Thursday, September 12, 2013

The changing relationship between public relations and marketing

I’m often questioned by my peers in marketing on whether public relations is essentially a function or a branch of marketing. Many marketers would like to believe so, in fact while they may not say it explicitly but PR is viewed by some as the poorer cousin of marketing. In contrast, most PR practitioners consider the profession to be a management function whereby PR rolls up to the CEO/ MD or to the Head of Corporate Affairs. This line of thinking, in essence, suggests that PR runs as a parallel stream to marketing, connected yet independent. The irony is that many organizations agree to the latter argument in letter but not in spirit. The resultant ambiguity gives rise to a tussle on ownership of brand campaigns, communication platforms (particularly social media) and sharing of resources between marketing and PR teams within an organization.    

The debate needs to be seen in a broader context. At a fundamental level, every organization needs to be clear about the core purpose that PR is expected to serve. Is the role of PR merely to support marketing campaigns i.e. marketing communications? Or is PR aimed at corporate brand building and issues management? While the significance of PR may vary depending on where the organization stands in its lifecycle and the external issues it faces, it is primarily up to the CEO/MD to define the purpose of PR. The reporting structure is secondary. In absence of a clear purpose, PR teams usually grapple with hierarchy and ownership issues.

If the role of PR is marketing communications then it is fair for the PR team to work very closely with marketing and may even report to the Head of Marketing. But if PR is expected to play a more strategic role, then it needs an independent reporting structure. In line with this thought, several leading global companies have a separate reporting structure for PR with the Head of corporate communications having a seat on the company’s senior leadership team alongside the Head of Marketing.

However, there is another line of thought that believes that the PR team must be flexible enough to manage both corporate and marketing communications depending on where the need arises. In such cases, in-country PR teams have a dotted line reporting to in-country marketing. Such a reporting structure requires the PR team to support the priorities of corporate communications/ corporate affairs along with those of in-country marketing, both of which can be very different. So, PR teams need to invest in understanding the marketing approach, yet deliver on corporate messaging in order to be able to maintain the fine balance. 

With the conventional ROI-driven approach to marketing, PR is essentially measured by the number of impressions, placement, tonality and readership, in essence, breadth of coverage. The depth aspect, based on corporate messaging, third-party endorsement and advocacy, tends to become secondary. Many marketers take a cookie cutter approach that primarily looks at output (essentially coverage) as opposed to outcome (which could be influencer relationships). This is owing to the fact that conventional marketing tends to veer towards a more transactional and easily measurable approach to communications.

On the other hand, the PR approach is more focused on driving conversations with or without a transactional engagement with audiences. Owing to this difference of approach, the yardstick used by conventional marketing often fails to measure the results of PR in its entirety. While the ROI approach for PR may not be completely out of place since PR does deliver a far better ROI than advertising, events etc. but aspects such as message delivery and advocacy must be key components of any PR measurement tool. In essence, for marketing and PR to share a healthy relationship, it is essential that both streams graduate to a more outcome-based measurement approach without subjecting one another to their specific output metrics. Neither of these streams can act as a substitute for the other.

Advertising fell into the trap of being categorized as a demand generation activity. PR must be careful not to be led onto the same path.   

With a growing understanding of PR’s deeper role in corporate brand building, its stature has gradually risen in the corporate hierarchy. That said, PR will have to earn its position and respect within the corporate set-up by aligning itself to strategic management goals. This is the key to the PR profession gaining its rightful place as a management function.