Opinion: Marketing vs public relations: who reigns supreme?

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THROUGHOUT my career, I’ve held roles in journalism, marketing, branding, public relations and corporate communications across numerous industries, writes Courtney Malengo. Every discipline fights for budgetary resources while vying to be a trusted member of the C-suite. Marketing and public relations, along with other disciplines, often have ongoing rivalries, competing rather than collaborating. So, who reigns supreme? What if I told you the answer was neither?

I began my career as a reporter for local newspapers and later, writing for regional lifestyle magazines. When you are in journalism, PR and marketing are considered the ‘dark side’. I think journalists and PR practitioners see the other as a necessary evil. After journalism, I had the opportunity to visit the ‘dark side’ by copywriting campaigns for a marketing firm. It was the first time I realised I could harness my creativity and writing skills in a way I never envisioned. That experience opened the door for me to evolve my career from journalism to later marketing, branding and PR. 

My first formal PR role was as a promotion to director of PR for a healthcare/senior living organisation, from a marketing position I previously held. I came to understand PR as the art of managing reputation, perception, and the nuanced strategy crisis communications requires. Eventually, I earned my Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) and that gave me broader context for the role I had taken on. That experience inspired me to pursue a Master’s in Communication and Organisational Leadership, instead of pursuing a qualification in integrated marketing, business administration, or public relations.

Since I held roles in these various disciplines, I think it provides a unique perspective to pontificate the age-old discussion about PR and marketing, and how they should coexist together. I’ve heard it said that there are as many definitions of PR as there are practitioners. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines PR as “the strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and its publics”. 

The American Marketing Association (AMA) describes marketing as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” 

Both marketing and PR are vulnerable to focusing too much on tactics and not enough on strategy. These disciplines are valuable, and often overlap in their goal to communicate important ideas, initiatives, and items, yet both should be a coordinated, integral part of any company’s communication and lead generation strategy. However, the one distinct difference I’ve experienced is that marketing tends to be externally focused, whereas PR is concerned with all audiences. Of course, depending on the professional and where they work, that may be different, but let us eschew labels for a moment. What if we viewed these disciplines as equally important, but integrated them into a broader umbrella of strategic communications? When marketing or PR collaborate and focus on strategy first, then it is strategic communications. 

Ultimately, if you don’t have strategy, none of the above matters, regardless of what label or title you affix to it. Think about any business initiative you want to achieve – all of it requires communication to become possible. Corporate culture? Check. Culture change? Check. Marketing campaigns that showcase your product or service? Check. Defending your company’s reputation in crisis? Check. Encouraging employees to become vaccinated? Check. Shareholder communication? Check. Company mission and vision? Check. Philanthropic appeals? Check. 

Without integrating creativity and strategy together, no business objective can ever be realised, regardless of discipline. Furthermore, we undo all our hard work when we allow each discipline to create their own organisational narrative. It is detrimental to the unification, collaboration, and cohesion both companies and customers can benefit from. Someone must own and guide the organisation’s voice, with all publics in mind, and I think that role should be owned by strategic communications. Don’t let turf wars dilute your organisation’s brand experience. Instead, be intentional about integrating marketing, PR, branding, sales, etc., and then you will have strategic communication bolstering all business initiatives.