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The public relations debate: two leaders in the profession discuss what PR is, how it works and where it's going.

Is PR a strategic consulting function focused on helping senior management communicate and relate more effectively with a variety of constituencies? Or is it primarily a marketing vehicle whose main goal is to promote a company's products and services and garner more sales?

In an online discussion that took place over several months last year, two leaders of the profession, Mark Weiner, senior vice president of the PR and communications intelligence firm Cision, and James E. Grunig, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, argued both sides of the issue.

Despite their sometimes conflicting views on theory and practice, the two share a common bond that is far stronger than their differences: a passion for the University of Maryland and their beloved Terrapins. The following has been excerpted from their online discussion.

Mark Weiner: I have no argument against public relations being more than a marketing tool, and I agree there are risks associated with such a limited--and limiting--view. But I believe the advances in measurement methods enabled by technology over the past 10 years make it impossible to ignore quantifiable returns on investment that validate PR and the value of its strategic and practical contributions to marketing.

James Grunig: Mark, you must be right. Like me, you love the Maryland Terrapins, which, in a causal chain, makes you right.

MW: I absolutely agree, Jim. You're off to a great start.

JG: However, I resist attempts to make public relations a marketing function or part of the marketing mix. Public relations is public relations; marketing is marketing. Both are critical organizational functions, and sublimation of one to the other reduces the contribution of each.

MW: I agree with you in theory, but there's the practical matter of how PR functions in reality. I would venture to guess that most PR activity--and thereby funding--is for the purpose of marketing, whether it's promoting a product, a service, the stock, the company as a good place to work, etc. I think a CEO would not view the question so much in terms of "sublimation," but in terms of doing what it takes to get the job done. PR people may have concerns about sublimation, PR theorists may have problems with it, but most PR people can't afford to push the argument, and most executives are more loyal to positive business results than they are to how one strictly defines PR, advertising or marketing. I think it's great that our profession has the benefit of theorists who can take positions such as yours so that practicing PR people can show their CEOs alternative points of view without having to draw a line in the sand.

JG: In his 1979 book on the history of public relations, Keeping the Corporate Image: Public Relations and Business, 1900-1950, Richard S. Tedlow said: "It is not as a sales device ... but as a method for protection against the political consequences of a hostile public opinion that corporate public relations has been most influential. If it had been restricted to sales promotion, public relations might have been absorbed by advertising departments and could have been dismissed as a footnote to business history. Instead, it grew into a tool for dealing with many publics, including residents of plant communities, employees, suppliers and dealers, and politicians as well as customers."

MW: While PR still offers great benefits in mitigating potential crises, new technology and methods are permitting marketers and marketing PR people to scientifically demonstrate that PR is even more powerful than advertising. The traditional view that advertising dominates marketing is under great scrutiny. Rather than PR disappearing, I see it augmenting the great things for which we're already recognized by showing how dominant we are in the field of marketing. I would suggest that everyone in PR learn more about marketing mix modeling because it is the future of marketing and everything that falls under that umbrella, including marketing public relations. Those who choose to include media relations-based marketing in the mix find that PR delivers a return that is better than any other marketing tool.

JG: You use marketing mix modeling to show the return from media relations as a specific communication program that supports the marketing function. I think we are setting public relations up for a minor role in the future if we argue that we "prove" the value of public relations by providing evidence--for example, that media placements increase sales by 5 percent. This increase may be cost-effective and the ROI might be 200 to 300 percent, according to data you have cited in the past. However, 5 percent still seems inconsequential to me in the larger scheme of things. Do we really want to argue that public relations is important because it adds 5 percent to sales?

MW: I would not dismiss the importance of media-based marketing public relations' ability to deliver 5 percent of sales when the returns are as much as 1,200 percent. We have also seen the power of PR to avoid crises and catastrophic costs that represent sums much greater. Why not seek to understand and represent the power of PR in both instances? To demonstrate that PR drives 5 percent of sales has huge implications for a brand, especially when that 5 percent comes at an extremely low cost. In my experience in dozens of industries ranging from cars to movie tickets, online retail to long-distance telecom, and from financial services to consumer products, marketing PR delivers the best ROI. Mass market TV advertising delivers US$1.10 on average for every dollar spent. Price promotions lose 25 cents for every dollar spent. PR delivers an average of US$5 for every dollar spent. What's more, after all this experience, we see no evidence indicating a point of diminishing return. While I'm sure that one exists, Cision has helped budgets to double and triple without reaching the saturation point.

We must recognize that things have changed greatly even in the past 10 years with new methods enabled by advanced technology. We now have access to real-time sales data, pricing information and more through supermarket scanner data, data warehousing and powerful computers that make data gathering and analysis an entirely different animal than even just five years ago.

JG: Both marketing support and the overall organizational public relations function are important areas for research and measurement. But the purpose of such research is different. I believe it is more important to show the value of public relations at the organizational level, which I believe can be found in the ROI of relationships and reputation.

MW: I couldn't agree more. But isn't one of the outcomes for an organization that enjoys good relationships and a good reputation a warmer marketing and sales environment? These are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually supportive, in my opinion. Interestingly, we in PR assume that PR is behind other forms of marketing in this quest for accountability and marketing ROI. In my experience, we are far ahead of the curve, maybe because we assume that we have the most to prove.

JG: Since 1979, evidence continues to suggest that public relations cannot live up to its potential as a strategic management function if its primary role is to support marketing. The first evidence comes from the Excellence Study that I directed for IABC, using data collected in the late 1980s [see page 39]. We found that when marketing communication dominates how senior managers think about public relations, excellence in public relations declines. Since the completion of the Excellence Study, the Strategic Communication Center at the University of Southern California has conducted four GAP [Generally Accepted Practices] studies, which consistently have mirrored those of the Excellence Study. The GAP IV study, using 2005 data, found that "increasingly the PR function reported directly to the 'C-suite' at 64 percent with 25 percent reporting to marketing."

Those reporting to the C-suite reported a higher level of support and serious consideration within the organization because they were included in organizational strategic planning and senior-level meetings. Companies whose PR function reported to the C-suite also were more likely to use evaluation metrics that included crisis avoidance/mitigation and influence on corporate culture, corporate reputation and employee attitudes, as well as stakeholder awareness and opinions. Companies that reported to marketing were more likely to use a combination of evaluation metrics that included contribution to sales, total number and circulation of clips, and the number of clips in top-tier media. Companies reporting to the C-suite were far more strategic and organizational in nature, while those reporting to marketing were far more publicity- and sales-oriented.

MW: One of the interesting applications of statistical modeling is that it can be used on a forecasting basis that looks at more than sales. The models incorporate a variety of data sets--not just advertising and marketing data, but also external data such as stock price, reputation perceptions, employee satisfaction data and merger/ acquisition data. They enable us to ask the kinds of questions you are talking about: What happens if we drop a brand? What happens if we lay off workers? What happens if the media's or the analysts' coverage of this news is negative? The models can predict what can happen to sales, but I've also seen them predict what might happen to the labor force (will people quit? will productivity decline?), or to a company's reputation (with a whole range of unique implications), or to the stock market's valuation of its shares.

JG: This is why I believe we need to take a comprehensive view of public relations and find more and better ways to measure the impact on all our publics. We must be careful not to attach ourselves to one type of research. We should do research to determine the best way to manage public relations, not to "prove" that our specialized activity has value. Many people in public relations fear research because they are worried that evaluation will show their specialized activity is not working. The solution to this fear is to be willing to do something that does work when research shows our pet activity is not working.

MW: I believe that the purpose of PR is to generate measurable and positive outcomes rather than to demonstrate value--if you achieve the first, you will accomplish the second. But that isn't always practical for most, even if they agree with me. So people choose not to measure at all. I advocate even simple measures because I'd rather be approximately right than be totally in the dark. I'd rather scientifically affirm the performance of my program in the language of business as opposed to meeting deliberately vague objectives like "generate buzz," and I'd rather know that I am truly professional in my work because I am eager to experience the highs as well as the lows. That's how programs--and people--improve over time. I believe one of our greatest missions is to make both research and evaluation data accessible and acceptable to more professionals. One feeds the other, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

about the participants

James E. Grunig, Ph.D., is the co-author of Managing Public Relations and Manager's Guide to Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management. He has won the Pathfinder Award for excellence in public relations research from the U.S. Institute for Public Relations, the Outstanding Educator Award from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and the Jackson, Jackson and Wagner Award for behavioral science research from the PRSA Foundation.

Mark Weiner is the senior vice president overseeing Cision's communication research and analysis practice. Formerly known as Delahaye, his business unit provides research-based consulting in the areas of public relations, communication and marketing. Weiner's book, Unleashing the Power of PR: A Contrarian's Guide to Marketing and Communication, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2006. He is a member of IABC, PRSA and the Institute for Public Relations.
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Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 2007
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