What public relations is not…

Repeat after me: Public relations IS NOT marketing.

We all know that PR professionals sometimes support an organization’s marketing efforts, and to resist that integration is foolish. But PR also supports relationships with many constituencies outside of marketing’s reach, e.g., communities, employees, investors, government regulators, elected officials, volunteers, alumni…

Enough said?

While I’m not advocating that marketing report to PR, it’s clear that public relations has a broader reach, not to mention a very different tool kit than the marketers. Still, no matter how hard we fight the perception, people tend to view us as “promoters,” or part of the marketing function. In fact, our job is to sustain the relationships that make our organizations successful, and that goes well beyond the distribution, promotion and sale of products. (Thanks to Catherine Arrow for the “sustain relationships” language, lifted from her comments on my last post.)

As we argue about what public relations IS, it may help to talk about what it is NOT. Here is a list of terms I discuss with my PR Principles classes and now with you — more PR 101.

Public Relations is NOT…

Advertising. Advertising is chiefly concerned with the sale of products or services using paid media messages. Advertising is largely one-way communication aimed at eliciting responses from members of the target audiences (though Web 2.0 is giving advertisers interactive opportunities). Public relations practitioners sometimes use advertising to advocate ideas or causes, or to build and/or reinforce an organization’s reputation.

Promotion. Promotion is communication designed to create incremental sales of a product or service over a short period of time. Promotion often is used to supplement regular brand advertising. Tools typical of sales promotion are coupons, sweepstakes, special events, and “buy one/get one free” offers. At times, a promotion will tie in with a public relations activity such as special events.

Publicity. The communication tool most often associated with public relations, publicity is factual communication designed to gain favorable exposure for a client, product, or idea in the news media. Publicity’s most common form is the press release, but staged events, interviews, fact sheets, pitch letters, and talk show appearances are other tools used to generate positive media coverage. Some marketers use the terms promotion and publicity interchangeably. They aren’t the same thing.

Media relations.
MR is a specialty of public relations that oversees the publicity function and works to sustain positive relationships with media gatekeepers (which now includes bloggers). Because working with and “pitching” media is one of the oldest public relations activities, it’s the one most associated with our field by outsiders. And since media relations was the primary job of PR a generation ago, many old-school managers still insist that former reporters make the most effective PR practitioners. (This has not been my experience!)

Public affairs. When used in the context of government and military, public affairs is synonymous with public relations. In the corporate world, however, public affairs is a subset of the public relations function that deals with government relations and lobbying, plus social issues and policies.

Selling. Selling involves direct contact with customers and prospective customers for the negotiation of a purchase. Sales people often rely on tools developed by public relations people (brochures, fliers, websites, etc.). Sales people often benefit from the good works of public relations people, e.g.,publicity stories, customer service programs, research studies, special events, etc. And because sales people are the organization’s front-line storytellers, it behooves PR to understand their needs and to support them in their efforts.

Drum roll, please! Public relations is not…

Marketing. Marketing deals with getting products or services to the customer. If you’re over 35, you learned marketing as the “4 Ps”: product, price, placement and promotion. Marketing has become a lot more sophisticated with the advent of databases, but the goals remains the same — to move product through the pipeline.

In fairness to our partners in marketing, they’re coming around. The term “relationship marketing” arrived back in the 90s, and earlier this year the AMA recast its definition to reflect…well, to reflect a understanding of public relations. I don’t know how else to explain it.

Not everyone is happy with AMA’s new definition. How about you?

“Marketing is the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners and society at large.”

Now, tell me our “evil twins” haven’t been reading the PR textbooks. Society at large? Wow! But if you check AMA website, be sure to note the name at the top: “Marketing Power.”

I’m not sure a power trip is a good way to launch a relationship or to serve “society at large.” So I’m hopeful our friends in marketing will just continue to sell stuff. They’re damned good at it — especially when PR helps them!

Disclaimer: Once again, none of the ideas or definitions in this post is original to me. I have lifted them from old lecture notes, handouts and PowerPoints. And all that came from people way smarter than I. When you teach as long as I have, words and sources sometimes get separated. I’m not a plagiarist, just a lousy record keeper and a forgetful old fart.

41 thoughts on “What public relations is not…

  1. Pingback: PR-Bridge » Blog Archive » Bill Sledzik on “What Public Relations is Not…”

  2. Very thought-provoking stuff, Bill. I’m not going to step into the debate of what is public relations and what is marketing. I think both are fluid and dynamic, although I’m of the belief that marketing relates to customers and, as you said, public relations deals with a broader variety of constituencies.

    Yet, public relations students would do themselves a world of good to take some marketing classes, and to pay attention in them. Whether you work for a non-profit, a corporation or an agency, you need some marketing know-how. Especially at the agency level because, like it or not, part of the job is peddling your agency’s services to clients.

    One final point on the four Ps. A non-traditional student of mine last semester who works in marketing pointed out there are now 5 Ps – the fifth being people. I’m “borrowing” that for fall semester.

  3. Great to have to stop back, Tim. Hmmm. The fifth “p” is people, eh? Like I said, they’re reading our textbooks. As for students taking marketing classes, we require that as well. Marketing students (at least at Kent State) are not required to take public relations — though some do.

  4. Bill, you know I’m with you all the way on this one. But can I suggest one modifier? Could you revise it to say, “public relations SHOULD not be a subset of marketing”?

    The reason I say this is because if the CEO or the person the PR function reports to (say at the VP level) has a marketing orientation, it’s really hard to fight the bottom-line results driven marcomm/media relations mindset. Particularly if that is the role you were hired for. So, in those organizations, likely PR is relegated to a marketing PR function, with a focus on selling products and/or services, and media “hits” being considered the ultimate relation.

    That’s a waste of the main power and effectiveness of a broader public relations management function and role, I say.

    On a sidenote, I’ve been studying the work of Dr. Henry Mintzberg (and others), where he talks about “heroic management,” versus “engaging management.” My barely fleshed-out-and-not-yet-well-supported theory is that heroic managers are likely of a marketing mindset, and that engaging managers would recognize the value of pure public relations. (I’ve been trying very hard to find a free/open-access copy of the “Beyond Selfishness” paper written by Henry Mintzberg, Robert Simons and Kunel Basu, from 2002. A version was also published in Fast Company magazine, appearing as “Memo to CEOs,” but I keep getting deadlinks when I search. I’ll be sure to send you a link to one or both, if I find them.)

    And keep those posts (and discussions) coming, eh? They are Kill(er) Bill stuff!

  5. Judy,

    I’ll look forward to getting those links, if and when you find them. Pardon my smirk, but isn’t it just like a marketing guy to want to be the hero? I don’t plan to compromise on the language. If some marketing types choose to place PR in that department, they are free to do so. But PR is not a subset of marketing just because a misguided manager put it there.

    Besides, I compromise everywhere else in my life. Not on my blog.

  6. Thanks, Judy. This isn’t one of those long, unintelligible academic papers, is it?

    And if HBR doesn’t know how to collect a simple royalty, then I have a new opinion about Harvard MBAs. Wait a minute. Isn’t the guy in the White House a Harvard MBA? I tell you, that place is going to hell.

  7. Pingback: Murphy’s Law » Some PR on a Friday…

  8. I think I have a useful analogy. I have been a martial artist nearly all my life. I’ve practiced it all– kickboxing, karate, kung fu, jiu jitsu, boxing– and this came in helpful when I discovered Bruce Lee’s system, Jeet Kune Do.
    JKD is NOT a martial art. According to Lee, rather, it is a mindset. This mindset borrows the very best techniques from several different styles and combines them into an efficient system. If your background is in jiu jitsu, you may choose to combine more joint locks and submissions than someone who is more skilled in say, boxing.
    In much the same way, PR does the same. We are not marketing, MR or sales– but we borrow from all these professions. Conversely, any savy marketer or sales professional could stand to benefit (and indeed does, even if they don’t conciously recognize it) from the application of PR strategies.

  9. It’s an appealing analogy, Brandon, particularly since I believe “public relations” is very similar to JKD — a mindset. But PR borrows from a lot more than marketing, MR or sales. At its base, PR borrows from all of the social sciences — psychology, sociology, anthropology, communication, etc. But we also draw from ethics, history, political science and other disciplines.

    This is, in part, why a consensus definition of PR is a bit hard to pin down. But the major professional groups — PRSA, IABC, IPRA, and others define PR using the same conceptual terms. None view it a marketing communications — a field that, in fact, borrows from PR more so than the other way around.

  10. Hey Bill,

    I’ve been enjoying the series, but haven’t found the time to fully flush out any real comment. I will eventually, because the work you’re presenting has value.

    Sometimes you have to forgive marketing folks because they’ve been taught to plug public relations into promotion column much like they do advertising. the advertising definition is probably the one I appreciated least, specifically because advertising is often asked to develop the message and public relations asked to support it (though some shops swap that, sure). Of course, marketing seems to have lost some of it’s “Ps” along the way too.

    That aside, I think these definitions demonstrate how fragmented and overlapping communication can be in general and how easy it is for multiple parties to want to drive the plan. Personally, I think strategic communication (or integrated communication) is best tie that binds them all together. But short of this, I have worked within and will work within any model, provided someone is allowed to lead.


  11. I’ve been following these post about PR. This one, I’m going to save for the next person that says, “Oh, so you’re in advertising?” after I tell them I’m a PR major.

    At Central Michigan University, we have an integrated public relations major. There are marketing and advertising classes as electives, but you the core class are from departments of journalism, broadcasting and communication. There are four or so specific PR classes. I think the program has helped us PR majors to be able to define what PR is and isn’t.

    I took a basic marketing class last semester, and they did touch a bit on PR and promotion. But from what I understood, marketing was more about the product. PR is about the relationships, the product, the people,….and a whole lot more.

    Thanks for these great posts!

  12. Wow. I really wish I would’ve had such an accurate breakdown of the differences between all of the mass communication areas earlier. I had a general idea of what each area was, but it is very refreshing to know I can come back to this blog and double-check the facts.

    I’m currently a PR major student at Towson University in Towson, Maryland and last semester my professor, the wonderful and all-knowing Les Potter, assigned a case study to our class. The case study involved researching blogs and gathering information to determine whether or not PR and marketing are one in the same and whether they should be categorized as so.

    My group came to the consensus that, although not the same field in mass communication, marking sets the stage for public relations and without the control that goes into marking, positive and affective PR wouldn’t exist. The two fields work together to establish a successful working relationship between an organization and its publics. Therefore, it is THIS relationship between the two areas that causes the uproar about whether or not the two should be an integrated field or kept apart.

  13. Firstly, I have to agree with you. Public relations is, indeed, not marketing. In addition, you have raised very good and well thought out points. In another matter, based off of what I have learned in my Principles of PR class, I have to disagree with some subsets of what you have written on “What Public Relations is NOT.” In particular, I do not agree with what was written under the subsets titled Publicity and Media Relations. Mainly, because Fraser Seitel, author of the tenth edition of “The Practice of Public Relations,” states something entirely different. In Chapter 1: “What Is Public Relations Anyway?”, Seitel points out, that, media relations and publicity is, in fact, functions of public relations. So, if it is a function, then, that means that it is apart of public relations. Sietel goes on to write, “Publicity is the marketing-related function, most commonly misunderstood as the “only” function of public relations, generating positive publicity for a client or employer.” Furthermore, “Media relations are dealing with the press another frontline of public relations.” Therefore, Seitel’s idea of what publicity and media relations id differs from yours.

  14. Hi Bill, it took me a long time to get here – RSS is a hard task master.

    As one of those coves who was running the corporate PR department in the ’80s it became all too clear that as the company grew, Marketing had to report into PR. It was by far the most effective structure for customer facing management.

    I agree, PR is about facilitation the management of relationships between the individuals acting as such and acting in concert with colleagues throughout the organisation and its extended areas of interaction.

    The big problem is the definition of ‘relationships’.

    Coarse called organisations a nexus of contracts. I believe he was wrong. Organisations are a nexus of values. It is values that attract people together in the organisation (and in some cases the values are high minded and others the pay cheque). This accommodation of values between individuals is the foundation (glue) that creates relationships. It is those values that are shared that appeal to employees, vendors, customers and many other groups.

    So perhaps public relations is about the explication of common values that are unique to and facilitate relationships to the advantage of publics.

    It is nothing to do with marketing as most would recognise it – a 20th century post militarist fad. It is about people and especially people seeking values in like groups in the context of their own lives, experiences and social accommodations which is the currency of 21st century society.

    As both a high calling and a technical practice it is, and will continue to be, progressively more demanding, not to mention tough on practitioners who can’t keep up with its evolution.

    Of course good relationships will help to sell products and afterwards sustain relationships that we depend on and describe as reputation.

  15. Bill,
    I wish people understood the differences myself. For one, you really can’t place a value on PR, unless you’re a gigantic company which seems to get away with everything (Wal-Mart…cough,cough).

    I’ve come to the conclusion that PR is a credibility-enhancer (under the right circumstances) or a giant fog and mirror (for gigantic companies).

    Marketing is simply knowing the products and getting them purchased by the audience.

    What do you think?


  16. Pingback: Dansu Dansu / Marketingas ir komunikacija

  17. Pingback: elt.lt » Blog Archive » Filas: RsV yra marketingo dalis? Ar ne marketingo? Ir kas tas RsV apskritai yra?

  18. Bill, I’m asking my intro to PR students to read this post.. I’m wondering, is there a hidden message or joke in the way you spelled “relations” in the title? I’m not sure I get it, or maybe it’s just an error?

  19. Pingback: What PR is not… « Michael Jasper’s Weblog

  20. Pingback: What PR is not « Erin Martin’s Weblog

  21. This entry helps me, someone who was not too familiar with the term “public relations” before my course at Clemson University, to understand the difference in marketing and public relations. I now see that public relations is more about the relationships and behind the scenes work between corporations and not so much the glamorous promoting of products and places.

  22. Pingback: Response to “What PR is NOT…” « Kristi Yoos’s Weblog

  23. Pingback: September 2nd reading notes « Kristi Yoos’s Weblog

  24. Pingback: “What Public Relations is Not…” and Ch. 13: PR and Marketing « Cara Mitchell’s Weblog

  25. Pingback: adf « Brittany’s Blog!

  26. I’m approving this comment from a public library in Vermont. I’m flattered by the attention from the folks at Clemson and only sorry I can’t jump into the converation. I only have 30 minutes on the parking meter.

  27. Before beginning my public relations class at Clemson University and also reading your thoughts, I really had no idea what public relations was. I’m ashamed, but I really did think it was merely promoting a company (while wearing high heels, prancing around, etc). Yes, I’m embarrassed. However, now I realize that it is much more than that. It’s actually the relationships you have between an organization and the public. I also now understand what public relations is not, which I can assure you, most people do not get.

  28. Pingback: “What PR is Not” Response « Lgofort’s Weblog

  29. Pingback: Another Defining PR Post « My Journey as a Young PR Professional

  30. Pingback: Symmetrical PR meets the ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’ « ToughSledding

  31. Pingback: Book Review: ‘Putting the Public Back in Public Relations’ « ToughSledding

  32. Pingback: Three years, 300 posts. I’m not impressed!a « ToughSledding

  33. Pingback: just minishorts. » Blog Archive » Stepchild frustrations

  34. Pingback: PR, Marketing, Advertising, Communications – What’s the Difference? « Jodi Kiely Communications

  35. Pingback: Public relations should embrace not deny its marketing links : PR CONVERSATIONS

  36. Pingback: PRSA wants to redefine PR — Should we rename it, too? | Toughsledding

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *