Greg Brooks

The Spin Sucks Question: Where Does PR Belong?

By: Greg Brooks | January 25, 2019 | 
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difference between marketing and prYou know that whole thing about how you shouldn’t talk about religion or politics in polite company?

Well, it turns out there’s another third-rail conversation, at least among communicators: is PR part of marketing or not? Is there a difference between marketing and PR?

It’s the equivalent of 2015’s favorite meme, The Dress—a whole host of variables will color (see what I did there?) your answer and, at the end of the day, the safest response is probably some version of “it depends.”

But just like complex questions with nuanced answers throughout history, there’s no shortage of people willing to treat the discussion—and their position—like something close to a holy war.

And the stakes aren’t trivial. Across agency and in-house environments, where PR fits into the mix, there are real-world impacts on staffing, budget, and ability to deliver genuinely strategic results.

Your humble author (hi!) has asked this question informally, every few years for nearly 30 years.

And I can anecdotally report that I’ve never seen so many PR practitioners embrace their role as part of marketing.

Opinions abound, both within the Spin Sucks Community and a broader swath of communicators.

First Up: The Advocates

For some, PR is part of the bigger issue and the question isn’t particularly controversial.

Agency owner and former corporate CMO, Sonya Schweitzer, weighed in:

As a former (and recovering) corporate CMO with a team of 19 marketers, I see it this way. There is an overarching marketing strategy (typically to drive awareness, growth etc.), with multiple plans rolling up into the strategy.

PR, digital marketing, content, etc. all own parts of the plan that roll into the overarching strategy. So on my team, PR reported to me, the CMO. As I was accountable and responsible for the marketing strategy overall.

Lukas Treu of akhia communications agreed, pointing out that the market drives his agency’s positioning:

We position ourselves as a communications firm now at akhia. But because the lines between PR and marketing are so blurred, we realized we are providing solutions to communications problems across businesses, not really strictly marketing or PR solutions. We certainly have team members who specialize more in one side or the other (e.g., media relations specialists versus marketing communications project managers).

I think it’s easier to say we’re communications professionals and we’ll use the tools necessary to get the job done, rather than argue whether we’re employing PR, Marketing, or other tactics.

Make-a-Wish Director of Digital and Brand Communications, Jono Smith, relied on wisdom from one of the grand old thinkers of marketing, Philip Kotler, to make his case:

In my book, Kotler & the 4 P’s are still king:

“The neat and tidy divisions separating marketing and public relations are breaking down. It may be that the best way to solve a marketing problem would be through public relations activities. It also is possible that the best way to solve a public relations problem might be through the disciplined orientation that marketing provides. Both marketing and public relations people want more of a voice in corporate policy making. To the extent that marketers incorporate sound public relations in their thinking, this will obviate the need for an expanded corporate public relations department. To the extent that they fail to do this, public relations people are going to press for more influence over marketing decisions.”—Professor Philip Kotler, Journal of Marketing, Oct. 1978, “Marketing and Public Relations”

And Gordon Benzie had an awesome metaphor for how the two work together:

PR provides “air cover” to help accelerate and improve the effectiveness of the sales process. A prospect will be far more likely to respond to a sales inquiry if they just read about the company last week in a published article or news story.

(Author note: Yes, it’s a good metaphor. But it’s also here because I’ve always wanted to be a fighter pilot.)

Next Up: The Yeah-Buts

The second-biggest bucket of answers came from those who either agreed with a caveat or simply thought the question missed the point entirely.

Agency Leadership podcast host, Chip Griffin, characterized it as a near-pointless battle:

Religious fervor for either position is misguided. Silos suck no matter where they exist in a business. Good marketing requires good PR. It also requires good talent and good products/services. Organizations evolve differently and have different talent, so org charts tend to vary.

Should internal comms be part of PR or HR? Who cares? Either way PR and HR need to collaborate on it.

Should marketing report to the CRO, COO, CEO, or CCO? Or should there be a CMO that oversees PR, marketing, and more? Again, who cares? They all need to work together to achieve a common goal.

So stop fighting about who is part of what and instead find ways to communicate and collaborate better.

Mary Barber agreed:

It doesn’t matter. What matters is solving communications problems for our clients within whatever structure works for them. We need to focus on being smart and strategic, creating programs that are measurable.

Trust Insights Data Savant (no, really—that’s a thing!), Christopher S. Penn, says:

It depends on where the data goes. Where do PR metrics end up? If an organization has comms separately measured, then PR doesn’t belong to marketing. If an organization measures PR as part of overall marketing, then PR belongs in marketing. But, if an organization doesn’t measure PR… then PR doesn’t belong anywhere and you know that’s the first thing that gets cut when budgets/revenue go south.

And Shane Carpenter wrapped it all up in a bow:

Frankly I couldn’t care less about the “Is PR part of marketing?” debate. It’s irrelevant. I steal elements from both and call it marketing communication which I describe as the collision of public relations and marketing.

My main interest, to the points of Christopher S. Penn and Mary Barber, is to develop and execute a strategy that will help a client meet their goals and is measurable. If those two things aren’t met, I’m not interested. It’s a waste of their money and my time.

And Finally: The Detractors

Not everyone thought PR should be considered part of marketing.

Cameron Herold, author of a soon-to-be-published book on PR, was adamant:

PR is a sales function. PR people have to have tough skin, be able to cold call, build relationships, manage a sales funnel, handle rejection, and be able to close. What they are “selling” is story angles. PR professionals realize they are helping to solve a problem. And the problem is that journalists need good stories every day. Our job is to sell them on using our stores…

Agree or disagree with Cameron, it’s hard not to read his thoughts in Alec Baldwin’s voice from Glengarry Glen Ross. A-always B-be C-chasing media, people!

So what do you think—is PR part of marketing? Is there still a difference between marketing and PR? Does the distinction even matter any more?

You can answer here, in the free Spin Sucks Community, or on the socials (use #SpinSucksQuestion so we can find you).

About Greg Brooks


For nearly three decades, Greg Brooks has advanced complex ideas, policies and technical issues to the press, the public, elected officials and stakeholder groups. A former journalist, Brooks' work ranges from outreach explaining small-town recycling ordinances to media and legislative relations for landmark Supreme Court cases. His practice, West Third Group, is based in Las Vegas and he works throughout the U.S.