Having run the communications offices at four universities and one college over the past three decades, I’ve watched the focus of such offices evolve from news/information to public relations and then to marketing communication. The first change has always made sense to me, but I have reservations about the second.
Once considered distinct but related disciplines, public relations today has been largely subsumed by marketing in higher ed as well as in business. And corporate style branding has replaced genuine reputation building as the top communications priority at many institutions.
Many people, including some communications professionals, take public relations and marketing communications to mean the same thing. But the underlying philosophies, goals and communication strategies of the two disciplines are fundamentally different, and orientation and training of practitioners of each discipline also tend to differ.
Public Relations vs. Marketing
At its core, public relations is about reputation building, which is not the same as branding. It seeks to create awareness, goodwill and a climate of opinion that will translate into support for an organization down the road. It achieves these goals by communicating regularly to key constituencies, increasing visibility through publicity, telling stories that illustrate the value of institutions, establishing lasting relationships, and responding quickly and truthfully when problems arise.
Marketing is what takes place down the road. Its goal is more immediate, targeted, and measurable: motivating consumers to act in a way that benefits an organization, whether this means buying a car, joining a club, or selecting a restaurant. In higher education, it means generating applications for admission and motivating alumni and friends to give.
Public relations is about establishing and maintaining relationships. Marketing is about promoting brands and generating transactions. The former builds reputations from the ground up and takes a long and expansive view. The latter works backwards from the desired transaction and seeks immediate gratification.
Reputation vs. Brand
A reputation is what people think of an organization, how it is actually perceived. A brand is what an organization thinks of itself, how it wants to be perceived. A reputation is earned over a substantial period of time. A brand is created and asserted; it does not have to be earned. I am not opposed to branding. When it’s done right, it complements and builds on an organization’s reputation. But when it’s done wrong, it creates dissonance and falls short.
Organizations that establish their communications priorities and programs entirely from a marketing perspective (which seems to be the case at many institutions), run the risk of ignoring or alienating important constituencies and substituting short-term gain for long-term development. It may also diminish the institution’s capacity to work effectively with the news media and to detect, defuse and respond to crisis situations.
Institutions that do not factor public relations considerations into their communications programs too often look for quick solutions to fundamental image problems. They try to fix broken reputations by adopting snappy new taglines, wishful messages and pretty logos instead of addressing underlying issues and changing behavior.
Reputation is Essential in Higher Ed and Nonprofit Sector
For-profit companies can often get away with taking shortcuts and substituting branding for reputation building, but colleges, universities and other nonprofits cannot. Companies sell products. Their success is measured in dollars and cents. People generally buy a product based on its perceived quality and cost, and not on the reputation of the company that makes the product, as the experience of Toyota illustrated a couple of years ago, when it was widely reported that some models had dangerous uncontrollable acceleration problems. The company’s response to the crisis was slow and tepid. Even so, Toyota boosted sales several months later reducing prices and increasing advertising.
Educational and nonprofit institutions are fundamentally different. Their success is measured by the impact they have on individuals, communities and society at large. Consumers choose a college to attend or a charity to support based on its reputation. While having a good reputation is desirable in the corporate world, it is essential for colleges, universities and nonprofit institutions, which are held to higher standards.
I am not suggesting that higher educational and nonprofit organizations rely exclusively on public relations. They couldn’t exist without marketing. But I am suggesting that they need genuine public relations as well as marketing to establish and sustain the kinds of relationships that will assure their futures.