Sales promotion is now PR

PR Conversations has been hosting an interesting debate around a new definition of public relations on the basis of a study to examine existing popular definitions. 

However, the outcome seems very normative and doesn’t engage with, or reflect, the common understanding of PR as a promotional tool that is prevalent online.  In 1997, Philip Kitchen described this traditional definition of PR as a “reductionist view” which sees PR as little more than a tactical activity in the marketing mix, alongside advertising and sales promotion.

Most PR academics and professionals argue that public relations has come a long way over the past 25 years or so in distinguishing itself from marketing.  But, although our message about the importance of relationship building and reputation management seems increasingly understood by senior executives, it appears that this has been to the advantage of our marketing colleagues rather than PR itself.

Marketing is no longer seen as communicating only with consumers and potential consumers.  Internal marketing is now vital in ensuring employees are “brand advocates“, with social media the new avenue.  That pushes out PR in this arena. 

Likewise, PR’s ability to generate debate and discussion for companies, issues or news items, has been rebranded as buzz, viral, word of mouth (wom) or conversational marketing – with the budgets and chutzpah that marketing manages to create with its ability to link an approach to generating sales or ROI – real or perceived.  That’s another reason why online communications and social media have generally been dominated by marketing rather than PR professionals.

In the area of corporate responsibility, PR has similarly lost ground.  Local communities are engaged through cause related marketing, which has led onto the phenomenon of social marketing and green marketing.   That effectively means marketing owns the triple bottom line of people, planet and profits.

A few weeks ago, I noted that the Highways Agency had won gold in the Institute of Sales Promotion Awards for its “Don’t be that Guy” driver awareness campaign. 

This would once have been seen as a public information campaign – a core remit of PR.  Indeed, Jacquie L’Etang traces the British history of PR back to such community relations activities.

It is not just the public sector where sales promotion is laying claim to traditional PR campaigns.  Asda and Diageo have just completed a “new responsible drinking initiative” which claims to help consumers “make responsible drinking choices at home”.

To a certain extent, I feel that PR has failed to own the territory that marketing has not only recognised as vitally important, but persuaded management to engage with. 

But there is more to this than marketing’s ability to use linkage to bottom line benefits, that PR often fails to do.

PR’s role extends beyond transactional relationships, where everyone is communicated with on the basis of a selfish organisational agenda.  It aims to reflect a more altruistic or communal relationship which is predicated on the idea of earning support or securing a license to operate.

Of course the bottom line is vital – but not just in terms of generating sales.  A short-term focus might seem essential in the current economic climate, but for an organisation to be around tomorrow it needs to focus on a sustainable, profitable bottom line.

So managing relationships and protecting the corporate reputation needs more than a marketing perspective.  Although the definition proposed at PR Conversations presents these aspects as the role of PR – we need to learn from our marketing colleagues in how to ensure the business benefits of such a position are clearly presented.

The longer we take to realise and act on this – the harder it will be to reclaim the territory that has been inhabited by our slicker, marketing colleagues.