PR vs Marketing: are we splitting hairs?

When public relations practitioners and corporate communicators insist that their discipline is separate from that of marketing, they are often accused of splitting hairs.

After all, companies use PR tools all the time to promote the sale of products and services, and corporate communicators spend a lot of their time advancing marketing objectives. So, what’s the difference?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Both functions build and maintain relationships that are vital to a company’s success.  And they share a similar theoretical base and common techniques.

But PR and marketing do differ – and the main thing that sets them apart is purpose.

The purpose of marketing is to attract and keep customers or clients. It focuses on the marketplace and strives to ensure the quality of products or services.

The purpose of PR/corporate communication is to cultivate and maintain good relationships with several groups of stakeholders, not just customers. It must also look at the larger community.

The nature and tone of the communication differs as well.

Marketing communication, whether through advertising or some other form of promotion, seeks to trigger an exchange of money for products or services. PR/corporate communication seeks to build community acceptance, trust in the organisation and support for its plans and decisions (particularly on the part of employees).

It was never the purpose of public relations to sell anything, even though its tools and techniques have proven invaluable to marketers. However, many CEOs (and probably all marketing executives) no doubt see this debate as irrelevant. Who cares who uses whose tools as long as the business benefits? Both functions are on the same team, right are both on the same team, right?

Yes they do, but they have different roles to play. When that difference is ignored or disrespected, or if PR/corporate communication is treated as a subset of marketing, serious problems can arise.

If all communication is viewed through the marketing lens, it can become distorted. Its tone can develop a dangerous bias towards sales and hype. There are times when this tone can be damaging, and when a differently attuned ear is needed to help shape the company’s messages.

This is particularly true when the company must deal with a major issue that can affect its reputation. Stakeholders or community groups, who are upset with a company because of its behaviour, or who believe they have been misled, aren’t in the mood for marketing rhetoric.

What they want is candid, credible communication. And they want it from people who are clearly prepared to be accountable.