I have long been troubled by the misuse of the term “marketing” in higher education and its seeming predominance over public relations in the industry’s lexicon. Some colleagues have told me repeatedly to shut up and move on. It’s just a problem of semantics, they say.
Properly chastened, I have gone dark on this topic even as I see the continued abuse of the words and a complete and widespread misunderstanding of their definitions.
Now comes an irresistible opportunity to address the topic one more time.
I’ve learned that a higher education colleague at a major university recently won the “Marketer of the Year” award at the American Marketing Association’s (AMA) higher education conference in Austin, Texas.
This is wonderful recognition for an outstanding professional and one of the really good people in higher education. Unfortunately, she really isn’t a “marketing” practitioner. She is a public relations pro.
I am certain she made important contributions to the marketing of her institution to prospective students. I am equally as certain she made little or no contribution to determining the price of that education, deciding when and where to deliver courses or defining the university’s academic offerings (courses and such).
She likely did an outstanding job on one of the “four P’s” of marketing–promotion. As part of her public relations responsibilities she is quite probably and appropriately in the marketing communications business.
One more time for the critics and those who deny the importance of these distinctions in the practice of our profession. Public relations is the strategic function that addresses all of an organization’s key constituencies. Marketing addresses consumers of a product or service. Product promotion or “marketing communications” is the area where the public relations function addresses the consumer audience.
My readers know I have hammered at the need to build understanding of public relations so our work receives the same recognition and is afforded the same value as the work of our marketing colleagues. We must keep at it, not because we need more credit, but because our institutions will benefit from the knowledge of what public relations and marketing actually do. With that understanding they will be able to set realistic priorities and assign appropriate resources in those professional arenas and, most important, better be able to evaluate their effectiveness.
It’s not just about semantics. As PR professionals we have an obligation to educate our universities and leaders about those differences so they understand the contributions of each profession.
The AMA’s recognition of a public relations professional as its “Marketer of the Year” speaks volumes about the true value of PR, its impact and its pervasive influence in an institution. But marketing communications is just one tool in the PR toolbox. By properly and accurately defining public relations, marketing and marketing communications, institutions can employ a more thoughtful and synergistic strategy that harnesses the full power of these practices.