Almost since my first post here at ToughSledding, I’ve debated with readers who define “public relations” differently than I. Never once have I said they “don’t get it,” though a number have said or implied it about me. Most with whom I spar define themselves as marketers, and as such tend to view PR as a tool of the marketing craft, i.e., another way to support the sale.
My exchanges with our “evil twins” in marketing have been cordial most of the time and only occasionally combative. And while I’ve enjoyed every one of the debates — and even the blow-ups — I’m troubled by them as well. You see, I’ve actually taken the time to learn about marketing and what it does. It doesn’t seem the marketers have done the same when it comes to PR — especially the many bloggers who use the terms interchangeably. So I’ll see if I can’t fix that.
The problem is one of perspective. If you do marketing or advertising for a living, you tend to define other disciplines as they interface with your own. I understand the marketer’s perspective. Twice in my career I worked in small PR shops within large ad/marketing shops. PR’s job was to support the overall marketing objectives, which almost always involved selling a product or service. We were marketers, pure and simple, and our primary tool was the “free publicity” and hype we got from our story pitches and staged events. Valuable? Sure. But only a small part of PR practice.
There’s a much larger picture to this PR thing, and I remain troubled that so many of our partners on the marketing side don’t see it. So today I begin the process of setting the record straight. We’ll see from the volume and quality of the conversation if any of this matters.
While PR frequently integrates its efforts with partners in marketing, PR is not and never will be a subset of marketing. To make it so would corrupt the function, since PR’s focus must be on symmetrical communication to support the relationship, not marketing communication to support sales or distribution.
Publicity, or news coverage triggered by public relations activities, is one tool in the PR professional’s kit that helps generate awareness and interest. Special events is another function often assigned to PR. Those events may help sell product (e.g., a trade show function), but may also help build and maintain relationships that have little or nothing to do with marketing (e.g., an event to recognize and honor employees or volunteers).
It’s only natural to define things from our unique perspective. If PR touches your life only in the context of a marketing campaign, that’s how you’ll perceive it. Sadly, this limited view is based on limited experience, not on a familiarity with the literature of public relations.
Those who want to classify PR as a marketing function would benefit from a little exploration. When you delve into PR’s body of knowledge, you learn that PR practice has focused on the “relationship” for the past 25 years, ever since Grunig and Hunt defined the reigning paradigm for this profession. And if you do a little interpretation, you’ll find the beginnings of “relationship model” (he calls it “adaptation”) of PR practice in Bernays’ 1955 work, “The Engineering of Consent.” It’s not a new phenomenon. Hell, it’s almost as old as I am!
(Sidenote: Copies of the Bernays book advertised at the above link list for $699 and up. I have a third-edition copy signed by Bernays and still in the dust jacket. Wonder what that’s worth? Yes, you may feel free to make me an offer!)
The problem for PR and marketing may begin at the college level. On my own campus, PR majors at Kent State take at least 3 and sometimes up to 6 marketing classes. Marketing majors in the business school take NO public relations classes at all.
I know this essay sounds a bit defensive. What the hell: It is defensive. But I hope the marketing types who’ve come this far will stay with me, at least for the next few weeks.
As a longtime PR professional-turned-educator, I’m supposed to have a foot in both the practical and the theoretical worlds. So, in the next 4-6 weeks, I’ll be laying out a PR primer of sorts, aimed mostly at those who wonder why I have my shorts in a knot all the time. I’ve been called a “PR purist” by some, and I like that. I’ve been called “old school” by others — and I’m anything but.
In the next four posts, I’ll outline for you the foundation of my PR philosophy, which is also the foundation we teach students at Kent State. Don’t call it a manifesto (I hate that word), as I am simply highlighting the information presented and discussed in a sophomore-level PR Principles class. Here are the posts I’m planning.
- A sort-of united definition for public relations
- PR glossary: What PR is, and what it is not
- The 4 Models of Public Relations Practice: Where do you fit?
- PR’s intersection with Web 2.0: Symmetrical PR meets the Cluetrain Manifesto
I know I’m gonna regret committing to 4 posts in the middle of July. I mean, those fish out there are calling my name, man. But I’ve been away too long.
Update, July 17: Couldn’t resist inserting this “tweet” graphic from Ed Lee, an astute young blogger from Toronto and an outstanding contributor to the online conversation. Ed, it’s only controversial if you’re a marketing person! We PR folks refer to it as incontrovertible truth. Thanks for the promotion among the Twitterati. And thanks to JG from T.O. for sending the link. I still can’t bring myself to tweet.