I was honored to receive an invitation from the Richmond, Va., chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to deliver a speech on the relationship between public relations and marketing. The invitation stemmed from my blog on this topic that first appeared here, then was picked up by PRSA and mounted on the national organization’s website. I was gratified by the reception I received from the good PR folks in Richmond, so I thought I would slightly abridge the speech and share it with my readers. Here it is:
PUBLIC RELATIONS and the Myths of Marketing
Richmond, Va., chapter of PRSA
June 24, 2015
When you get to my stage of life, personally and professionally, you cannot help but reflect on what you’ve done with your time on the planet.
That Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime,” keeps running through my head. David Byrne sings about “letting the days go by.” He says, “You may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?” and then ends with the ultimate question, “You may ask yourself, My God, what have I done?”
First off, let me say how very pleased I am to be here with you today. All of us in this room are well aware that public relations ranks as one of the top 10 most stressful professions in America. I’m living testimony to that, having experienced twitches in my eyelids, vibrating fingers and ugly rashes on various parts of my body. A few years ago I was showering at the gym after my lunchtime run and the guy next to me jumped back after taking a look at a ghastly red rash covering a portion of my body that will go unnamed.
“No problem, buddy,” I said, “I’m in PR. This is completely normal.”
To be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time looking back at what I’ve done in public relations. I guess I can quickly evaluate my time in our profession in a couple of simple ways.
First, there has never been a day in my career that I did not want to go to work. Public relations has given me a chance to collaborate with some truly talented and creative people, friends and colleagues for a lifetime. It’s enabled me to spend my days enjoying the craft and feeling the immense satisfaction of taking a project or program from conception to successful completion. It has given me exciting days, constant change, varied problems and crises, and complex issues that have challenged me intellectually. I’ve been able to build organizations from the ground up, and I’ve worked for truly transformational CEOs.
Second, looking back I feel like I’ve devoted my life to work with meaning. I am a true believer in the value and importance of our profession, a profession whose philosophy is rooted in the public good, to creating mutual benefit between an organization and the people it engages. More than that, I’m a true believer in the idea I have worked hard at promoting: the value of higher education. Nothing is more important than education to the future of our nation and the world.
The joy and satisfaction I’ve gotten from public relations have been a sheer accident. I had no plan to enter the field until an early morning in center city Philadelphia pushed me to take steps toward a new career.
I had been working for a wire service for several years and was doing a week of the 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. overnight shift. I stuck with my routine at the end of the shift and stopped in an all-night donut shop enroute to my one-bedroom apartment on Spruce Street. While making my usual order of coffee and a couple of glazed donuts I was shocked to see a waitress lunge across the counter and attack the patron next to me with a butcher knife. I guess the guy had overstayed his welcome. The cops came running through the revolving door. I didn’t stick around for the takedown.
I had been thinking about finding a new line of work for some time—one that included time for friends and a social life—so that incident made me quickly write a resume with the intent of submitting it for the next position in journalism or communications that came up. Fortunately for me, the Philadelphia Inquirer listed a job that Sunday in which an unidentified university was seeking someone to do public relations. I shipped off the resume and through what I now view as some mystical intervention I somehow got the job.
I had taken a couple of public relations courses in college, but I had no idea what I had signed up for. All I knew is that I likely would not work a 5-to-2 shift.
I’ve taught public relations at three universities and I’ve studied it with great interest and enthusiasm. I’ve had the great fortune to learn about our profession from some of the giants of the field, including the late Pat Jackson and Chester Burger. I’ve seen the power and influence of public relations, so I am particularly sensitive to its—to use what some people think are marketing terms—positioning and its “brand.”
In order to frame the public relations versus marketing discussion I feel compelled to share with you a few myths I believe we must address for context. Like Eminem rapped in “Lose Yourself,” let’s “snap back to reality.”
Myth No. 1. Marketing’s encroachment on public relations is a recent phenomenon.
Marketing’s incursion into public relations has been going on a lot longer than most of us think. The most impressive person I have met in our field—perhaps the most impressive person I have met, period—wrote this in 1984:
“In both corporate and nonprofit organizations, the structural tension of the last decade has been the questing of ‘marketeers’ into all aspects of operation and policy. As management guru Peter Drucker points out, their cover-all use of the term marketing is erroneous and has led management down many muddy paths. Public relations is one of the departments that has sometimes been victimized.”
That remarkable person was Pat Jackson, former president of the Public Relations Society of America and renowned public relations counselor, lecturer and advocate for our profession.
In the midst of this takeover attempt back in the ‘80s, Westinghouse Corporation Chairman Michael Jordan weighed in.
“I’ve been in the consumer business for 20 years,” he said, “and I understand that public relations is as important as marketing. I never considered that it would report anywhere else but to the CEO.”
The late Ralph Frede, long-time vice president for public affairs at Baylor College of Medicine and advocate for high professional standards for PR practitioners, succinctly addressed our problem 20 years ago. Ralph said, “If we are satisfied to serve simply as publicists or marketers of a product, service or interest, we shall not help our managements solve their greatest challenges.”
Myth No. 2. Marketing is the raison d’etre, the so-called bottom line, of all of an organization’s communications.
I got an email in April from PR News promoting a webinar where I could learn how to break down the silos between marketing and public relations. The promo called marketing and PR “major external functions,” completely disregarding PR’s role in addressing important internal constituencies. But most troubling of all was the final bullet on a list of what the webinar would teach me.
PR News said the webinar would show me how to: “Keep the ultimate goal of satisfying customers top of mind.”
Earlier that month I had gotten another promo email from the American Council on Education that offered to show me how to do “internal marketing” to get engagement and commitment from important internal stakeholders to something called credit for prior learning. If that is marketing someone needs to rewrite the definition.
Marketing is the buzzword of our time. For many it seems to imply a “bottom line” commitment that public relations lacks. You give something to get something. You complete a transaction. It is amazing to me how pervasive the word is, how everybody wants to make a case for how they are doing marketing.
I had an epiphany a good number of years ago when a newly appointed vice president for marketing at a major East Coast university told her audience that her principal job was to bring consistency to the university’s communications. In fact, she said, she had been so successful her institution had received an editorial in her city’s newspaper, lauding the appointment of its new president. The epiphany? This marketing mania had taken hold in my industry and I had better start paying attention to it.
So high times for marketing, wouldn’t you say? In reality, no.
A little over a year ago, the Fournaise Marketing Group released results of its study on marketing effectiveness in which it interviewed more than 1,200 CEOs around the world. Seems that 80 percent of those CEOs did not trust their marketing executives and were unimpressed with their work. They did not believe marketing executives added value to the business.
In another study reported in Advertising Age, two marketing professors showed that having a VP for marketing has zero impact on a company’s bottom line.
With all the money organizations spend on marketing, especially its principal tool, advertising, you would think the impact would be enormous. Here’s another Myth, No. 2A. Advertising is worth every penny.
In another CEO survey, researchers found most business executives believe people exposed to a TV ad will remember something about it the next day. No wonder they spend mega-millions on advertising. The fact is, however, that research shows most people can’t recall anything about a TV ad a day after seeing it.
I guess marketing is the panacea for all of our problems. If only we could do it well. Is it any surprise, given marketing’s failure to deliver that it has turned even more aggressively to public relations principles as a way to address its challenges?
This was strikingly emphasized to me when I participated in a debate on marketing and public relations with a well-known marketing professor from a Midwestern university. He spoke first and told the audience that marketing is all about building relationships with customers, fostering two-way communication and promoting clear and consistent communication across an organization. Hey, that’s what I was going to say about public relations. On to the Q and A.
Which brings me to Myth No. 3. Public relations is a tactical function that supports other units of an organization, especially marketing, and marketing is the only strategic communication function.
The kind invitation from Judi Crenshaw to speak with you this afternoon came after PRSA, through some obvious lapse in judgment, decided to mount my blog on the differences between PR and marketing. I got a lot of great response to the piece, but I was somewhat shocked by the accompanying survey in which PRSA asked readers if they agreed with my point that PR and marketing are distinct professions with significant differences. Last time I looked 47 percent of the respondents backed my position. What was alarming to me, however, was that 35 percent of the other respondents view public relations as (quote) “a subset of marketing.” This on a PRSA website? You’ve got to be kidding me.
I know it is a small sample, but this suggests to me we have a problem in our profession. If we don’t know how to accurately define it how can anyone else?
It is crucial to remember that public relations is a strategic management function, not a tactical one. Because it addresses all of an organization’s important constituencies its value and importance far exceed that of marketing, which addresses only one—consumers of a product or service. I know, I know, consumers are right at the top of our organizational and business priority list. But let’s consider where we would be in our efforts to get them to plunk down the cash if public relations had done a poor job of addressing an organization’s relationships with government agencies and elected officials. How about community and special interest groups? Regulatory agencies? What if PR had not monitored public opinion to help management understand the environment in which the organization was operating? How about news media and other opinion leaders? And what about the employees inside the organization?
Myth No. 4. Marketing is a public relations function.
I have to admit I was saddened but not surprised when I saw a press release a couple of months back in which Carnegie Mellon University, a place where I spent a good chunk of my professional life, announced it had named a new vice president for marketing and communications. That title is clueless, demonstrating that the leadership of that university and the search firm it employed have no understanding of the meaning of those terms.
When I got recruited to my current position, the title was quite different from the long-winded one I now fill my business card with. Yes, I could have been the VP for marketing, but I told the president he didn’t want me to do that.
As VP for marketing, I could tell the faculty when and where to teach their classes, the “place” of marketing’s four Ps. Better yet, I could redefine their product, making changes in the curriculum that would address market needs and align with the always evolving job market. Best of all, I could set tuition, set the price, to put us in the very best marketing position in that crucial category. How much of a discount would I offer that year, I thought.
Public relations and marketing do, of course, converge in a practice called marketing communications or product promotion. That’s where we employ public relations principles to build consumer awareness and interest in a product or service. Those are absolutely crucial first steps in the progress toward the transaction.
I read a really good quote in PR Week from Gary Sheffer, chairman of the Arthur Page Society and outgoing vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at GE, that gets at the essence of this synergy and addresses PR and marketing’s distinct missions.
“I understand customers better,” Sheffer said, “because I worked with the chief marketing officer, and the chief marketing officer understands reputational issues and public policy in his decision-making because he has a good relationship with the chief communications officer.”
Myth No. 5 (finally). There ain’t nuthin’ we can do about it.
Now that I’ve ranted about myths for 20 minutes, let’s close out by looking at some truths and our responsibility to perpetuate them.
At the top of my list of what we can do about the decline of the term public relations is the responsibility we all have to speak up for it. Few people understand what we do and they have an ill-defined and distorted view of our profession. We must take every opportunity we get to build understanding and appreciation for the impact, importance, quality and ethics of our work. Public relations has carried around a bad image for many, many years. Perhaps it suggests to some a slick and sinister attempt to work the con on people—something like advertising. In my industry, no president or chancellor (other than the brilliant one I work for, of course) would ever consider naming a vice president for public relations. The term has been almost totally removed from the higher education lexicon.
To close out, here are a few more things we can do to get our profession the respect and understanding it deserves.
Don’t be a donut shop. If you work in a corporation or a non-profit organization, you have to have a strategic plan that defines what you do and why you do it. Your tactics follow your strategy. Don’t let others in the organization reduce your operation to a service unit where they can decide among the chocolate glazed, the Boston crème or the strawberry frosted like they do when they visit Dunkin’ Donuts.
Connect your work to organizational strategies and priorities. Make clear the connection between your strategies and tactics and your organization’s business plan and strategic priorities. Demonstrate how your work contributes to the success of other units within your organization.
Lead quality and consistency of communications across your organization. We reach all of our organizations’ key constituencies, and we are the only ones who do that.
Believe in your talent and skill. Public relations is a challenging profession. It takes strategic thinking, creativity, writing and editorial skills, the ability to use the array of communications channels available today. It takes an understanding of human nature. Much too often we take for granted those talents and skills—talents and skills not many people have. Let’s stop doing that.
People I respect, some of them in PRSA, have told me I am tilting at windmills, that my attempt to clearly define public relations and marketing is simply a question of semantics. Perhaps. Obviously, the two need to work together and their tools and tactics have merged.
But this debate and discussion comes down for me to a fundamental difference between the two professions. Public relations, to me at least, is more than a practice. It is a philosophy. Marketing is not.
Public relations is about building relationships of mutual benefit among an organization, its stakeholders and the broader public. At its best, it is the essence of democracy in which all voices are heard and consensus and compatibility are the goals. True public relations professionals subscribe to the public good.
I have spent a lifetime in our profession and perhaps I can be accused of creating my own rationale to delude myself into thinking that my life has had greater meaning. Geez, I hope not. I have wholly embraced the philosophy, the value, the importance of public relations. I hope you have, too, and I hope you have practiced it with the integrity and respect for others that are the foundation of the profession. I hope all of us can commit to becoming stronger advocates for public relations. Its philosophy and practice, when exercised to their most fulsome extent, hold great promise for our society. To me, we have an obligation to build that public understanding and help realize the full potential of our great work.
If we can do that, a few years from now I’ll be parked in my wheelchair in a corner of some nursing home, rubbing cortisone on my rash and smiling, thinking to myself, all that stress was worth it.