Who cares about whether PR is part of marketing or not?

Last year CIPR introduced a new qualification, known as the for which I am the external examiner.  The course, at A-level standard, is designed for:

those considering PR as a career option; whether school-leavers, students or those already working in a different industry who would like to move into public relations.

The aim is to introduce the profession of public relations and develop key writing skills (such as producing a press release).  Within 15 hours of study, three Units are studied – the first being: Distinguishing PR Activities. 

This enables students to demonstrate an understanding of and differentiate between the concepts and practices of: public relations, marketing, advertising, publicity, public information, spin and propaganda. In addition, they will gain knowledge of key PR terms: publics, reputation, relationships, media relations, newsworthy, dialogue, mutual understanding, social responsibility, evaluation and communication.

The learning outcomes of the qualification include being able to “demonstrate an understanding of the way that public relations is placed within organisations (in terms of its relative position to the dominant coalition, budget share etc.)”.  Broad introductions are given to the specialist areas of “financial/investor public relations, lobbying, marketing PR (FMCGs) sponsorship, working in-house or in a consultancy and corporate social responsibility”. This Unit also covers “concepts such as relationship building, reputation management and working with publics”.

I mention this qualification, not only because I think it offers a great opportunity at an entry level for the profession – and those who work with PR functions, but because of a challenge issued by Geoff Livingston in response to a comment I made on his blog post: Strategic Marketers See PR as a Function » The Buzz Bin.

As requested, I have brought this discussion to Greenbanana, since Mr Livingston does not appear to want to consider opinions that differ to his own on his “turf”.  The view presented by Livingston Communications is that PR is entirely about influencing customers using “third parties they trust – the media, analysts, non-profit organizations and bloggers”.  That is, “to be effective, companies must intelligently influence buyers’ personal circles of trust.” 

Livinston is adamant that all PR is a sub-set of marketing, since motives of corporations are always directly or indirectly sales-oriented, and that all functions of PR are directed to protecting the brand and hence generating sales.

Of course not all organisations are sales-oriented, but let’s put aside the role of PR (or marketing) in the public or not-for-profit sector and consider the type of organisation that is 100% commercially oriented.

Six years ago, McDonalds bought a 33% share in the sandwich chain, Pret a Manger, from its founders for £25 million.  The price reflected more than the basic economics of generating sales from customers, even taking into consideration the brand values (or reputation) the smaller business had as being ethical and socially responsible.  McDonalds wasn’t even after a warm glow of “brand association” since the link between the two organisations has never been overt. Indeed, the relationship between the two called on PR’s risk management skills.

Last week, McDonalds and the Pret founders sold the business for £345m.  Hence, both parties profited more from this “corporate” exchange relationship, than from general customer sales.  Of course, organisations such as Pret need a PR function to support customer relations and sales, but they also need the profession’s strategic skills in working with other stakeholders and publics.

The of Pret, which underpins its “market value“, is not simply a matter of focusing on generating sales.  It involves delivering on the brand promise, in operational terms and by  anticipating and managing issues of relevance to publics (not just markets). 

Even if you take the ultimate FMCG organisation, Coca-Cola, it recognises in its , a purpose beyond generating sales.  Running any business is about more than simply producing income – you need to control costs, build and manage assets that add value, ensure relationships support rather than harm the business, avoid issues and crisis, motivate employees, invest in research and development, etc etc. 

At this level, I’m talking about finances and economics, which is where the motive of commercial corporations ultimately lie.  Sales is only part of that equation. 

Not surprisingly, Geoff Livingston cites the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol crisis as one of engaging PR to protect and enhance the brand to support ongoing sales.  Actually, in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, [2005: 20(4), pp231–249], Pauly and Hutchison present this case as a “” (alongside investigation of the Exxon Valdez case).  They note that general interpretations of this parable are reduced to simplicities, that the role of PR in crisis is simply to release information.  Indeed, the strategic role that PR (or marketing) should have played in anticipating the risk posed, is largely ignored in the retelling of the tale.

There is much more to protecting and enhancing “brands” beyond the worlds of either PR or marketing.  Good operational management and executive decision-making are essential.  Of course, communication before and during a crisis with those publics who have power, interest or influence is equally vital.  These may be politicians, activist groups, local communities, employees, financial analysts, etc etc. 

In engaging with any or all of these publics, the PR function will need to call upon trusted third parties as Livingston asserts.  However, seeing intermediary relationships simply as one-sided to achieve sales-goals for the organisation is risky.  To be effective, organisations need more than exchange relationships with influencers, they need to develop mutually-beneficial, communal relationships. 

Focusing solely on using communication to get what you want – especially if oriented towards short-term sales goals – is likely to be damaging in the long-term.  Society does not function exclusively to meet the sales objectives of corporations.  Laws and other societal pressures will be applied if businesses do not respect any motive other than their self-interests of generating sales revenue.

In many ways it does not matter whether the PR function sits within marketing, or marketing within sales, on an organisation chart provided communication with relevant parties with whom relationships need to be built, and reputation managed, is undertaken effectively.  In small organisations, such responsibilities may lie entirely with the senior management (who hopefully are competent in such matters).  Sales and marketing may be a single entity – or both may be sub-divided into specialisms.  Similarly, larger concerns may decide to establish distinct functions in respect of lobbying, financial relations, CSR, internal communications, media relations, etc. 

Ultimately, all functions need to work together rather than create mountains or valleys between them.  In subjugating any function to another, it is vital that the full capabilities of the sub-division are recognised.  So including marketing within sales might mean the benefits of building a brand are ignored in favour of short-term income targets.  Similarly, seeing PR only as part of the promotional marketing mix could mean the value of engaging with existing and potential publics is missed.

To respond to Mr Livingston’s direct criticism, I am not making a claim of “superior PR intelligence”, but believe that the strategic value of each and every function within an organisation needs to be understood and recognised, particularly by anyone who is offering communication consultancy services.

It also applies whether individually we are employed in a specialist technician or manager role within PR or marketing, or hold senior positions where the wider economic, political and other critical indicators of success are determined.

So, I support CIPR in ensuring that those entering the profession of PR have knowledge of a wide range of concepts and practice areas within a variety of organisations.  Practitioners should be clear that there is no simple rule to apply that PR should always be, or never be, a subset of marketing in corporations.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

14 thoughts on “Who cares about whether PR is part of marketing or not?”

  1. Actually Heather, you misread and misrepresented the post. My claim was not that all PR is a subset of marketing, but that all corporate PR is an indirect or direct form of marketing.

    As to the one case you cite, which is not new, the only reason why Johnson & Johnson would be interested “simply to releas[ing] information,” is naive and short-sighted. A company engages in crisis PR to protect its brand. PR pros and professors who see it as only releasing simple information have no understanding of Business and its motives. Johnson & Johnson needed to protect its brand from further damage, and for future sales.

  2. Geoff – in your last response to my comment at your blog, you said: “PR is a subset of marketing in corporations. Prove that it isn’t.” But, in any case, to state that “all corporate PR is an indirect or direct form of marketing” assumes a very wide definition of marketing and organisational purpose.

    In respect of the J&J case (which I cited because you raised it), you have misread what I stated, which is that Pauly and Hutchison note most people when referencing the Tylenol case, use it to show that the role of “good” PR in a crisis is to issue information, which is normally contrasted with Exxon as “bad” PR for not issuing information. Their robust analysis of both cases is very insightful and I recommend reading the original journal article.

    In a crisis, organisations are likely to have a variety of objectives beyond simply protecting the “brand” – indeed, there are times when the brand is the cause of the crisis and so the best counsel would be to abandon the brand and save the company, or even abandon the company and save the money invested in it.

    This may well be the outcome of the current Northern Rock crisis in the UK, where the risk of the public money now invested in the bank is much more significant than any marketing activities to sell mortages or protect the tainted brand.

  3. Heather hasn’t misrepresented a thing in this post, and her direct quotes from Buzz Bin substantiate that. She has presented a premise that’s based on thorough knowledge of public relations theory and research, along with a lot of savvy about how PR is practiced. I learn a lot reading her blog, and I recommend it to my students and colleagues.

    As I said in my parting comment over at BuzzBin, it’s important to do one’s homework if one hopes to pass the examination. Mr. Livingston hasn’t done that, and until he does, this conversation isn’t going to progress.

    Ed Bernays, near the end of his life, embraced the idea of licensing PR professionals to ensure the highest level of knowledge and competence. Licensing probably won’t work in the USA because of free-speech issues. But we can dream, can’t we?

  4. Public relations is NOT and never has been a sub-set of marketing and is totally untrue to say that “all all corporate PR is an indirect or direct form of marketing”.

    There is currently a similar discussion on LinkedIn Answers, where someone asked if the head of corp comms should report to the CEO. I answered yes, but surprisingly the first two answers seemed to think it was OK to report to marketing, which despite being a common misconception doesn’t make it true.

    The misconception is nearly always held by marketing and advertising people who don’t actually know what public relations is, but think they do because they are aware of one or two simple functions such as media relations.

    The LinkedIn discussion is here:


  5. Thanks Stuart, I’ll check out that discussion. I wonder how many marketing managers are happy to report into the sales director? If PR is a sub-set of marketing within commercial concerns owing to the corporate focus on generating sales, then surely, marketing is simply a sub-set of sales?

    Ironically, in my motor industry experience, most corporate marketers look down their noses at those engaged directly in sales. Not surprising then that many in sales feel that “marketers couldn’t sell hookers on a troop train”.

  6. Great discussion. Can we add some real life, non-textbook examples?

    Real life situation: A company I once worked for had three CEOs in a bit less than five years. They restructured their senior team. And then two years later restructured back to its original form.

    These and other moves were covered by the company’s major trade publications. Is controlling the message around these mangement decision technically “marketing?” Nope. But it does affect the company’s marketing plans. So it is part of PR. And it was essential to try to influence public perception of these decisions to keep the story line of “executive chaos” from poisoning public/client/prospect opinion against the company.

    From a media perspective keeping a low profile helped. These changes got a paragraph or two at most in the “Who’s News” back-page section.

    For clients it was another story. The client service teams had to communicate directly about each change. And as they piled up, the stories we told supporting each decision became less and less credible.

    Press turned out not to be the issue. Client relations was the weak link. But it’s all of concern to “PR” isn’t it?

  7. Letterhead,

    Thanks for the interesting example. Of course, another dimension in such cases is that once you have one set of relationships that begin to crumble, this can have knock on elsewhere. I’m sure the people who interfaced with the clients quickly became demoralised – and such client disatisfaction can soon become a media story in itself, and that then has an impact and so on and so on. Soon, we have shareholders who are selling, suppliers don’t want to extend credit, competitors spreading stories, employees looking for new jobs, no-one wanting to be the next CEO…

  8. Yup… demoralization was a big issue. And there’s no way PR can put lipstick on that pig and make is kissable. Which is all the more reason why PR people meed a seat at the grown ups table — and C-suite execs need to LISTEN to them. PR people are some of the smartest folks I know when it comes to anticipating broad “reputational” consequences of all kinds of business decisions.

    One more point… I get squeamish with the whole “PR2.0” thing (I think it’s totally over played at the moment), but if this case happened today, dissatisfied clients and employees slagging the company off on websites and blogs would be a real — as opposed to theoretical — risk. This case goes back a few years and it wasn’t an issue back then. But it’s becoming more and more relevant.

    Online forums circumvent traditional press, as well as influence them. It won’t be long before companies are FORCED to deal with them. It will probably take some sort of disaster. (Doesn’t it always?) But companies will soon see that even though conventional approaches to press relations suffice for now… very soon they won’t be enough.

  9. re the suggestion that “all PR is a sub-set of marketing, since motives of corporations are always directly or indirectly sales-oriented”.

    I work in the PR department of a police force – and YES, it IS a corporate communications/PR department – there is reputation management, internal comms, crisis management, communications to stakeholders and many others. But none of this is sales oriented. The force does not exist to make a “profit” and a lot of what myself and my team strive to do is help protect people and prevent them from becoming victims of crime – nothing to do with sales.

    We also have a strong strategic function – Martin says “PR people need a seat at the grown-ups table” – I have such a seat, finding myself regularly involved in police policy-setting meetings at a very high level, and having a voice at these meetings – a world away from being “ALWAYS” sales-oriented.

  10. Thanks Darren. I know that Geoff’s views are largely in respect of profit-motivated organisations, but what is interesting in respect of the police and similar public sector concerns today is that they are beginning to adopt the language of business. For example, I’ve even heard of police being expected to see the public as customers. As you indicate however, from a PR perspective, even if looking to be responsive to the public, it would not be about “selling” them something – or would it?

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