By: Sacha Kiesman
Sometimes organizations view public relations as superfluous – a function that a marketing department can fulfill on the side. This can result in public relations receiving less funding or missing out on a seat at the C-suite. This overlooking of public relations stems from encroachment. Encroachment is what public relations researchers have dubbed the phenomena of individuals or departments outside of public relations being put in charge of public relations or taking on public relations duties.
Good public relations is an executive function. Public relations can’t be an executive function when it’s part of a separate department. To prompt an organization to make decisions that lead to strong and strategic relationships with their publics, public relations needs to be its own function. It needs that seat at the C-suit, rather than a corner of the marketing department.
To understand encroachment and how to avoid it, it’s helpful to understand why it happens. Factors include the feminization of the field and domain similarity, specifically regarding views of relationship-building.
Feminization of the Field
When encroachment was first being studied in the late 80s, more and more women were entering the field. Unfortunately, since women are stereotyped as unfit for management roles, this led to female public relations practitioners being skipped over for promotions. In a majority female field, this led to the entire field being skipped over for promotions. Though the sexism has somewhat subsided, there is still a lingering lack of executive presence in public relations. This means marketing executives or human resource executives fill that gap. This is encroachment. These executives may have public relations in their job description, but they aren’t solely dedicated to it. They probably don’t wield it at an executive capacity as it’s meant to be practiced.
Public relations is similar to marketing, development, community relations, and human resources. These similarities lend themselves to encroachment. All these disciplines include communicating to external audiences by using a variety of channels. The core of public relations is external communication using a variety of channels. Despite the goals of each of these field’s communication efforts being different, public relations can be perceived as interchangeable with other disciplines. The introduction of social media did not help. Social media blurred the lines between earned, paid, and owned media. Traditionally, the realm of public relations is earned media and the realm of marketing is paid media. Social media made these realms less rigid, leading to the perception that public relations can be handled by different departments.
Marketing is the department that executives most often view as interchangeable with public relations. Similar developments in theory of practice has put the two functions in this position.
In 1984, Mary Ann Ferguson changed the course of PR when her scholarly work called for public relations theory to focus more on creating and maintaining meaningful relationships with stakeholders. A relational theory for public relations is now central to the practice. Good public relations professionals focus on two-way communication, putting an emphasis on listening to the concerns and needs of their publics. Instead of choosing a random charity to donate to, a public relations specialist should advise their organization to listen to employees and customers and choose a cause that overlaps with their passions.
Just short of a decade later, Frederick E. Webster’s scholarly work put forward a similar call to action. But for marketing. He advocated for strategic relationship building as a primary marketing activity. Marketers should be a middleman between vendors and customers, rather than just positioning the vendors for success from the top-down. Marketers should not only make sure vendors have the best shelf in a store but encourage customers to write in with comments about the brand. Thus, was born the relationship theory of marketing.
Public relations and marketing advancing to be relationship focused, led to the encroachment of marketing often replacing public relations. This is a mistake however, since marketing and public relations focus on relationships to fulfill separate strategic goals. Marketing focuses on relationships for sales and public relations focuses on relationships for reputation and sentiment.