The Social Media Turf Wars: Are Marketing and PR on a Collision Course?

Marketing Versus Public RelationsI have been presenting for the last couple of years about The Future of Marketing and PR for a number of different audiences. It’s a topic that fascinates me no end because it is deeply related to the topic of social media and its impact on industry and organization in general.

In my presentation, I use a slide adapted from iPressroom’s “Digital Readiness Report” survey in 2009 that shows which “Departments” (really, I think the PR side of this is often outsourced) handle which elements of the business. It’s a bit surprising. More than a bit, actually.

According to Diagram 6 on p. 8 of that report (have a look, it’s definitely worth reading), it turns out that PR is way ahead of marketing in terms of who “manages” working with bloggers, podcasting and RSS feed. It’s way ahead in managing microblogging (i.e., Twitter), social networking sites, and social search. Marketing and PR are pretty much neck-and-neck in managing SEO and the management of “web content” (that’s a pretty major category). The only category where marketing is completely, definitively in the lead, is…guess.

email marketing: is that all marketers can do right?Yep. It’s email marketing. Whoah. There’s a real red-hot category for the future for you corporate marketers. Leave social media to the PR firms. You get to be the spambots. Happiness and high fives all around.

If we believe that these results are generalizable and representative and applicable to the present day (three big ifs, I will grant you that), then I’d say Marketing as a field is in big trouble. It’s being seriously threatened and undermined in the rapidly emerging and incredibly important areas of social media by Public Relations.

So it was with some interest that responded to a recent request from Paolo Debellini who is an avid reader of this blog. Paolo is an Italian Master’s student in Public Relations from the Dublin Institute of Technology who has a prior degree in Marketing. His dissertation research looks at consumer public relations and how it is evolving since the wake of WOM marketing. He is looking at how WOM Marketing impacts the practice of consumer public relations.

The basic idea, which I have explored many times, is that the approach of marketing is switching from a primarily persuasive unidirectional broadcast mode to a more multidimensional, multimodal form that also incorporates conversation. So WOM marketing essentially oversteps into PR terrain. The big question in that case becomes one of understanding how the communications landscape is changing and what kind of challenges different communications practitioners will be facing.

Of course, there’s a whole reptilian territoriality to the exercise. If I’m hunting here, and you start hunting here, even though maybe you aren’t quite eating my lunch, not yet, are you threatening my food supply?

“Marketers,” say the PR peeps, “Stay away from PR kinds of activities. Stick to what you know: advertising and sales. Broadcasty kinds of stuff. Leave the subtle influencing and the conversationalizing to the professionals.”

“Are you kidding?” say the Marketing mafia, “You guys are the ones who are out of your element. Don’t start a conversation you can’t finish. The social media revolution simply underscores the fact that marketing is evolving into something much bigger than any single set of conversations. This is exactly what marketing needs to do, and the tactically minded PR people have no business interfering in anything that is so central to general management and strategy.”

Let the games begin. As always, I’d love to hear what you think.

If you’re interested, here’s an edited version of my interview with Paolo.

Paolo Debellini: According to your experience, what is the difference between “Online PR” and “Social Media Marketing”? Do you think the roles of Consumer PR and Marketing are overlapping each other nowadays?

Rob Kozinets: Yes, they overlap. But PR is still about managing and manipulating communications—its communications focused. Marketing is much broader. It’s about the entire interface of company with consumer group, including innovation, new products, channels, and everything else. Marketing is developing into an aspect of general management, or general management is recognizing the centrality, as Peter Drucker had it, of marketing mission and innovation to the successful enterprise. In my view, marketing overrides PR. PR should probably never have separated from marketing. It’s the same game. And PR will always be subservient to marketing because marketing is strategic and linked to general management. Sorry PR, but right now that’s the way I see it.

PD: How do you think the commercial-communal tensions mentioned in your article (2010) are going to shape the communication landscape?

Public RelationsRK: The March 2010 Journal of Marketing article is pretty explicit (and it’s worth unpacking and sharing on the blog, for sure). We are moving to a world of networked communications, where the voice of the marketer is just one voice among many. It is not “management” anymore, in the sense of controlling or even directing, but a type of spontaneous, dynamic, evolving relationship. It’s a set of constant adjustments and compromises, a slow merging and emergence from an old system into a new one.

PD: How do you perceive the relationship between WOMM and traditional marketing and what kind of challenges are communications professionals going to face in the future?

RK: Traditional and WOMM media feed on each other in complex ways. Each channel, each medium, has it particular sets of messages and forms. Social media feeds off of the legitimacy and power of consensual traditional media. Traditional media feeds off of the authenticity, freshness, and groundedness of social media. They are one ecosystem, but its an ecosystem that, sort of like many of the worlds ecosystems, is constantly reeling as resource supplies and territorial hunting grounds change. It’s a great avenue to investigate and theorize further. New and open-minded scholars—take note.

PD: From my research it emerged that the role of marketing has been switching from “persuasion” to “conversation”, and therefore from a “one-way asymmetrical”  to “ two-way symmetrical” communication. In other words, the role of marketing is now somehow tracing the role of public relations. Would you agree with that statement? Is this evolution going to revolutionize the communications landscape in the near future?

RK: But the marketing conversations are still persuasive! Marketers have only taken tiny little steps towards where they need to be going. They recognize the need to have relationships, but they don’t know how. How do I have a conversation with you that doesn’t involve me telling you my needs and trying to manipulate you into doing what I want to do. Marketers have been conversational pick up artists for sixty years, and now we expect them to stop being players, settle down, and have honest heartfelt conversations. Good luck with that transition, because it’s not going to come easy. And PP. PR is just as persuasive, but it’s a lot subtler. That’s its edge, its advantage. The problem is that PR has spent a lot of time learning how to convince people that increasingly less people listen to, like newspaper reporters. They have to learn a new game, too.  Neither one really recognizes the power of Consumer Tribes (see the intro chapter to the book for many more details on this relationship). Not yet. But some do, and they will soon.

PD: How should Marketing and PR roles and competencies be inserted in this particular context?

RK: Yow. That’s a big fat hairy question. It all depends on the particular contexts (see JM article from some ideas about some details to examine).

Conversational ConsumersPD: What kind of challenge will Online PR, and WOM Marketing agencies be facing over the next couple of years?

RK: Vast ones. The growth and corresponding legitimacy of alternative, social media based forms of marketing will bring major integration challenges with traditional channels. How to manage the complexity of the overall marketing environment, the mediascape, the retailscape. How to be accountable to the various constituents involved. What metrics to use to measure success—click throughs and other short-term measures are just silly if we’re talking about brand-building. Ethical issues around how to do this stuff. The FTC was starting with the most obvious breaches, but there are plenty of subtle manipulations going on all the time. It’s a brand new game in many ways.

PD: Consumers are becoming more and more sophisticated; How do you think they will perceive, in the near future, this sort of “latent persuasion” generated by WOMM campaigns?

RK: They are already skeptical. It is going to require a lot more than a Facebook fan page to convince people that you “get” social media. The idea of incorporating consumers into corporate decisions, giving away more and more decision power, is growing and seductive. How can that power balance re-equilibrate? It will take decades to work this through. It’s not a question of chance this tactic and make more sales. This is a fundamental shift that will recalibrate the whole economy and ramify for decades.

PD: Last question (not strictly correlated with my research topic, just feel free to answer):In Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” the decline was associated with the elevation of the private domain over the public domain, and therefore the focus on personal happiness was correlated with the decline of a nation or civilization. In addition the research company Mintel (2009) has highlighted the fact that the current economic climate has provoked a context whereby people tend to spend more time with their friends/family and less time pursuing consumerism; do you see any correlation with the current social media trend? How do you think social media are going to evolve?

RK: It’s a fascinating question. But in many ways I see social media as an element of this general reversal of our decline of community or “civilization”. In my upcoming chapter on social media for social change for the Transformative Consumer Research volume, we see how social media allow communities to take on social issues, to gather and create new public spaces. If you look at all of my work, from e-Tribalized (written in 1998) marketing forward, you will see this theme repeated—we are seeing a renaissance of a new public space and public consciousness building online, beginning from the consumer sphere but inexorably spreading outwards. This is an awakening of a mass mind. It’s often, like many mobs and crowds, a very stupid mind. But it also has moments of shining potential, shining brilliance. I’d love to see marketers and PR people stop and recognize that what is emerging with this world of interconnected consumers is potentially something very special, not just a resource to be tapped, but a fundamentally new way that culture and community are opening to us and beckoning us to grow.

Thanks to Paolo for initiating this conversation, and for kindly permitting me to share it on the blog. And thanks to the people at leading PR firm Environics, especially Bruce MacLellan who invited me in, new age PR firm Environics Sequentia and its guru Jen Evans, Matchstick & Patrick Thoburn,  & friend and colleague Chris Irwin, all of you for the long-standing and fascinating conversations around these very important topics.


  1. tommyismyname July 19, 2010
  2. Henri Weijo July 22, 2010

Add Comment