Let’s get ready to rumble: Is PR just a support function for marketing?

By in Views
On November 15, 2016

Marketing a support function of tech PR

You may remember a time when public relations and marketing were completely separate. You learned this in school and experienced it at work. This was before Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and the whole rise of social media.

But today, with social media being ubiquitous, it’s filled the gap between the two and it’s no longer as easy to distinguish PR from marketing. Certainly, my view is that PROs are now much more integrated with marketing than ever before. Take video, the lines between who owns content and creative has been blurred – especially on platforms like YouTube.

So here’s a question for you: in this social media age, who owns client messaging?

Recently, the Los Angeles chapters of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the American Marketing Association (AMA) co-hosted a public relations vs. marketing panel debate in Santa Monica that some of us LA lorries had a front row seat for. All-star marketers squared off against elite PR pros on this and other topics – don’t worry, no one was hurt during the event.

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So, when it comes to PR and marketing, which side has the upper hand in today’s media landscape? How do the lines of messaging blur when it comes to an effective campaign, and when should the two camps come together for the client and avoid stepping over each other? These were just some of the questions that moderator and president of AMA Los Angeles, Philip Rebentisch asked the panelists.

When the debate started you could tell right out of the gate that there were going to be differences of opinions between the panelists. One comment that stood out was from Diane Bergman, VP, Marketing & Communications at LA Opera who said she thought PR worked best as a supporting role. At that point you unsurprisingly heard a few gasps in the audience – most likely from PRSA members. Clint Schaff, VP, Strategy & Development at The Los Angeles Times countered her statement with, “PR is more than a support function.” From this point on, everyone in the audience was interested to hear what else the panelists had to say. I know I was, to hear that your profession is just a supporting function, tends to focus the mind!

When asked about the differences between PR and marketing, Erica Samadani, SVP, Brand Marketing at Ogilvy Public Relations was much more clear. She simply said, “We don’t buy influence.” She continued to explain how PR professionals earn the right to influence audiences, whereas marketers buy their audiences. “It’s all about relationships,” she added.

Schaff had similar opinions and said PR pros have an expertise in storytelling, trust building and relationship building.  A good point he mentioned was that without PR there’d be a lot of marketing “speak” in messaging and that PR pros help cut through the noise to reach target audiences with a more authentic voice.

“Brands have to earn trust through marketing and PR,” Bergman said. She explained how PR pros are the bridge between the organization and public with which they serve. They’re the ones that tell the company what the public is saying and that’s what makes the company authentic.

Both Bergman’s and Samadani’s views feel increasing at odds with what we’re seeing. Marketing budgets – especially advertising – do dwarf those of PRs, but PR is no longer a support function for many boards who are all too wary of a hack or misspoken word here or there.  And yes, traditional control over all things paid did sit squarely with marketing and true influence was a key role for traditional PRs. (Media relations after all was all about influencing the influencers to tell your client’s story.) But the pay-per-click or sponsored article budgets are increasing held by PRs. You’re just as likely to see PR decision-makers paying for influence over buying decisions with a native advertising post. It’s much harder to set a clear line these days between what PRs earn or pay for.

Certainly when it comes to social media, the panelists agreed for the most part that it requires a blend of the two skillsets. “PR, social and content are all integrated,” Samadani said. “You cannot call yourself a PR person without being socially savvy.”

For messaging, campaign planning and social media strategy, the majority of the panel agreed that it was a joint effort for both PR and marketing and that they’re somewhat tied together. Bergman explained how marketers and PR pros need to work on joining strategic planning together for it to be successful. “Marketing and PR goals need to be aligned,” she said. “Both need to do research and set goals.”

Judy Johnson, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Caruso Affiliated also commented on how the two need to work together and how it’s not always a comfortable thing to do – there will be tension. Ultimately, it comes down to understanding what each other does, and knowing who owns what and how the two can complement each other to achieve the goal of creating a successful brand.

There are obviously commonalities between PR and marketing, and the two are growing closer together – like the use of paid. Eventually PR and marketing skills will become wholly intertwined. But there are still differences such as the need for PRs to give opinion and education rather than delivering ‘marketing or product speak’. PR and marketing have evolved, and knowing the difference between them will help people understand that they’re not competing, but actually complementary to each other. And far from being a support function, PR can and is an active part of the marketing mix.




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