“The lines between PR and marketing are blurring,” so sayeth VOCUS, the media relations software, distribution and measurement company. The new report, released yesterday, shows that nearly eight of 10 practitioners report to the same executive as their marketing counterparts, with a turf battle around ownership of social media the emerging trend.
Public relations does own some of the strategies and tools for the marketing function, and should be at the table in developing a marketing plan. But to a strategic public relations practitioner, that’s just one set of stakeholders and tools. Defining public relations solely by a subset of its tactics, such as media relations or social media that supports marketing, is not a new mistake, but it’s one that unfortunately appears to be gaining acceptance.
I’ve experienced it firsthand throughout my 18-year career. While at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota in the early 2000s, the public relations team’s organization chart would have been best served printed on a post-it note — easily lifted and refastened on numerous pages, numerous times:
- Reporting to the executive for legal and underwriting when the company was “the only game in town” and strategic public relations consisted of responding to law suits and operational crises with a bit of business and trade media relations thrown in.
- Moving to the sales and marketing division when serious competition in the large, self-insured markets threatened the company’s dominance and profitability, requiring new channels, messages and thought leadership.
- Sliding to public affairs when an activist attorney general, new state legislature, and other advocacy groups exploited new issues/trends to gain attention and power amidst the health, access and health care cost crises.
By my count, the public relations team endured eight org chart reporting changes over three-and-a-half years. While earning our seat at the strategic table, we discovered there were several strategic tables — and none of the senior executives who sat at the heads of those tables knew what to do with us. In fact, some of them seemed downright afraid of owning too much of the public relations process because the stakes were so high. In the process, the public relations team earned its place on the committees that set rates, medical policy, product development, provider negotiations, lobbying, and more.
In short, the public relations function outgrew any one division.
That evolution illustrates my point: Public relations is unique in that it defines itself as a strategic management function. In addition to marketing audiences, public relations deals with investors, channel partners, regulators, media, influencers, and other reputation-defining audiences. Likewise, public relations is more likely to own the strategies and tactics that bridge audiences and internal divisions: annual reports/advisory boards, crisis planning, special events, executive communications, issues management, thought leadership, etc. Even if an entirely new division or team is put in place for one of the above, it uses the same process and tools as public relations.
To define public relations as media relations, social media, or a service of marketing casts it down a path that is much less strategic. The real power and potential of public relations requires building and leveraging the big picture of relationships that together transform the brand your organization promotes into the reputation you earn.
Accepting VOCUS’s tactical conclusion of a PR/Marketing turf war is kind of like accepting financial planning advice from your bank teller. It’s the road less strategic. Instead, as practitioners we need to strive to understand the businesses and industries we support as facilitators of all of the relationships. That’s not blur; that’s integration.