PR and marketing: two sides of a coin

This is an article by Nathaniel Southworth-Barlow.
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A question I have seen on several PR blogs is whether it’s worthwhile studying marketing.

Marketing: merits its own road sign (see below for credit)

It’s a question I considered in 2006 when I was researching PR courses and came across an article on the internship experiences of Bournemouth University PR students – 70% of which, the article said, were marketing related.

Job listings and the ratio of marketing to ‘publicity studies’ students at university (it’s about eight to one) gave the figure credibility although I cannot vouch for its accuracy. However, it made me think.

I set myself a personal goal: to study the language of marketing to complement my PR studies. After further research, I subsequently enrolled first on the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Professional Certificate in Marketing and, a year later, enrolled again on their (degree level) Professional Diploma in Marketing.

Was it worthwhile? Is there a value in PR students studying marketing? I believe the answer is yes.

A study of marketing is, in part, a study of why organisations exist: namely to sell products or services. If you read one of Seth Godin’s books – and they’re easy to read – you should get the idea.

Differences and distinctions

Before I go further, though, let me be clear: marketing is not PR – nor is PR a part of marketing.

There are aspects of marketing that have no obvious equivalent within PR. Some aspects have parallels but may be more pronounced within one discipline or the other – Marketing Research and Information for example (think of MORI) is arguably more established within Marketing. There are also areas of confusion – the obvious being between ‘PR’ and ‘Marketing Communication’.  I’ll focus for a moment on how Marketing Communication interacts with PR in my experience:

At its core ‘marcoms’ involves the development and implementation of a communications mix in which ‘public relations’ may be one aspect – alongside the likes of sales promotions, advertising, personal selling and direct marketing. Marcoms is not – therefore – just about PR.

Similarly the reference to PR is very narrow – the marketer almost always means social media management and brand recognition. The reality is that one aspect of marcoms may overlap with one aspect of PR – although if you are part of a small team tasked with doing both this, subtlety will probably be lost.

PR is recognised within the CIM as operating at different levels. At a tactical level it’s about the ability to write a competent press release (to ‘sell’ a story or product) – which is when PR is most often considered to be ‘just a part of marketing’. At a corporate level, PR operates in areas such as crisis communication and corporate social responsibility.

The latter being an area that Sir Paul Judge, CIM president, spoke about at my graduation; marketers he said – and by extension companies – ignore CSR at their peril. The opportunity is there for PR to stake its claim.

So what can PR students expect from a marketing qualification? Over and above the conceptual understanding of what constitutes marketing – and the fundamentals of product, place, promotion and price – a number of topics will be covered. More extensive details can be found on the CIM website but to highlight some key areas:

  • Qualitative and quantitative research including questionnaire design (in detail), focus groups, face to face interviewing and demographics;
  • Buyer behaviour, brands and influence models;
  • Marketing agencies – how to prepare a brief for agencies and how best to manage them;
  • Permission marketing, stakeholder management, relationship management;
  • Budgeting;
  • Segmentation, targeting and positioning;
  • Market planning and the product life cycle;
  • Macro and micro environmental factors;
  • Market fragmentation and communication channels.

Some of these topics – typically those covered at the marketing certificate level – reinforce what may be covered by a PR course; others are unlikely to be covered.

Studying marketing, as with any study, involves commitment – about 160 hours worth of contact time for the certificate and the same again for the diploma in addition to the private study you will undertake. And my advice would be to plan on doing both if you really want to comprehend what marketing is.

What about social marketing?

If you haven’t got the time ask yourself whether public sector organisations like the health service or law enforcement agencies sell messages – ‘sneezes spread diseases’, ‘justice seen, justice done’.  Then ask yourself the question:

How do charities sell ideas? Do charities even sell ideas?

It’s a question first raised by G. D. Wiebe in 1952 when he asked: “Why can’t you sell brotherhood like you sell soap?” The issue was developed by Kotler and Zaltman in 1971 and today the University of Stirling and the Open University collaborate on the topic that today is known as social marketing. The OU published an excellent book called simply Social Marketing in 2008.

Studying marketing invites a different way of thinking – it invites you to focus on the goals behind your messages. My experiences within industry point toward PR and marketing being different methods of accomplishing different goals but with the same big picture in mind. They’re allies and not dissimilar – which unfortunately invites people to group them together. So, despite their differences, PR and marketing are often inseparable. Which is why I believe understanding both sides of the coin is valuable for PR practitioners.

Photo from Dr Stephen Dann‘s photostream on Flickr (Creative Commons)


  1. Great article.

    I too chose to study Marketing and PR – I favour PR over marketing, as I can be more creative and find more interest in my work.

    However, the marketing really does help give a bigger understanding of the goals.

    Like you say:

    “ invites you to focus on the goals behind your messages.”

  2. Thank you for the comment David,

    Like you my bias is towards communications but the marketing is useful.

    Lots of areas resonated the social marketing research I did in particular (lots of communication theory involved). Indeed the biggest overlap between PR and Marketing may well be Social Marketing.

  3. Very interesting article, I agree with your comment:

    “….marketing is not PR – nor is PR a part of marketing.”

    I see the two as quite distinct; I enjoy describing myself as a PR practitioner, and appreciate the subtleties and nuance of PR work, which I think straightforward marketing, whilst inherently valuable, sometimes misses.

    Sadly not everyone agrees with this view; I attended a copy writing seminar at a local Chamber of Commerce event, where a very nice gentleman, from a very well established local PR agency desrcibed public relations as “…a subset of marketing.”

    He then went on to describe his agency and his function as pure PR, and this from a PR agency!


  4. Thank you Michelle,

    I can understand how – if someone works purely on marketing campaigns – they could come to see PR as a ‘subset of marketing’. If this was the case however PR should never have gained Chartered status.

  5. Oteng Majuta (Inck! PR) says:

    Interesting article. Oddly though, I only studied PR as one of the courses we had to take as I studied for my Marketing Degree. Through working for an NGO (Advocacy work – which is more Public Affairs) and then on to a PR Agency, I have learnt more PR on the job and I enjoy it a whole lot more than the marketing I learnt at school. I have a good appreciation of Marketing and I think that also contributes to me being able to do a good job with planning PR campaigns.

    The two – PR and Marketing compliment each other and I completely agree with you view that “….marketing is not PR – nor is PR a part of marketing.”

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