what we call this discipline of public relations? I think it does, because what we do is too important to hand over to a sales function — at least on my watch!
The smart clients know they need public relations. Do we?
Thanks to the late Pat Jackson for inspiration on this issue. As Pat used to say: “Business isn’t about making money, it’s about building relationships. Money is just how we keep score.” Too bad Pat died so young. He would have been the top PR blogger of them all.