PR, propaganda, marketing, publicity, communication – is differentiation important?

image Is PR different to propaganda?  What about PR and marketing – or publicity, communications or any of the other terms with which public relations is often confused?

I’ve just finished marking assignments from first year Uni students on the topic of whether PR is different from propaganda.  And, as Vicky Pollard might say, well yeah, but, no but…

And that’s the point.  PR can be considered as similar or even the same as propaganda – or it can be distinguished on the basis of purpose, approach, ethics, willingness to enter into dialogue, etc etc.

Yesterday in our seminars, we looked at the relationship between PR and marketing – and drew on the work of Jim Hutton, considering the areas of distinction and overlap.   I like Hutton’s work including his criticisms of PR (Public Relations Review, 1999, 25(2):199-214):

By not developing a widely accepted definition and a central organizing principle or paradigm, the field of public relations has left itself vulnerable (1) to other fields that are making inroads into public relations’ traditional domain, and (2) to critics who are filling in their own definitions of public relations

Or his view expressed in “Defining the Relationship Between Public Relations and Marketing: Public Relations’ Most Important Challenge”, Chapter 14: page 205-214 in Robert L Heath, Editor: Handbook of Public Relations, 2001, Sage Publications:

The relationship between public relations and marketing is increasingly being defined by the marketing side. The reasons, however, have less to do with marketing imperialism than with (a) marketing’s natural progression toward relationships and noncustomer publics and (b) the void that public relations has created, inviting marketing and other fields to assume responsibility for traditional public relations functions.

This chapter includes a useful diagramimage that helps identify areas of overlap between PR and marketing, notably corporate advertising, and marketing PR.

It is common in education and academia to reflect on the relationship between PR and similar concepts – from conceptual, practical and linguistic perspectives.

Today, I ran a workshop for PR practitioners, focusing on online communications – and the debate became heated on the issue of whether this was really the domain of marketing rather than public relations. One argument was that PR should focus only on mediated communications (ie through a third party) and that if practitioners do not focus on such influencers, then they will have no future.

The counter viewpoint is that if PR only has expertise in communicating through others, then its future is doomed in a world where social media is all about engaging directly with publics – who may or may not be customers.

Tomorrow, I have a chance to explore the practitioner-academic perspective further as a class of the CIPR Diploma will look at PR as a management function – which is involved in understanding its strategic role and function.  That is arguably much wider than simply being responsible for third party communications.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what PR involves – and why it is so difficult to define.  Do we really need to “own” a particular domain?  Does it really matter if CEOs recognise the independent counsel that strategic PR people are able to offer?  Are our tactical skills what we should primarily be offering?

Should we leave social media to our colleagues in marketing?  Is the reluctance of so many in PR to get engaged in this area a symptom of our decline?

Or maybe we just need some new terms that overcome the arguments over who does what and enable use to go beyond, yes, but no but.

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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.

8 thoughts on “PR, propaganda, marketing, publicity, communication – is differentiation important?”

  1. One argument was that PR should focus only on mediated communications (ie through a third party) Gosh! There are, famously, many hundreds of definitions of PR but it is seldom I read one that is so far at variance with my own! PR is about conversations and relationships and without giving away too much about my private life, I have always found it easier to get close to people by talking directly than passing notes via friends! “My mate fancies you…” might work sometimes but I pretty convinced am not sure it is the future of PR.

  2. Philip – I’m with you entirely. I just couldn’t understand why the person expressing that view (an ex-journalist) would focus only on talking through a mediator when there are opportunities to communicate direct.

    Indeed, I feel where PR pracitioners have traditionally had strengths is exactly in the area of personal relationships and that social media enables us to extend these capabilities to others – and who cares online if you’re a customer, influencers, “journalist” or whatever (IMHO).

    I would contrast that with marketing which is much more impersonal. Even when we have direct marketing (or customer relationship marketing!), the approach is driven by a database approach, which is impersonal and fails to connect on the level of human connections.

    I suppose the “mediated” view of PR is the one that is responsible for spamming press releases out – junkmail PR – which ironically I feel has more to do with customer relationship marketing than it does with public relations.

  3. Several years ago, one of my classes at Spring Hill College created a campaign for Public Relations which was intended for use by the Public Relations Council of Alabama. In the advertising and promotional materials prepared for PRCA to use with Alabama businesses and organizations, the class used an excellent line to explain why businesses should hire accredited public relations practitioners. Perhaps the professionals aren’t able to see the forest for the trees, where the students could. I think this sentence says it all:

    “We could spend an entire day explaining what a trained public relations professional can do for your company, but we basically help your organization build and protect the relationships that count.”

    I agree with Phillip that P.R. must be a conversation with those “publics” with whom we must maintain good relations. Any means to carry on that conversation should be utilized by a smart practitioner. So in a way we are connected at the hip to marketing communications, advertising, and others, but must also maintain a distance in order to be the conscience of the corporation.

  4. Heather,

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking about many of the same issues and have been exploring ways to improve/reinterpret the Heath diagram. Ultimately though, I’d like to approach the marketing/pr divide from a behavioral perspective (i.e. what are we trying to accomplish, and how do we do it?). I’m hoping that starting with our behaviors will help pull apart which behaviors should be done by whom, and in which departments.

    In the end, I think these divisions are somewhat arbitrary. We’re all really working to ensure customer satisfaction and experience at the end of the day. And, I agree that marketing is changing, which will affect how marketing and pr relate. I made a 2 minute animation to explain how marketing 2.0 is different than traditional marketing. You can see the video here:

    With this in mind, I’m curious how you think PR is changing. I’d enjoy talking more about how PR and marketing relate and think there simply isn’t enough information online about this.

    Thanks again.


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