Public Relations, Marketing or Both?

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One More Time: It’s PR, Not Marketing

Don Hale, principal of the Don Hale PR consulting firm, is vice president for public relations and marketing communications at Georgia State University where is the chief public relations counselor to President Mark P. Becker.

I have long been troubled by the misuse of the term “marketing” and its seeming predominance over public relations in our industries’ lexicon. Some colleagues have told me repeatedly to shut up and move on. It’s just a problem of semantics, they say.

Properly chastened, I have gone dark on this topic even as I see the continued abuse of the words and a complete and widespread misunderstanding of their definitions.

Now comes an irresistible opportunity to address the topic one more time.

I’ve learned that a higher education colleague at a major university has won the “Marketer of the Year” award at the American Marketing Association’s (AMA) higher education conference in Austin, Texas.

This is wonderful recognition for an outstanding professional and one of the really good people in higher education. Unfortunately, she really isn’t a “marketing” practitioner. She is a public relations pro.

I am certain she made important contributions to the marketing of her institution to prospective students. I am equally as certain she made little or no contribution to determining the price of that education, deciding when and where to deliver courses or defining the university’s academic offerings (courses and such).

She likely did an outstanding job on one of the “four P’s” of marketing: promotion. As part of her public relations responsibilities she is quite probably and appropriately in the marketing communications business.

One more time for the critics and those who deny the importance of these distinctions in the practice of our profession. Public relations is the strategic function that addresses all of an organization’s key constituencies. Marketing addresses consumers of a product or service. Product promotion or “marketing communications” is the area where the public relations function addresses the consumer audience.

Readers of my blogs at know I have hammered at the need to build understanding of public relations so our work receives the same recognition and is afforded the same value as the work of our marketing colleagues. We must keep at it, not because we need more credit, but because our institutions will benefit from the knowledge of what public relations and marketing actually do. With that understanding they will be able to set realistic priorities and assign appropriate resources in those professional arenas and, most important, better be able to evaluate their effectiveness.

It’s not just about semantics. As PR professionals we have an obligation to educate organizational leaders about those differences so they understand the contributions of each profession.

The AMA’s recognition of a public relations professional as its “Marketer of the Year” speaks volumes about the true value of PR, its impact and its pervasive influence in an organization. But marketing communications is just one tool in the PR toolbox. By properly and accurately defining public relations, marketing and marketing communications, organizations can employ a more thoughtful and synergistic strategy that harnesses the full power of these practices.

— VS —

Marketers Or PR Professionals? Who Are We?

Tom Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA is Chief Communications Officer, Ole Miss and Executive Committee, PRSA Counselors to Higher Education

Is public relations a subset of marketing, or is marketing a subset of PR? Does it even matter? Might they be so intertwined that one cannot be separated from the other?

It’s a popular topic, one sure to stir a debate. In fact, it was about 30 years ago that I debated the topic in North Carolina magazine with Joe Epley, former PRSA president and longtime friend and competitor at North Carolina’s Epley Associates. I’m sure each of us thought we won that debate, and we probably haven’t changed our minds. But three decades in PR later, including three years’ practice in higher education, I have some observations that confirm I was right. (Sorry, Joe. :-))

In fact, I’ll increase the stakes and suggest that every activity – not just PR – in almost every organization is either a subset of marketing or so tightly connected to marketing that it’s hopeless to argue they’re separate. How could an entity survive without marketing – unless there’s a generous philanthropist in the wings who is able to contribute because of the money earned at some other enterprise that depends on marketing to generate it?

Let’s start with the semantics. Arguably the most popular definitions of marketing include the 4 P’s – product, price, place, promotion. Let’s unpack those terms – very briefly. Whether you’re a manufacturer or a service business, a non-profit or an interest group, you have a “product” to sell. (For this piece I’m defining services and even issues/ideas as products.) That “product” must generate revenue to pay the bills, so there’s a price. And there must be easy enough access to the product (distribution) that people can engage with it. Finally, there must be promotion (or communication) to create awareness, preference, and differentiation – and maybe even a relationship.

If you’re still with me, you noted the “R” word, relationships. That’s the glue that holds it all together. Better yet, it’s the oil that makes the mechanics of an organization run smoothly – or run at all. Someone must be responsible for creating, maintaining and growing those relationships, perhaps everyone in the organization. But who more than public relations professionals plays a more central role in relationship management, whether creating, maintaining or growing them? Public relations in its simplest form is about relationship management, and all of our daily activities in some way support that: media relations, events, social media, speeches, advertising, internal communications, e-newsletters, websites, etc.

So, if the marketing mix is composed of the 4 P’s, the letter “R” is the elixir that makes the pieces and parts and every other “P” work together. Relationship management, the #1 job for public relations people, is a subset of marketing, but it’s also so deeply intertwined with marketing that one cannot be separated from the other.

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  • I’m with Don Hale all the way. I once made a career change from public relations to marketing – but in the same organization – and had to explain this distinction constantly. As a public relations executive, I was accountable for relationships with all key constituencies – customers, to be sure, but all the others as well: employees, suppliers, key government entities, and more. When I became a marketing executive, I was only focused – but intensely so – on one constituency, the customer. And then I did have authority over pricing, product design and distribution.
    I think it is in large part because I gained proficiency in both of these very important but very different disciplines – overlapping, to be sure – that I ultimately became a CEO.

  • The distinction between PR and marketing is not that clear regarding the education program of PR. One of my friend is studying a PR master programme, and she has to go through courses like advertising, consumer psycology, etc, which i think are subjects of marketing. And for my own PR programme, it focused more on the management function of PR. I personally think at the strategic management level, PR and marketing are different that they have focus on different outcomes as illustrated in this blog. But then when it comes to the basal practice level, PR and marketing share same tools and skills. I also think PR itself is the “product” and “service” which may not always physically viable, and hence PR practitioners are trying to develop tangible and quantitative evaluation of PR’s value contributed to the organization.

  • While I know and respect both of the debaters, I tend to side with Don Hale’s argument. Tom nicely threads the needle between PR and marketing, but I think the flaw in his argument is the implied second-class status for relationships.

    In my view, many of the failures of corporate (as well as nonprofit) America can be attributed to “moving product” at the expense of building a long-term and multifaceted relationship built on trust. That may matter less when buying toothpaste, but can be a deal-breaker when “buying” a college degree, major surgery, or investment portfolio management. It also is apparent in crisis communication, when interest in protecting the brand trumps the demand for good citizenship and full disclosure.

    I’m tempted to say to the two debaters, can we reason together? Somewhere at the breakpoint between public relations and marketing are those PR people who fully appreciate and factor in the business implications of their PR decisions and actions, and those marketing people who will astutely forgo a short-term gain in the interest of the organization’s broader objectives, stature, and obligations to its customers.

  • I’ve spent a career in both public relations and marketing/advertising. As a creative director I worked integrating a client’s brand with their public relations initiatives. I also created public relations departments in ad agencies to get them to understand the tactics. As a public relations professional and APR, I have tried to get clients to understand how to build their brand through community outreach, employee “brand advocacy” and create “brand ambassadors” and tried to explain how elements of marketing will fit within a communications plan. The difficulty I have had is for people, to understand that a person, or agency, can do both equally and effectively. Part of the issue is that many clients think p.r. is “sending out news releases” and marketing is “cramming stuff down the consumer’s throat” And often, pr is nothing more to them than “hiring spin doctors.” Much like the tiresome argument for 3+ decades I have had with art directors – and attempting to marry the art with the copy and vice versa – we need to do a better job getting people to understand “it’s all public relations” which is what I have advocated for years adding, “of which marketing is a subset of that,” not the opposite that so many people think. And, while we’re on the subject, coming up with what to call ourselves – pr pros, pr consultants, pr advocates, gurus – would go a long way too. Perhaps getting APR at the same level of CPA? Just a thought.

  • Very happy to read this chain, and to read the comments of both Tom and Don. I did not vote in the poll for a simple reason: I did not see a choice that actually could address this accurately.

    Typically when we define the most unique aspect of PR, we all use the same phrases, usually about “mutually beneficial relationships.” We like to say we “listen” and by extension perhaps that those in marketing and other professions do not have “listening/responding/listening” or “mutual benefit” or “relationships” in their professional DNA or toolbox.

    Thanks to both of you for bringing this forward, and to all contributors Here’s my own opinion fleshed out on my LinkedIn blog….

  • Thanks for this spirited point-counterpoint! PR is definitely not marketing, though PR tactics are frequently used in service of marketing objectives. It’s a distinct discipline that shares some aspects with marketing, but marketing is primarily as transactional discipline based on an exchange relationship — goods/services for value received.

    All marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing.

    Public relations (using the most inclusive definition) is based on other types of relationships, including exchange in some cases, but its goals and objectives are broader than the “sales” function of marketing. As our authors here aver, this is not merely a matter of semantics.

    To sharpen the point: If indeed it’s all about marketing, then any discipline in the organization that does not trace directly to sales should receive few resources. Employee communication, issues and reputation management, community relations, CSR… each of these may be considered to be important, but there is little credible research that links them directly to sales. Direct marketing, advertising, brand marketing, etc., all are evaluated in the context of sales. Though PR is perfectly capable of driving sales (and at much lower cost, particularly), its main functions are broader — even if we discount the “license to operate” ethos, a motivated and engaged workforce, a set of stakeholders that think well of the organization both operationally and as organizational citizens, and governmental and community leaders that sense the organization has a stake in the game are vital to effective operations, and there is a lot of credible research that supports that contention.

    We see the evidence of placing sales at the top of the list of objectives for any organization — WorldCom, Enron, Arthur Anderson, etc. If the purpose of any business is to create a customer (Drucker) one doesn’t do so merely by “selling.” This is the strongest argument I can muster for PR and Marketing as separate disciplines, though working together in coordinated fashion is crucial.

    Public Relations is broader, serves a wider range of stakeholders, and supports different objectives than does our marketing cousin.

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