PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Public relations and marketing:
The boundaries blurred and the functions blended
©1998 Michael Turney Table of contents PR class home page About the author

The once clear dividing lines between public relations and marketing increasingly blurred as both disciplines expanded their scope and range of activities and adopted communication techniques that previously had been considered the personal preserve of the other discipline.

Since the 1970s lots of attention has been given to finding the most appropriate relationship between public relations and marketing, but neither the ideas generated nor the outcomes have been consistent. Some organizations restructured and made public relations accountable to marketing, while an almost equal number restructured and made marketing report to public relations. Other large corporations restructured and made the two units more equal in the organizational hierarchy, sometimes with creative new names. And still other organizations, General Motors among them, tried all three approaches to varying degrees at different times.

As a result, the lines of demarcation between marketing and public relations have blurred or, in some people's eyes, disappeared completely. There's been a lot of melding of functions and melting of boundaries, not only between marketing and public relations, but between other specialized areas of communication as well.

Theory and analytic observations encouraged realignment.

One of the biggest pushes for melding public relations and marketing, at least in the eyes of academicians, was the proliferation of articles in both academic journals and communication trade magazines that pointed out the similarities, overlaps, or even interchangeability of what were once viewed as narrowly-defined and highly specialized aspects of communication.

Thomas Harris, former partner in a major consulting firm and now a university professor and prolific author and conference presenter, has been one of the strongest advocates of "marketing public relations." His widely-read 1991 book, The Marketer's Guide to Public Relations, and similarly oriented articles have helped define and shape the increasingly popular concept of "integrated marketing communication" which is discussed more fully in another linked reading.

Then came a realization that public relations can benefit from advertising.

Advertising which had previously been used almost exclusively by marketers trying to sell specific products began to show promise for broader, less sales-oriented messages. Some of the first were so-called image ads that tried to polish or "sell" the reputation of ad's sponsor.

Then, despite initial skepticism and, in some instances, strong opposition from traditional journalists and the media companies themselves, public relations people such as Herb Schmerz, former vice president of public affairs for Mobil Oil, began experimenting and having great success using "issues advertising" to get their views to an otherwise unaware public. It was a strategy that had previously been used by social and political activists, including the civil rights organizers of the 1960s, to garner support for their causes. It had also been occasionally used for corporate comment on pending public referenda or elections, but it had never been used, or at least not consistently nor successfully used, by corporate public relations practitioners to achieve the business goals of their organizations.

By purchasing full-page newspaper ads and using the space to run thoughtful explanations of pricing, tax impacts, and other oil company concerns instead of product ads, Mobil was able to present its perspective to the American public at a time when the predominant popular sentiment was anti-Big-Oil.

Considered an aberration in the early 1970s, these efforts were mocked as "adver-torials," a coined term for paid advertisements which tried to present editorial-like opinions. And, at the time, unlike today, that term carried an almost universally negative connotation. Today, the term "advertorial" is much more neutral than it used to be, but the practice is still most often called issues advertising, a term and a tactic that is fully accepted and respected by the media, the general public, and the public relations profession. It's become a mainstay of many corporate public relations programs.

The counter-realization was that media publicity can assist marketing.

News releases and press conferences which had previously been considered public relations tools began to find favor with marketers in the 1980s. After a couple of high profile success stories they quickly realized how cost-effective publicity and media relations could be during the introduction of new products.

Coleco, in particular, had stunning success with its Cabbage Patch Dolls. They became a national phenomenon using very little advertising but lots of press conferences, special events, television talk show appearances, and a steady stream of news releases and media interviews.

A few years later, Selchow & Righter followed a similar blueprint and used public relations rather than advertising to turn Trivial Pursuit into a national passion that sold more than 22 million games in its first year of production. Twenty years later, Trivial Pursuit is more than a best selling game; it's been expanded into a whole family of special edition board games, computer games, and other related subsidiary merchandise.

The most painful realignment sprang from corporate downsizing and restructuring.

As the business climate of the 1980s led many organizations to radically down-size and streamline their operations in their quest for profit, many of them began to ask themselves, "Why should we pay salaries to both a public relations department and a marketing department, when so many of the things they do are the same or at least seem to overlap? The obvious answer was, "We shouldn't." The next logical step was to merge the two units and reduce the total number of employees. In many corporations, both large and small, that's exactly what happened.

Cincinnati Bell Telephone, for instance, had employed more than 40 full-time communicators in the mid-1980s. Most were specialists in a particular type of communication. Some had their positions defined by the audiences they served -- e.g., employee communication, shareholder relations, customer service, local government relations, etc. -- while others had job titles related to the communication techniques they most often used -- e.g., speech writer, publication editor, photographer, corporate video producer, etc. Depending on their primary audience and the tools they used, they were scattered among a number of different operational units within the corporation. These departments included public relations, community relations, employee communication, and creative services.

Then, deregulation was imposed on the entire telephone industry. It quickly affected every phone company in the country from the giant AT&T to the smallest local exchange. They were pulled out of the comfortable security of being totally protected monopolies with guaranteed revenue streams and thrown into a new and much more competitive environment. Almost simultaneously, Cincinnati Bell and every other company in the world began to experience the first significant impacts of the personal computer revolution, and the Internet began to become a factor in business life. In combination, these developments forced a major reorganization on Cincinnati Bell.

Today, Cincinnati Bell has only a half-dozen full-time communicators on staff and, instead of being specialists, they're primarily generalists who deal with all kinds of audiences and a wide range of techniques. What they don't have the training or the experience to do themselves, or what they're too busy to do, they simply contract out as special projects to communication agencies, production houses, and individual freelancers. (Ironically, many of the former were once full-time Cincinnati Bell employees.)

Table of contents Further reading on
Advertising and publicity
Further reading on
Integrated Marketing Communication
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22 Sept 2001