In college, you always ask new friends what their major is. It’s a good conversation starter, and since you’re both in college it’s a good icebreaker. Just naming your major however does not mean that the other person will know where you are coming from.
The most common thing I hear after telling people that I am majoring in Public Relations and Strategic Communication is, “Cool… so what does that mean?” It is a legitimate question for someone looking from an outside perspective. I typically answer with something to the effect of, “we attempt to manage the image of the organization we’re working for.”
I always try to mention the word “image” for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s an easy word, and it communicates what I want to say to an outsider much better than words like “reputation handling,” or “brand management.” Secondly, I want to make sure that the person I am talking to understands that what I work in is not sales, but relationships.
There is a bit of confusion I’ve noticed when people think of Public Relations, particularly among people who are not familiar with the field itself and occasionally in young students who are starting to consider Public Relations. That confusion is the distinction between Public Relations and Marketing. This difference is something that I still did not quite realize as I was starting my own Public Relations classes, but I have since come to respect the contrast between the two fields and how they complement each other.
First, in the realm of Marketing, your goal is quite simply defined by the sale. That isn’t to say that sales numbers are your sole motivator, but raising those numbers is the reason your job exists, so that is what you work towards. What Marketing professionals are intended to do is push activities that drive direct revenue to their organization or client. They analyze the numbers and demographics and determine what is necessary to make them buy.
Public Relations on the other hand, has a different goal than Marketing. Where Marketing places its primary focus on making the sale, Public Relations focuses more on building and maintaining a relationship. The primary goal of Public Relations professionals is to use a variety of strategies to drive a positive reputation to the organization’s audiences. In short, where Marketing gets the customers to buy, Public Relations makes sure that the customer wants to come back again, and maybe even tell their friends.
These two objectives are different, but they are also complementary to each other to an extent. It logically follows that if the PR department is doing their job well, then the Marketing department will have a much easier time with their job. Meanwhile, if Marketing’s role is progressing well, each part of the organization, including PR, will have more resources to work with. Marketing is the business side of things, while PR is the people side.
These two sides are not mutually exclusive to their respective fields however. Beyond simply complementing each other, the skill sets and perspectives of Public Relations professionals and Marketing professionals can both be useful in the alternate field. For one, a Public Relations professional must understand that their client needs to make sales to keep on its feet, so working from an angle which tries to build relationships without adversely hurting sales helps the client immensely, and makes their PR that much more effective. Meanwhile, Marketing professionals often must consider the messages they want to communicate from a Public Relations perspective before they send them out to the public. Marketing professionals are able to create a sustainable sales model when they are willing to consider how their Marketing strategy will affect the brand of their organization.
While this small primer doesn’t necessarily dive into the deeper nuances of the differences between public relations and marketing, it should still help those who are having trouble distinguishing between the two to tell the difference.
By Steven Case, Junior Account Executive, Communication Department