The digital age has profoundly affected the media and, consequently, marketing and public relations. Today there really is no distinction between marketing and PR.
Some have questioned whether PR has veered into the space of advertising by relying on social media, websites and online newsrooms and bypassing old-fashioned story pitching to gain earned media coverage.
PR professionals, including the new breed of marketing PR professionals, still pitch stories to reporters and editors, but they don’t stop there. Sometimes they don't start there.
Self-publishing is now a more realistic possibility. You can post blogs, create your own news package on a website and combine fresh content, archival materials and other assets on online newsrooms. These are places that reporters and editors now stalk for story ideas.
Public relations never was just about press releases. PR professionals used a much more diverse grab bag of ideas, including events, contests, white papers and speeches to reach target audiences with key messages. That hasn't changed. Except now there are even more tools and channels to reach target audiences.
What has changed is a shift from pushing messages to attracting audiences through engagement strategies. Most people get an eyeful of messaging on billboards, buses and banner ads. Many consumers want a deeper relationship with a brand to understand its values and its value proposition. It doesn't matter whether the relationship is with a shoe company or the Catholic Church, people are hungry for something or somebody to trust.
So marketing and PR today are largely about building relationships and trust, which is why they seem to have merged. In fact, in large part, they have merged. The skills to sell a product are roughly the same as those to sell an idea or a story.
You won't make the sale without credibility — and increasingly, transparency. Pampers found itself in a firestorm recently when it put a new diaper design in old packaging without letting buyers know. Howls went up, especially in social media circles, that the new product was a downgrade to save money for Proctor & Gamble. Some charged the new diapers contained chemicals that caused a rash and even burns on babies who wore them. It was the case of a questionable marketing decision (using up old packaging) that turned into a PR disaster.
Pampers didn't have a marketing problem or a PR problem; it had a marketing PR problem.
Once upon a time, when there were fewer media outlets and most American families settled around their televisions to eat dinner and watch the nightly news, advertising was king. But the digital explosion changed all that, leading to a proliferating number of channels and increasing audience segmentation. Now there even is balkanization of digital platforms with the rise of mobile electronic devices.
In this new world, you cannot afford to have marketing at one end of the hall and PR at the other end. The challenge isn't to see who can produce the best ad or press release. The challenge is to reach your audience and engage them, and that takes every tool in your toolbox. You need solid research to pinpoint your audience and you need engaging content to attract and retain them.
If getting a story placed in the Wall Street Journal delivers face time with your target audience, then it is the right strategy. If creating buzz in a mix of online social media sites taps into your audience, then it is the right strategy. Paid media, in the form of a TV spot or an informational placement ad in a newspaper or magazine, may be the best — or only — way to get across your side of a controversial story.
For the marketing PR professional, the tool isn't what matters. What matters is a successful outcome.