Last year CIPR introduced a new qualification, known as the Foundation Award in Public Relations 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 reputation 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 mission, vision and values, 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 “Moral Fable of Public Relations Practice” (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.