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All public relations has positioning inherent within it, but positioning itself is often thought of as being marketing-specific. Three main manifestations of how PR impacts on positioning, however, are narratives, language and, perhaps especially, the fluid negotiations that take place between an organisation and its stakeholders to create meaning: a ‘contested space’.

Positioning is integral to public relations

One of public relations’ strongest and most defining characteristics is its facilitation of, and influence over, the exchange and cross-fertilisation of stories, beliefs and demands between an organisation and its stakeholders. It is, therefore, somewhat remiss of PR professionals not to invest more time into underlining the profound impact we have on positioning, whether it is in the context of an organisation, or one of its products or services.

For a long time now I’ve been conscious of the importance of positioning to PR practice, but have failed to see many discussions of the issue. There’s an excellent, comprehensive and thought provoking one in relatively recent edition of the Journal of Public Relations Research, by Australian PR academic and practitioner Melanie James, entitled A Provisional Conceptual Framework for Intentional Positioning in Public Relations* (NB. Don’t let the title put you off!)

In this post I identify, discuss and tease out aspects of this article, but to get full value I suggest you seek it out at your local uni library.

Marketing and public relations: positioning contested

As usual, the notion of a contest is easily transferrable to marketing and PR. One of the quotes I like that James’ uses is Ries and Trout’s, “The basic approach of positioning is not to create something new and different, but to manipulate what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist.” Positioning, they also said, “is what you do to the mind of the prospect.”

Now many aspects of this are insightful and useful, but when marketers start using the word ‘manipulate’ it reaffirms my perceptions of the discipline and one of its essential weaknesses. Whereas public relations, practiced at its optimum level, is about mutually driven outcomes, marketing seeks to contextualise and, yes, position to seek optimum profit for an organisation.

Who’s spin-criminal-in-chief now?

James spends time talking about the marketing and sales-aligned general notion of positioning and the inappropriateness of many discussions on the topic to public relations. Yet, as her research points out, positioning is endemic within our public relations discipline.

Positioning, when practiced by PR pros, is much more likely to lead to change from the organisation, rather than focusing on the one-way and sales-targeted communication that marketing employs. Pointedly, James says, “public relations works to co-construct particular meanings in the minds of publics [i.e. stakeholders]”, underlining the transactional nature of our field.

Compare the two:

  • Marketing “re-ties” perceptions that already exist
  • Public relations constructs meanings in a partnership (though admittedly, in most cases, probably a partnership of unequal power).

Public relations position on positioning: positioned

James says that, “Positioning in public relations can be defined as the strategic attempt to stake out and occupy a site of intentional representation in the contested space where meanings are constructed, contested and reconstructed.”

Key roles played by PR, James says, are stakeholder analysis (i.e. market research), framing of organisational positions (i.e. contextualising of communication, driven by strategy) and organisational narratives (which are always, to some extent, co-constructed with stakeholders).

For the most part, positioning undertaken by public relations is intentional, even if it is in response to positioning or communication from organisational stakeholders. The responsive dimension of positioning necessitates fluidity being inherent to most positioning, reinforcing its negotiated characteristic of positioning. And if social media isn’t emphasising this then I don’t know what is!

James introduces work undertaken by psychology researchers Harre and Langenhove, called a “positioning triangle”. Her research underlined how accurate this conceptualisation is for PR:

  • The position of various players within the organisational ‘relationship environment’
  • The social forces of action and interaction that is occurring
  • Narratives (stories abound!).

James makes perhaps the ultimate point that, “positioning is a significant part of public relations practice.” In an applied sense, this suggests public relations practitioners should:

  • be conscious of how their communication impacts on organisational/product/service positioning
  • understand the relationships relevant to positioning between an organisation/product/service and other relevant organisations/products/services/stakeholders, as they exist in a fluid, transactional environment
  • counsel their organisation to evolve based on the varying needs of the organisation and its stakeholders – thus helping to build and sustain mutually beneficial relationships between the organisation and its stakeholders
  • be assertive in claiming the practice of positioning within their activity and spelling out to organisational hierarchy the importance of public relations’ role in this area.

What work have you done in the area of positioning in your public relations practice? Have you been frustrated by your organisation not recognising public relations’ relevance to positioning? Do you relate to the various concepts noted above and how would you contextualise them to what you do in your workplace?


* James, M. (2011). A Provisional Conceptual Framework for Intentional Positioning in Public Relations, Journal of Public Relations Research, 23(1)