Whilst I strongly believe that marketing plays a central role in business and that PR can and must support the brand, I also believe that PR and marketing must remain two distinct responsibility centers: PR must not answer to marketing, period. They must work closely together – marketing centered on the brand, PR centered on the relationships. Or, put another way, marketing centered on the consumer and PR centered on the citizen.

PR must have a brain of its own

These thoughts were initially prompted by Ford Kanzler’s contribution to this blog. To gain a better understanding of his thinking I read his Connecting the Mind and Voice of Business book, from first page to last. I found it interesting, full of practical knowledge and useful for any PR professional.

But I also found what really annoys me at the very start, in these few sentences: «The whole purpose of business is marketing… marketing is, or ought to be, the brains of the outfit…Public relations, an aspect of promotion, is a sophisticated and highly effective way for marketing to express its brand and products’ values to the market.» Clearly, PR is «the voice» behind «the brain».

I’ll come back to the book in a moment but I must now share some of my views.

[This is a guest post by Guy Versailles.*]

PR is NOT marketing

I’ve been in PR-related positions for many decades. There was a time not so long ago when most businesses were entirely focussed on financial profit and did not believe they had to address environmental or social issues. This is not because they were heartless or cynical; most business persons were then, as they are today, respectable citizens; at the time, it was simply the dominant world-view.

Accordingly, marketing was entirely focused on the commercial aspects of business.

The growing concerns about the environmental and social impacts of business, fuelled notably by the spread of the concept of sustainable development, brought about a remarkable change. Today, business people understand the importance for small and large businesses alike to behave as responsible corporate citizens.

During the same period, advertising gradually fell out of favor, becoming more expensive and less effective. Al and Laura Ries have describes this in their seminal book, «The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR». What they suggest is quite simple: advertising does not work any longer but PR does, so let’s use PR to sell our wares.

On a very personal basis, this angered me for two reasons. First, PR has been there all along, going back many decades with a theory and body of knowledge centered on the building of relationships with stakeholders. It has never enjoyed the same favour as marketing has with the C-suite, being seen more often than not as a necessary expense rather than as an investment. But now that the marketing people see value in it, they simply «re-brand» PR as marketing and whatever influence we might have enjoyed before, we now risk losing entirely to their benefit.

Second, the Ries’ 2002 book really got me riled up when they took direct aim at what has always been the central focus of true public relations: to establish and maintain mutual lines of communication between an organization and its publics.

They quote an eminent PR pro: «Public relations is the art of earning and leveraging the trust of an organization’s key stakeholders» and they answer the following: «Come on, guys, you’re not trying out for the part of the in-house guru. You have a job to do, perhaps the most important job in any organization. Building the brand.»

Reading this book, I had the distinct impression that what they had in mind was to roll us back to before the 1950s, when PR in fact could be summarized as «publicity» in the traditional sense of the word (i.e. unpaid advertising). If this is the case, then PR is in jeopardy.

If its primary focus becomes «the brand» instead «the relationship» and if it is under the control of the same people who assume the all-important role of selling the product, then PR in danger of losing its credibility and of being seen as just another sales tool. In other words, if the marketing people simply decide to use PR to replace advertising, then PR will go the same route advertising has and lose credibility.

I have read other books that are more nuanced and that recognize a specific role for PR, if for no other reason that the social media today requires genuine engagement that goes way beyond any traditional means of «pushing the product». Nonetheless, there is always this nagging idea which is presented almost as a self-evident truth: marketing is everything, the rest is accessory.

Acknowledged, this can be considered «radical» but in no way do I intend to be disrespectful of the marketing people. Many exchanges are required to help us better understand how to efficiently work together.

Connecting the mind and voice of business: commenting on the book

I totally agree that businesses exist to sell products and services, that good marketing is essential and that PR can contribute greatly to supporting the brand and to push the product.

But PR is not only «an aspect of promotion». It is not even primarily that, in my mind at least. It is focused primarily on relationships, on understanding the socio-political, as well as the market environments the company – or any other type of organization – must contend with. Marketing PR is a branch of PR, not all of it.

I have great respect with PR people who support the marketing effort, but I have developed other interests in my own career. I have worked in strategic planning, communications management, media relations and crisis communications, in the public affairs, or corporate affairs divisions of many large organizations, tackling problems that have nothing to do with marketing but that can put a company out of business. For instance, securing the «licence to operate» in a world where using natural resources, generating pollution and constructing any kind of new installation are subjected to public approval.

Perhaps it is a question of perspective and culture. Just as in the human brain, rational intelligence, intuition, emotions, must work together well to produce a well-balanced individual, «the brains» of a company is its management team, not any single corporate function, however important it may be. Profitability and sales are paramount, but must be rounded out with proper consideration for everything else that makes a company efficient, from good management of its employees, production and finances, to government and community relations.

This reservation put aside, Ford’s book provides very valuable insight and practical knowledge for marketing people who should understand how PR can work for the brand and for PR people who choose to work in marketing PR. Indeed, much of the advice applies to all types or PR situations and I enjoyed the refresher course:

  • identify the defining characteristics of your organization (or product)
  • define strategy before choosing tactics
  • find the specific media and journalists that are interested and tailor your approach according to their interests.

The book also argues convincingly on the importance for all of management to understand the importance of PR and to get involved personally, as well as on the importance of sustaining the PR effort over time: «Consistency, continuity, credibility.»

As well, Ford’s advice on client-agency relationships is right on and it applies to any type of PR. And, finally, I share with him the importance of putting «PR 2.0» in perspective: technology changes much more rapidly than the human brain. We should not believe we are reinventing the discipline because the social media provides us with new ways of communicating.

Despite the general statements quoted above, Ford often argues convincingly that PR must have a brain of its own, for instance when he argues that PR must «avoid drinking marketing’s Kool-Aid…PR pros have a responsibility to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism and ask hard questions.»

As I read on into the book, my original misgivings were overcome by the recognition that we indeed do share the same craft: public relations. But we need to further explore our relationship with marketing.

What is your reaction to Guy’s thoughts and his critique of Ford’s book? Does PR have more importance to commercial organisations than being simply a sales tool? How much does PR actually build up reputation and how important is this in your experience? Is public relations at risk of losing what credibility it has established for itself due to marketing trying to claim its ‘territory’?

*Guy Versailles, APR, has expertise in communications strategy and planning, with a special emphasis on press relations, public affairs, internal communication and crisis management. He has worked in high profile government positions (including the Office of the Premier of Québec), Hydro-Québec and the Solidarity Fund QFL, a major investment fund based in Montreal. He holds a Bachelor of Arts with major in Journalism, has completed a graduate course in «Management and Sustainable Development» and is a past director of Quebec’s foremost association of public relations professionals. He was recently awarded the Yves Saint-Amand Award for Excellence, in recognition for his contribution to the advancement of professional public relations. He is President of strategic communication consultancy, Versailles Communication.