Interview: Are public relations and marketing the yin and yang of modern business?

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THE relationship between public relations and marketing is complicated, writes Orla Clancy. Are there distinct differences between the two or no differences at all? Some people believe public relations exists within marketing, while others see the two disciplines as not only different, but separate business functions that work alongside each other. The public relations narrative is that the two are equal while the marketing perspective is often that public relations is something that’s added on at the end of a campaign, more as an afterthought than a robust, standalone function. 

I recently had conversations on this topic with professionals in each of the fields of public relations and marketing; Jennifer R Hudson, president of ThinkBeyond Public Relations in Florida and 2020 president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Donovan Neale-May, executive director at the CMO Council in the US, and Dr Conor Carroll, lecturer in marketing at the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Limerick in Ireland. 

We discussed the many issues around this topic including why there is a disconnect between the two disciplines and where we can find some common ground. Is public relations a grey area in a multicoloured marketing world, or can it be as black and white as how can they both best serve an organisation and its objectives?

JENNFIER R HUDSON

A couple of months ago, just as the theme for this issue was finalised, I came across a post on LinkedIn from Jennifer R Hudson saying, “We’ve got to get clear about something: Public relations is not marketing. It’s not ‘part’ of marketing, it’s not a component of the ‘marketing mix’. Yes, the two should be integrated and they should be friends, but they are different disciplines.” This prompted me to reach out and one sunny evening Hudson and I chatted on Zoom about the reasons public relations and marketing are distinct, yet complementary, strategic management functions.

Elaborating on the difference between public relations and marketing, she said, “At the core, marketing is transactional in nature – it’s designed to sell, to connect a customer to a product, while public relations is relational – it’s focused on mutually beneficial relationships between a company and its audiences. Both marketing and public relations impact sales and the bottom line, but in different ways.” 

Hudson’s background is in the airline industry, where she worked as a Spanish-speaking reservations agent and a supervisor before moving on to corporate communications. Referring to the crises that frequently happen within aviation, she said, “Those are the types of activities and initiatives that marketing can’t own, which is one of the main reasons why communications and public relations exists. It’s why it must have a direct line into the CEO and be part of senior leadership,” she said.

In terms of stakeholders, another key difference, Hudson believes, is that public relations professionals are concerned with audiences (publics) while marketing is concerned with customers. “PR transforms, strengthens and creates mutually beneficial relationships. It looks macro at the entire organisation. It’s not just pitching a story, it’s helping to connect the core values, vision and mission with all of the different audiences,” she said.

Hudson is a huge proponent of internal communications and employee engagement partners. “In my work, I’m especially concerned with employees. PR steps back from the role of collaborator to informer and facilitator for CEOs so they know what’s happening across the entire organisation, what employee groups are feeling, thinking and doing. Our work also reaches government officials, potential investors and new hires into a company. All of that is part of the communications mix and because we cover so many different types of audiences, it makes what we do different.”

Then, why does the misperception exist? “When you’re in grad schools or MBA programmes, you are taught about the four pieces of marketing, one of which is publicity or promotion. And that’s why so many people are confused, especially senior executives with MBAs who see public relations as a function of marketing. In reality, public relations is, or should be, a leadership position in its own right.”

Hudson’s background in corporate communications always involved working closely with multiple departments. “When I worked at Sabre, a travel tech company that was spun off from American Airlines, there were 60,000 employees in different divisions, each with their own president,” she said. “My role was to connect with staff in each of those areas to understand what was happening, what was known, what was upcoming, what they loved about their work, what they felt the brand needed to communicate. I worked with legal, investor relations, product development and other stakeholders on a global scale. My work always involved connecting with multiple staff in multiple departments. PR pros must be able to communicate effectively to both internal and external audiences. When we, as communications professionals, have that kind of positioning and standing in organisations – whether external agency or in-house – it cements our role as trusted advisors.”

How have PR and marketing changed since the pandemic and how did it affect company objectives? “Any shift in companies during the pandemic needed to be done with the communications department so that we could inform those decisions, and explain them to stakeholders, particularly staff where there were layoffs. 

“PR should have been involved in discussions around the strategic priorities of the business given the new reality. Our role is to reframe the communications strategy around all platforms for both internal and external communications: messaging on websites, social media, email marketing, even advertising. And we should have been asking questions like, ‘How should we be reimagining communications in this new situation?’ or ‘How can we most effectively communicate on these platforms in a way that is clear and consistent?’ That’s the role of the public relations professional.”

What really stood out for Hudson during the last year, she said, was the need for companies to speak to their stakeholders with more empathy and understanding. “It may not necessarily have been a good time to launch or continue marketing a product or service – and consideration had to be given to the wider business impact. The key differences between both functions were crystallised – where marketing may have wanted to continue to sell, PR may have been looking for new ways to support customers, to cement the relationship with them and engender trust and loyalty in a new or different way.”

How is the PR approach to customers different to the marketing approach? “The PR approach to customers is about telling the company’s stories in multiple channels to various audiences. It’s important for PR professionals to show the people behind the brand, to present senior leaders and other staff who can speak to what the organisation stands for, its core values, why it exists, and its commitment to both customers, staff, and the community. 

Hudson’s dream is to have every PR professional move beyond the ‘PR equals media’ mindset. “I believe that we should all be strategic thinkers, helping our organisations match communications activities to business goals. That goes way beyond media.

“Yes, we can pitch a product to media, but we can also use communications to help staff understand how their particular role supports the creation or development of the product and the overall growth of the company. We can talk to staff to understand what they dream about or fear or how they are inspired by the product, or what they love about the brand. We can support HR by making sure that job descriptions, onboarding sessions and employee reviews are all connected to the overall organisational messaging.

“Corporate messaging should empower every employee in the organisation to speak about the brand in a consistent and aligned way. It should run like a thread everywhere they communicate: ads, job descriptions, sales pitches, website copy, social media posts, speaking engagements, and more. When I facilitate these sessions with clients, I view them as an organisational culture tool, because they give staff the opportunity to be involved in the brand based on their very real perceptions of it,” she said.

According to Hudson, target audiences and messaging are the two most critical components of any PR plan. “If you get those wrong it doesn’t matter how creative your tactics are or how interesting your strategy is. If you’re talking to the wrong people with the wrong message, it’s worthless,” she said. “Once you have your target audience and messaging defined, then you can move on to goals, objectives, strategies, tactics, how you’ll implement, and what success looks like. And of course, you never begin at all without solid research.

In her work, Hudson encourages consistent communications about public relations within the industry and in conversations with other professionals and sectors. While public relations collaborates with marketing, it also works with every other department in an organisation, including HR, operations, sales, and legal. She passionately believes that when PR and marketing are on an equal footing at the leadership level, they can have a real and lasting impact on a business.

DR CONOR CARROLL

Last month, I caught up with Dr Conor Carroll who lectures in marketing at my alma mater, the University of Limerick in Ireland. During our conversation, he told me that his PhD is in crisis communications. 

When we spoke about marketing and public relations he said the similarities between both are that they focus on enhancing the reputation of a brand or company amongst its stakeholders. “Secondly,” he said, “for both disciplines communications plays a pivotal role in the achievement of commercial objectives. 

“Possibly the biggest difference is the prioritisation of different stakeholders, with marketing primarily focusing on customers and trade relations. PR has a broader remit focusing on internal audiences, investor relations, government lobbying, public affairs, and media relations.”

“To achieve marketing objectives, marketing needs the nuance and expertise of PR professionals in generating awareness and changing customers’ attitudes towards the brand. The biggest problem is that ‘silos of interest’ emerge where internal units compete for resources and status, leading to conflict, and a lack of coordination. Strategy is one thing, but the implementation of that strategy is of equal importance.”

How do they differ and connect when it comes to meeting business objectives? “I always prioritise the following in educating students and companies in terms of effective marketing. One firstly has to generate awareness. To do so, one can spend an inordinate amount of money on media spend easily. Alternatively, one can use humour, celebrity or controversy to stoke consumer interest. One needs to consider efficiency and effectiveness of the messaging in achieving this awareness.

“Secondly, any marketing communications needs a consistency of approach and the message has to be ‘brand linked’. The message has to have the brand integrated in a coherent and meaningful way. Finally, the message has to be communicated to its target audience, so there is some consumer takeout from the communication exposure. The audience has to process the message, so that it aides recall, and starts to create powerful brand memory associations. Focusing on awareness, branding, and communication are pivotal.”

Some companies are restructuring their departments with public relations, marketing and internal communications sitting within an overall communications function. What, I wondered, is Dr Carroll’s view on this approach? “I do feel there needs to be greater integration within the distinct fields, but it all comes down to the attainment of commercial marketing objectives,” he said. “Marketing and PR have to demonstrate and articulate their contribution to the financial bottom-line. The focus should be on optimising their resources, so as to yield greater dividends.”

Different relationships and dynamics exist between stakeholders when it comes to PR (all stakeholders) and marketing (customers). When asked how the marketing approach to customers differs from the PR approach, Dr Carroll replied, “The audiences are quite different and require different channels and messaging that have resonance. For internal audiences, PR focuses on building corporate identity through consultation, briefings, and training programmes. 

“For public affairs, PR wants to build positive corporate visibility, corporate image and stakeholder goodwill through corporate advertising, events, and lobbying. For investor relations, analyst briefings, and the creation of the annual report are the cornerstone of activities. For media relations, the development of press kits and press releases are core components of their strategy. PR really comes into its own in reaching crucial hard-to-reach audiences. Where a lot of synergy takes place with marketing is in product events, leveraging sponsorship events, social media marketing and communicating corporate social responsibility initiatives of the firm. Both need to be operating in sync.”

For many sectors, the pandemic meant organisations had to move from business growth strategies to a focus on business continuity. What has this meant for marketing? Is there now more of a focus on communications over marketing or vice versa? “The pandemic has yielded many challenges in continuing business operations. Yet, with every crisis represents a moment of pivotal change for a company,” he said.

“Throughout corporate business history, a crisis represents a moment in time that leads to crucial business transformation, a critical juncture for a company. They are catalysts for change in the organisation.” he said. “Many organisations now see the importance of having business continuity planning given the dynamic environment we are now in. Firms need to map out potential scenarios, their likelihood, and the impact on business processes. From these, develop response strategies, recovery pathways and communications planning. We need to build organisation resilience with the capability of instating an effective organisation response, mitigating risk, reducing the impact, and attempting to restore normal business operations.”

The key takeaway from my conversation with Dr Carroll is that he advocates for an integrated approach to marketing and public relations. He believes raising awareness, creating strong brands and targeting stakeholders, albeit different groups, go hand-in-hand while communications is central to the realisation of commercial objectives.

DONOVAN NEALE-MAY

I recently read a report from the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) Council, published in partnership with Cision, titled Bridging the Gap for Comms and Marketing: Building Cohesion in the Age of Customer Disruption. For this issue of Strategic, I spoke with executive director of the council Donovan Neale-May about the challenges that brand leaders face when aligning marketing and communications teams. Our conversation on Zoom started with the difference and relationship between marketing and public relations.

“I view public relations as an essential part of the marketing remit, but it’s not necessarily viewed that way by all professionals” Neale-May said. “There are areas where we have to define what I call perception management instead of PR. It is more than just a press release, it’s a strategic function that has to dovetail with the company’s strategic direction, business objectives, values, organisational brand requirements and communications,” he said. 

As PR and marketing are two distinct business functions, it is commonplace for PR to operate alongside, as opposed to within, marketing. When asked why he believes PR should sit within marketing instead of as a standalone department, Neale-May replied, “There’s no question that the current remit for today’s CMO is quite broad and it involves everything from strategy, innovation and all the go-to market functional areas. It certainly involves reputation, perception, planning, and anticipation of issues. PR has to be very tightly coupled in with this and should be a leading voice in how you deal with going to market. There are many times where there are complications with product delivery, product availability and customer experience and you can’t have PR outside of that. It has to be embedded right from the get-go in the strategic planning process,” he said.

As a content driven business function, marketing has become more content centric. Digital channels require content, new technologies create and deliver it and others engage, track and measure the value of it. “PR professionals produce content better than marketing, particularly thought leadership content and they are adept at taking content to market. Marketing practitioners are good at taking products to market. The question is: how do you take content and product to market more effectively in a unified way?” he asked.

Neale-May thinks the term PR doesn’t reflect the high value of the role. “We prefer to use the term perception management. It allows you to talk about the context of the role, not just the customer audiences, although marketers themselves need to be smarter and better and more adept at what is shaping and influencing demand for their products. Equally, PR needs to look at shaping and influencing demand for products, regulatory and geopolitical factors, and build a strategy that looks at all of the things that are impacting business today.”

When it comes to the misalignment between the two functions, according to Neale-May, “If you want to project a unified voice, you have to look at all the different stakeholders, all the different audiences that you serve internally, externally and in your channel. That’s why PR has to be very much part of the marketing team and why you have multifunctional marketing programmes.”

In relation to the pandemic, where did marketing and PR play a role? “When you look at how massive external occurrences change the way you do business, you need to look at the way you communicate. There needs to be a change in the way you interact and engage with customers and staff. The frequency, the tonality, the sentiment, the use of different types of new notification channels, and messaging channels.”

We wrapped up our discussion by Neale-May emphasising his point that PR is an embedded dimension that is critically important. “It isn’t necessarily being fully utilised and fully unified. PR professionals have a responsibility to position themselves, message themselves, and validate, support and substantiate what they’re doing.”

Is it time to place both public relations and marketing under the communications umbrella? To create an environment where they are on an equal footing, and one that more naturally lends itself to greater collaboration. One might argue that there has never been a better time to consider shifting the dynamic of public relations and marketing to position them as the yin and yang of modern business.