PR, marketing, advertising: Making sense of the confusing mélange


Since Verafluenti is in the business of public relations and communication management consulting, it seems apt to commence this blog series by defining the terms; thereby delineating the Verafluenti approach to the field. Additionally, we attempt to clarify how they differ from marketing and advertising, as this is a source of persistent confusion.

For the purpose of this article, we will consider public relations (PR) and communication management synonymous — an equation embraced by many leading scholars, researchers and universities.

The landmark International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Excellence Study defined PR as “the management of strategic communication between an organization and its publics” (Grunig, 1992).

According to Cutlip, Center and Broom (1994), PR is “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually-beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics on whom its success or failure depends”.

We subscribe to these definitions which emphasize that communication’s role is strategic and that it builds and sustains relationships. A further tenet of ours is that communication must support an organization’s goals and objectives.


Managing the “publics” in PR

Yes, it is plural and not singular as the name “public relations” might suggest.

Any organization has several groups that influence it and are consequential to its existence: Consumers/clients/customers, vendors, investors, shareholders, employees, government, community, media, activists, and opponents, to name a few.

Who then manages relations with all relevant publics of an organization?

Some might say: The marketing department of course!

And that begets the question: But what is marketing?

A common definition is as the function that identifies a human need or want (or sometimes manufactures the illusion, according to us), develops products or services to satisfy that need or want, and causes transactions that deliver them in exchange for something of value to the provider.

Marketing then deals almost exclusively with one public – customers, current and prospective. Even the concept of customer relationship management (CRM) relates to only that one public.

It would then be irrational and inconsiderate to expect the marketing department to handle relations with other key publics.

That would be the commission of the PR department.

PR requires a different mindset and specialized education. Marketing specialists are not the ones to handle public relations; nor vice versa.

PR is not the same as marketing. They are related and must work in tandem to avoid issuing conflicting messages from the same organization. But they are different. Contrary to what some companies believe and practise, public relations is not subservient to marketing.

Neither is PR the same as advertising.

Courland Bovée (1992) defines advertising as the nonpersonal communication of information usually paid for and usually persuasive in nature about products, services or ideas by identified sponsors through various media.

Clearly, it is a subset of marketing and quite different from PR.


Different currencies

It is worth noting that marketing and PR work in different currencies. The former transacts mostly in money. The latter works to nurture goodwill, trust and (as the name implies in no uncertain terms) relations.

Robert Dilenschneider, chief executive of The Dilenschneider Group and former president and CEO of Hill & Knowlton, spoke of the importance of communication in building goodwill for organizations.

PR deals with softer (but critical) aspects, which is why its value cannot always be completely measured in monetary terms – a bone of contention many practitioners have with financial-bottom-line-focused executives.

But without good relations with its publics, no organization can survive for very long. Therefore public relations is both essential and critical. It is not a nice-to-have that should be the first to come under the axe in the face of an economic depression.


Mislabeling aplenty

Different organizations use the label communication to signify different things.

Some use communication to describe only messaging to employees. Others equate it solely with media relations.

In such formats, communication management/PR largely follows the press agentry model, and, if a little more enlightened, the public information model. At the very best, it sometimes could rise to the one-way asymmetrical model, if the practitioner conducts audience research, which management uses to persuade employees or media to accept the senior executives’ worldviews. The approval of such research itself is dependent on the company’s performance and the senior executives’ perception of the value of communication management.

Such myopic labeling severely limits the scope and capabilities of communication, and the value that communication can offer to an organization.


The poor serf of marketing

Some believe public relations to be the publicity tool of its much more important and budget-rich big brother – marketing.

Such a view was reportedly held at one point by even the celebrated Dr. Philip Kotler of Northwestern University, as recorded during the 1989 colloquium organized by the PR firm of Nuffer, Smith & Tucker together with San Diego State University, to bring together top educators and professional communicators to clarify the similarities and differences between marketing and PR.

Kotler’s initial position was that PR (publicity) is one of several dissemination channels available to support marketing. By the end of the two-day colloquium, Kotler had expanded his definition of PR and communication management.


PR in the org chart

A consequence of the afore-mentioned view of PR as a limited marketing tool is its illogical placement in odd spots in the organizational structure.

Often, it is put under marketing, forcing a PR practitioner (who is qualified to and should handle several publics) to report to a department head who likely is only concerned about boosting sales figures. In major blunders, PR and marketing are placed under sales!

In other instances, PR comes under human resources (a term that we find distasteful, but more on that in another post) – a reflection of the view that communication is only meant for employees.

We have also seen PR put under the finance department. In this case, communication is only directed to investors, shareholders and financial reporting authorities.

Where PR features in the organizational structure has an impact on its effectiveness and functioning. An excellent PR or communication management department would report directly to the top decision-makers in the organization. It would not need to report to marketing or human resources, or rely on them to access the top decision-makers, although it would work very closely and harmoniously with these departments as also with legal counsel.


The Verafluenti aperçu

Based on our own experiences, we have come to view public relations as a strategic art and science; marketing as a revenue-generating business function focused on one public; sales and advertising as subsets of marketing; and communication itself as a universal phenomenon.

Communication can be thought of as a sender issuing a message to a recipient through a sieve of perception and noise.

It is involuntary. It happens whether one intends it or not.

A man sitting quietly on a park bench staring at the sky could be perceived differently by different people. To some, he may be meditating; to others he may be an astronomer; to others he may be a homeless destitute. All this, regardless of whether he says or does anything. 

We also find that communication is not limited to the human species. Animals communicate. So do plants and trees. Widening our horizon, does not everything in nature communicate? Dawn and dusk, the clouds, the skies, the wind, the seas, the mountains – all communicate. There is much to learn, as professionals and more importantly as human beings, from the subtle, unobtrusive yet ubiquitous lessons that nature offers gratis.

If communication will happen anyhow, does it not stand to reason that it should be managed strategically?

This then, is the true mandate and value of public relations for an organization.


This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

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3 thoughts on “PR, marketing, advertising: Making sense of the confusing mélange

  1. verafl5bg says:

    Thank you very much for reading the article and for your valuable comments. The humble hope is simply to get organizations thinking about these points and to make changes that may help them. As you rightly noted, these are of course murky waters, given the many definitions and perceptions of the disciplines mentioned, and the inevitable overlap. Thank you again 🙂

  2. Bravo Raaj! You have elegantly stated the difference between PR and Marketing and shown why communication is at the heart of what an organization is all about. Therefore, a good communication strategy is essential for its success. As you rightly noted, most organizations are communicating with their various publics anyway — but your point is well taken that such communication, if it must be in alignment with the vision of the company, needs to be strategically managed. This kind of a conscious, coordinated communications strategy is not typical of most companies (though Apple probably is the one I can think of that comes closest to putting out a highly coordinated message regardless of the forum and the audience it is reaching). Thank you for enlightening me and my best wishes for Verafluenti’s success.

    • verafl5bg says:

      Thank you very much for your kind feedback. Apple is certainly one brand that projects an integrated and coordinated message across all its efforts. The personality of Steve Jobs and his landmark presentation and communication style certainly did not hurt in brand-building. Also, thank you for your warm wishes for our business 🙂

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