Public Relations 101: A primer for my friends/adversaries in marketing

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.

20 Responses to Public Relations 101: A primer for my friends/adversaries in marketing

  1. Rob Merritt says:

    Bill,
    I’m looking forward to the upcoming posts. As a vetran PR professional I have been a part of these conversations many times, both with marketing partners and PR peers. Having practiced in the “360 communications” agency world for many years, I have experienced (as many of us have) the blurring of the lines between communications/marketing functions and a focus on building brands using a common strategy and all tools at our disposal, regardless of the part of the building you sit in. I think many of us agree that’s where the industry is right now. Hope you also get to the fish!
    Rob Merritt, APR

  2. Greg Smith says:

    Go, Bill. We had this (dead-end) discussion with the advertising lecturer at ECU a month or so back. She doesn’t get it. Then again all they’re interested in is the here-and-now.

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    As I write this, I’m in a meeting where we’ll discuss — again (arrrgh) — the idea of integrating PR and Advertising. I didn’t buy it 20 years ago and still don’t. Guess that’s why I’m called “old school” — that and my affinity for Steely Dan.

  4. Jenn Mattern says:

    Can’t wait to read the posts Bill. With the push so much in “integrated marketing communications,” I think it’s a great idea to sort all of this out for the marketing-only folks. I have to deal with both marketing and PR for various clients, and I can tell you, it’s not always easy to separate them – at the same time, being able to draw a line and differentiate between them and how specific tasks really fit into one or the other always produces better results. PR folks need to understand the bottom line, and marketing folks need to understand that there’s much more than the immediate bottom line.

  5. Jim Bowman says:

    Bill,

    You are correct, of course. When I accepted my last corporate job it was because the position reported to the president, not marketing or HR. We served and supported marketing, HR, IR and other functional areas. We were able to do that effectively because we were not part of any of those organizations, but on equal footing with them. (I even had my own IT staff.)

    In a broad sense, all businesses are about marketing to effectively deliver products or services. But the bigger companies get, the more complex and nuanced they become. We could make the case that marketing is a subset of corporate image, which is at the heart of public relations (corporate communications) work. That might mean marketing should be under the corporate communications umbrella…

  6. I think that is very good idea to integrate PR and Advertising.

  7. Bill – I’m looking forward to your posts. Incidentally, I taught the seminars of a PR module for marketing and advertising 1st year undergraduates at Bournemouth University in the UK this past year. I hope they will find the wider perspective presented helpful, particularly when they get into jobs.

    However, I fear that they will encounter many PR and marketing folk along the way who will contradict all the “strategic PR” perpsective that I gave them. Also, it was interesting how, even in their first term, they saw communications entirely in relation to the consumer – they don’t even think about other audiences, such as employees, except to consider how they relate to marketing of products/services.

    Final point – I confess that I also taught them to critique the two-way symmetric model of G&H, which although a dominant paradigm doesn’t make it 100% right.

  8. Dear Bill,

    Hi. I am looking forward to your posts…though you’re putting the rest of us academics to shame by attempting such a project in the middle of the summer. I hope I’m not lumped into the “adversary” group, I’ve learned quite a bit in our exchanges and certainly will in this one as well.

    I completely agree about the lack of PR knowledge among marketers (and business students, engineers, etc.), all those future leaders who become the bosses of my students. I don’t think we have any chance of gaining ground on this issue, though. The faculties in business schools think PR is “squishy,” just like CEOs and business execs — due mainly to a lack of understanding. What a vicious cycle!

    Here’s an early disagreement though. As you point out, PR integrates to “support the relationship” as outlined in the quote below:

    “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.”

    To my mind, at the end of the day, the relationship is ultimately about selling a product or service.

    I specialized in internal communications during my professional career. We put a ton of effort into the process because keeping employees happy and informed helped turn them into brand ambassadors. A variety of studies have shown that worker happiness and satisfaction has positive consequence on a number of fronts, including revenue.

    It might seem to debase the effort, but a great deal of employee recognition is about making the particular employee happy so that she will go out and tell her friends and family, letting the snowball roll down the hill.

    I think all communications (or “marketing” if you want to use that as an umbrella term) should align to the organization’s goals and objectives. In this sense, integration is among equal pieces of the communications pie.

    That “Marketing” has more power in the relationship is due to the CEO’s perspective. These guys (unfortunately mostly men) took marketing classes and did well in them, so they feel comfortable with that term. From my experience, they wouldn’t know the difference between marketing and PR if one of the other jumped up and bit them in the ass. Familiarity wins and all communications is then reporting to the CMO or marketing exec.

    All that said, I’m looking forward to your posts.

    Talk soon,
    Bob

  9. Lally says:

    One of your former students — very well prepared btw — clued me into this discussion and I am looking forward to it. I’ll be responding a little bit to your thesis here and there, but we need the academy and the next generation to actually think about these issues. By the time we “oldskool” pros [my kingdom for an actual word for us — pros, not old guys] get to the discussion we’re fighting uphill.

    Thanks for getting it started.

  10. Jason Falls says:

    This couldn’t come at a better time. Thank you for getting back into the swing of things. I’m excited about the upcoming posts as I think they will be a nice refresher course for many of us in public relations as much as they’ll be interesting perspectives for the marketers out there. Welcome back, Professor.

  11. Bill Huey says:

    For starters, PR is older than marketing, which is only about as old as I am (61). But the way these guys talk about “classical marketing” (i.e., the P&G way), you’d think Homer and Cicero invented it.

    Like PR, marketing is not a primary academic discipline. I remember once asking a guest lecturer in marketing why his doctorate was in economics instead of marketing. His reply was interesting: “I wanted it to be in a primary discipline,” he said.

    To marketers, the whole world looks like a grocery store, C-store, big-box store, dealership or other sales/distribution channel. PR requires an enterprise-wide perspective that includes politics, government, social networks, influencers, media, opinion leaders, and the like.

    Speaking of enterprise, I join in the applause for your enterprise in taking on this topic.

  12. *stands, cheers* I can’t wait for these posts. The confusion over this has driven me bonkers for a while, and when I try to explain the differences, I feel as though I get nowhere.

    And, to initiate a least a partial discussion, Bob wrote: “To my mind, at the end of the day, the relationship is ultimately about selling a product or service.”

    Yes, but it cannot *only* be about selling a product or service. This I think is my major beef, and the defining split between marketing/PR.

    A concrete example: An acquaintance of mine worked in the compliance department at a credit card issuer. The marketers wanted to use what can only be described as misleading claims in the marketing materials. When the friend pointed this out, their response was essentially, well we need to have x number of new cards issued. We’ll deal with the fallout when/if it happens.

    Now, this story about made my head spin. They were so focused on meeting their numbers/objectives, they were putting the reputation of the organization AT RISK, for short-term gain. They were willing to put the long-term (slow growth based on accurate representation) at risk for the short-term (rapid growth based on misleading claims). They don’t see “PR disaster in the making” they see “quick sales NOW.”

    I’ve seen this time and again with marketing departments. I think the pressure is worse at public companies that have to announce earnings, but I’ve also seen it at smaller, private companies. The worst is when PR counsels not to do something, marketing gets the go-ahead anyway from the powers that be, and there isn’t any fallout–and sales increase. It justifies further pushing of the envelope in the marketing department, and the bad PR risk increases.

    Can you tell this is something I’m passionate about?😉

    Thanks Bill, looking forward to the series!

    Jen

  13. Bill Sledzik says:

    Wow. What a great discussion we have going here. Sorry it took me so long to approve some of your comments, but I’ve decided to make the blog part of my life, not the center of it. Don’t tell my wife!

    A few quick responses:

    One, I am not at all opposed to public relations being integrated with marketing when goals and objectives call for it. PR can and should be a powerful ally of marketing, and it’s perfectly OK to use PR in support of sales and branding efforts.

    On Jenn’s point: “PR folks need to understand the bottom line, and marketing folks need to understand that there’s much more than the immediate bottom line.”

    Bravo! Too many PR folks shy away from the balance sheet. You can’t ignore the P & L and hope to gain any credibility in the C-suites. At Kent, we do our part be requiring PR majors to take Financial Accounting. This requirement is universally hated by our students — until they arrive in the “real world.”

    To Jim’s point: “We could make the case that marketing is a subset of corporate image, which is at the heart of public relations (corporate communications) work. That might mean marketing should be under the corporate communications umbrella…”

    Jimmy, Jimmy — you da man! But before we decided to make marketing a subset of PR, we have to achieve a little more understanding between these two distinct disciplines. But it’s hard to argue that PR’s “umbrella” is larger than marketing’s, since we see to relationships with a far broader constituency (not just consumers). I see a book title coming out of this: “How Big is Your Umbrella?”

    To Heather’s point: “I confess that I also taught them to critique the two-way symmetric model of G&H, which although a dominant paradigm doesn’t make it 100% right.”

    You’ll get no argument from me on that, Heather. The 2-two symmetrical model is an ideal of sorts — an unreachable vision at the end of continuum. But it reframed the business by focusing on balanced two-way communication that helps us align our organizations with the needs of our publics. It’s not about selling or making quotas. It’s about building long-term relationships in which all parties benefit. Sadly, it’s a concept so simple that many just can’t see it.

    To Bob’s point: “To my mind, at the end of the day, the relationship is ultimately about selling a product or service.”

    Bob, your willingness to align communication and PR goals with the sale may be why you were a VP at a major bank bank when I was a small-fry practitioner with two employees. CEOs have no trouble at all grasping the power of PR to support marketing, and the measures of such efforts are fairly sophisticated. Your argument is one that supporters of IMC have made convincingly: That all communications — be it investor relations, employee communication or community relations are all about driving sales. But it comes from a marketing perspective, which skews it a bit.

    It’s a chicken-and-egg argument really, and one that has me taking sides with Pat Jackson, who I cite so often on this blog. Business isn’t about making money, Pat said. It’s about building relationships. Money is just how we keep score! But keep score we must.

    To Bill’s comment: “To marketers, the whole world looks like a grocery store, C-store, big-box store, dealership or other sales/distribution channel. PR requires an enterprise-wide perspective that includes politics, government, social networks, influencers, media, opinion leaders, and the like.”

    Excellent analogy, and proof that guys named Bill know what their talking about!

    And finally to Jen:
    The story you relate about scrambling to make quota and “worrying about the fallout later” cuts to one of the core elements of public relations: ethics. We must, as PR professionals, counsel our clients to do what is right for today, but also what is right for the long haul The short-term focus of the capitalist system these days — its obsession with quarterly profits vs. long-term gain — continues to be a concern. But there’s been a lot of chatter of late about (buzz word alert) “sustainability,” and sustainability requires a long-term mindset. Maybe there’s still hope.

    In the end, the most respected organizations out there put people ahead of profits. Maybe this is why most people don’t trust big business.

  14. […] to mention what I believe is an important and insightful discussion that is taking place now on Bill Sledzik’s blog ToughSledding. As a really general overview on my part, Bill is defining public relations and examining the […]

  15. Judy Gombita says:

    I’m delighted you’ve pulled yourself away from family and fish priorities (hopefully in that order) to get bloggy again, Bill!

    Am I right in thinking that your series of posts. although using a social media channel, will focus on public relations/marketing practices, rather than solely concentrating on the online/digital sphere? (I hope so.)

    And, from my personal experience, I’d really encourage both public relations and marketing practitioners (and related disciplines)–blogger or particularly not–to not only monitor this conversation (and forward links to relevant colleagues), but also to leave pertinent comments on ToughSledding. Even if you are critical of what Bill has to say, he will give you a fair hearing (without being defensive). Just know that he’ll have an arsenal of textbooks, case studies and long-time, hands-on experience, to back up his response. (But if you make a valid point, particularly in an area he was unfamiliar with, that will be acknowledged, too.)

  16. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Judy. And no, these posts aren’t about social or digital media, though I will say that the arrival of Web 2.0 has benefited PR over some other disciples. We can write, and we are attuned to 2-way communication. The final post in the series will show, I hope, just how PR has been in “the conversation” long before it went digital.

  17. Bill, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “old school” PR (it’s such a hyper-evolving profession) but I do know where you’re coming from. Being trained by by other old school-accused PR’ists (like my former professor Gary Schlee) I can imagine what such a prototype might look like.
    Instead, I prefer to call PR folks like you PR-otectors. Though I am young, I consider myself one as well. What PR-otectors have in common is the passion to get this profession recognized, and this is a two-fold battle.
    Along with establishing distinguishable roles in the professional sphere, PR-otectors have another problem: defending the validity of PR to our senior level management. This, I believe, is where marketing began to blur the lines. Exec’s like marketing because it is measurable. With PR and social media making beautiful music together, measurement has become more real, though defending social media to a management team is a problem in and of itself.
    I am personally fascinated by marketing, branding and PR equally. Your blog is a refreshing reminder not to let this interest blur the boundaries.

  18. Jenn Mattern says:

    “To my mind, at the end of the day, the relationship is ultimately about selling a product or service. ”

    I can understand this mentality, but I think it’s still a bit narrow. It seems to assume PR is only relevant to companies or individuals “selling something” which isn’t the case. It’s also relevant to nonprofit organizations, government entities, etc.

    “At Kent, we do our part be requiring PR majors to take Financial Accounting. This requirement is universally hated by our students — until they arrive in the “real world.”

    I loved studying accounting (and management, marketing, and all of the other business-oriented coursework I pursued in addition to the PR curriculum) – I’m a bit of a dork though when it comes to anything “business.” I’m glad to hear the students realize the value once they’re beyond the classroom. Now if we only had them understanding PR, we’d be all set.😉

  19. […] to reach epic heights on YouTube or whatever other way you’re choosing to measure it.” PR 101 Tough Sledding Marketing vs PR was one of the hot topics at one panel I attended at this […]

  20. […] PR.Richard Bailey • Insert a dynamic date hereRichard: Bill wrote about that not too long ago:http://toughsledding.wordpress.chttp://toughsledding.wordpress.c…Dino Baskovic • Insert a dynamic date hereView All 2 […]

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