Opinion: PR builds relationships for actionable marketing results

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FOR as long as I’ve been working as a public relations specialist – 25 years – there has been an ongoing battle between public relations and marketing, writes Lyndon Johnson. Public relations sees marketing as the rich cousin receiving a larger share of corporate budgets, more share of the spotlight, and – in many cases – a seat at the executive table. 

The industry appears to have an inferiority complex when it comes to marketing. It’s unwarranted. But rather than competing, public relations and marketing should see each other as interrelated, and critical, to each other’s success. Let me explain why.

Einstein is reported to have said that he believed all physical theories ought to lend themselves to so simple a description ‘that even a child could understand them’. This is something that those of us working in the public relations and marketing fields have, to date, summarily failed to do. We struggle, even, to find consensus amongst practitioners working within a single discipline, let alone communicating how the fields combine to deliver value to the organizations trying to quantify our value.  

Before you can understand the difference between the two fields of communication, clear functional definitions are required. Functional definitions explain the purpose of each field rather than just describing the tasks done by practitioners.

The ghost of Bernays

Public relations and marketing, in particular, have historically been defined by what practitioners do tactically, rather than by their functional value. In the case of PR, it is largely because the industry today is not fundamentally different from that established by Edward Bernays. Often referred to as the father of PR, Bernays, by his own admission, came up with the phrase public relations to sanitize the work he did that used the tactics of propaganda because he felt the publics he sought to influence might not like the term propaganda.  

This renaming still creates challenges today because companies deploying the same tactical activities as Bernays are diametrically opposed to the functional goal of public relations. 

Converging fields

Another significant problem with using tactical definitions is that the main activities completed by practitioners in both public relations and marketing have become increasingly similar. Both involve the creation of content in various forms and distributing them. The common perception of public relations is that the delivery mechanism for the content created is via third-party media (historically considered to be earned media), whereas with marketing content is typically distributed via a range of channels – paid (online adverts), earned (influencers), shared (social media) and owned (websites, blogs, social media accounts). 

This blurring of the lines between public relations and marketing is one of the single largest contributors to a failure of business executives to understand the purpose or value that public relations delivers.

Interrelated, but different

Functionally public relations and marketing could not be more different. A decade ago, I set out to explore whether it was possible to describe each field of communication so simply that, not children as in Einstein’s case, but entrepreneurs and colleagues in non-communications functions of a business, could understand them. As somebody that has specialized in public relations strategy, I was tired of having to clarify what it was I did in practically every professional conversation I had, or having to explain that the value of that work wasn’t what somebody thought at parties or social events. I wanted to see whether there was a way to communicate the difference between the perception of what I did tactically with the reality – and that the value was much greater than was being assumed. 

So, what is the function of public relations?

The function of public relations is simple. It is the process of building and maintaining strong, mutually beneficial, relationships between an organization and key stakeholders. Stakeholders – broadly – are the people that are critical to the organization achieving defined goals and can include investors, customers, suppliers, partners, employees, influencers and journalists. Anybody that will be critical to the achievement of a specific organizational outcome.

The elements required to build a relationship are well documented – mutual benefit, timing and finding the right people. It’s practically impossible to build a long-term relationship where there is no mutual benefit or value exchange (these are transactional relationships that benefit only one party), where the timing is right for all parties or if you’re trying to build a relationship with somebody that sees no value in building one with you. 

The way that an organization builds stakeholder relationships to a point where they become useful for a defined purpose will vary based on the stakeholders, the context (both organizational and stakeholder) and the action the organization will ultimately require to be taken in order to achieve its goal via marketing communication. Public relations are the function of building relationships which are actionable for marketing purposes.

Marketing mix and comms

Marketing, like public relations, is often misunderstood both by practitioners and their non-marketing colleagues. The focus is typically on the communications piece, the Promotional P of the 4Ps of Marketing, a concept introduced by Harvard Business School professor James Culliton, developed by Neil Borden and integrated by Jerome McCarthy. Little is discussed about the other 3Ps.

Together, marketing’s function is to compel a specific person or group to take a defined action that has value to both the person taking it and the organization requesting it. This is achieved via the communication of a clear and compelling value proposition – comprising the 3Ps of Price, Product and Place – with the addition of a call-to-action that tells those being asked to act what action is required.

Compulsion is an important and often overlooked part of the marketing mix – and the most common reason that marketing fails. The other common cause of marketing failure is that the relationship with the people being called to take a marketing action is not strong enough to support the request.

Marketing fails if the required action to achieve a specific organization outcome does not result from the communication of a value proposition and call-to-action. And, while there are many reasons why this happens, the primary cause is often because a relationship has not been built to the required strength that it becomes actionable for the purposes of marketing.

A co-dependent relationship

While tactical definitions blur the lines and make it harder to differentiate between the two fields of communication, functional definitions highlight the differences clearly. It also demonstrates the interdependence between the fields. Independently, demonstrating the value of public relations or marketing is more difficult than when working together. It’s hard to build the relationships a business needs to achieve a specific outcome without a clear idea of the value proposition and the action they will be asked to take. Equally, it’s almost impossible to compel somebody to take a specific action if there is no clear mutual benefit or the relationship is not strong enough to support the action they’re being asked to take.

Clear functional definitions allow the value of both public relations and marketing to be understood – by practitioners, customers and colleagues in non-communications departments. Unless we can communicate the difference between public relations and marketing simply the current in-fighting will continue, which does not bode well for either field.