Social Marketing and Public Relations: So Different?

In our earlier days of refining our ‘elevator pitch’, we were asked ‘why PR and Social Marketing – surely they’re completely different disciplines?’  Well – here goes:

Anybody who’s scratched the surface or public relations theory will have come across James E. Grunig.  Grunig is widely regarded as the father of modern PR theory, having distilled the past century’s development of public relations down into four models: The Press Agentry/Publicist model – think Max Clifford, think big public stunts, think the 1920s ‘Torches of Freedom‘ campaign; the Public Information model – think of a one-way flow of information, think the ‘Dangers of Smoking‘ campaign from the 1960s; Asymmetrical Communication is arguably the most practiced style of PR by modern agencies/functions today – employing some degree of feedback but generally avoiding using primary research to plan campaigns.

It’s the fourth model – Symmetrical Communication - that we’re particularly interested in for the purposes of this blog.  Grunig championed this approach in Grunig and Todd Hunt’s seminal 1984 Managing Public Relations.  This method of communication features dialogic communication – conversations - in which organisations and the wider public co-create solutions for a mutual gain.  Primary research is an integral factor of symmetrical communication; an open and adaptive approach in which strategy can be quickly adapted to suit consumer needs.  This is public relations in its most ‘mature’ form – plenty of well respected academics (L’Etang, Pieczka, others), have criticised symmetry as being too idealistic, and failing to address real world factors such as time/budget limitations, obvious power imbalances and the reluctance of the ‘dominant elite’ to embrace a more open approach to strategic decisions.  Criticism aside – symmetrical communication is used effectively (especially with the advent of Web 2.0) and represents a step towards a more open, reactive and adaptive style of communication.

So what does this have to do with social marketing?  Well there’s clearly a crossover here – symmetrical communication? Working with the target audience to co-create solutions? Both disciplines draw upon behavioural psychology, the social sciences, marketing and communication theory.  Is there more of a common ground then PR and Social Marketing practitioners realize? McKie and Toledano’s 2008 article ‘Dangerous liaison or perfect match? Public relations and social marketing’ makes the case that there is.

Public Relations Functions

In order to visualize this we need to stop imagining public relations as simply a private sector enterprise serving the interests of corporate clients.  PR exists in myriad guises – council comms, NHS comms, charity and third sector comms, healthcare communicators, public affairs and political PR, lobbying, government advisers, international PR – governments have entire PR teams devoted to media relations on a global level.   PR has powers beyond simply raising brand awareness or getting stories in papers – it can change policy, highlight issues and set the agenda within the public sphere.

Alan Andreasen, in his 1995 Marketing social change: Changing behavior to promote health, social development, and the environment, mentions “social marketing is to play a role in the agenda-setting process”.  Agenda setting (1972 mass communication theory by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw) is essentially the embodiment of Bernard C. Cohen’s famous quote, “The media doesn’t tell us what to think; it tells us what to think about”.  This has been a primary function of public relations for nearly a century, and there is absolutely no ignoring the mountains of PR academia around this subject.  McKie and Tolando comment: “Agenda-setting theory thus joins the list of recent theories recommended by social marketing scholars for social marketing practice. These include social exchange theory, diffusion theory, social learning theory and others that have been staple fare for decades in public relations textbooks.”

So What’s Holding Us Back?

Misconceptions and misunderstandings between the two disciplines clearly exist.  Another quote from Andreasen’s 1995 book:

“The PR specialist thinks he or she knows how journalists think. Getting coverage is just a matter of convincing them what a wonderful story the PR person has. Thus, getting the story out is just a matter of writing a press release, sending it to the appropriate people, and following up with a hard sell to get the story in print or on the air. And the PR person uses basically the same approach for everyone. (Andreasen, 1995, p. 299)”

Nice! Once you’ve brushed away the liberally applied cynicism in this quote, you get the idea that Andreasen doesn’t really get the PR industry.  He forgot to mention the ‘PR girls‘ and celebrity publicist alter-egos we all take on at night!  Public relations seems to view social marketing as a bit of an ‘elephant in the room’, like a weird uncle who nobody really knows.  There’s quite a comprehensive section in Tench and Yeoman’s Exploring Public Relations (2006), but (empirically speaking), ground level PR practitioners don’t really seem to know what social marketing is.

The PR industry, as I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, suffers from a pretty bad reputation – and is seen by many people solely as a serving private sector/corporate interests, more than likely a key reason the more philanthropically motivated social marketers keep away from it.  It’s often overlooked that PR plays a huge role in fundraising, attitudinal change, lobbying and philanthropic campaigns, and it’s easy to forget that both disciplines centre around a) being given a problem, b) defining the target market, c) understanding their needs, d) designing a strategy to solve the problem, e) implementing a campaign, f) evaluating the outcome.  Clearly, both at an academic and a practitioner level, there is considerable overlap between the two fields.

Convergence and The Future

The difference boils down to the disparity in who is funding the project and what the desired strategic goals are.  Or does it?  We live in an age where the boundaries are blurring somewhat. Especially in the UK, the budgets for behaviour change programs (and indeed, everything) is shrinking, and increasingly social marketing projects may have to look to corporate funders to sustain future activities. Social marketing, although considered a more philanthropic discipline, still has strategic value at heart by seeking to reduce the burden on society.  Drinks giant Diageo’s 2008 ‘The choice is yours’ social advertising campaign, for example, helped bolster their image as a responsible company whilst also warning young adults of the social implications of heavy drinking.  Another campaign ‘The Girl Effect‘, a recent viral campaign to raise the issue of child prostitution in the developing world, is only obviously a Nike funded project after some digging on the internet.  Some companies, it seems, are playing a longer game than others, and ensuring a healthy, happy populous in years to come is clearly key to achieving this.

Practitioners across all sectors are having to up their game to remain competitive.  Can you think of any good examples of the two disciplines joining forces to create an effective campaign?


Andreasen, A. R. (1995). Marketing Social Change: Changing Behavior to Promote Health, Social Development, and the Environment. Josses-Bass.

Grunig, J. E., Hunt, T. (1984) Managing Public Relations. Holt, Rinehart and Winston

L ‘Etang, J. & Pieczka, M. (1996). Critical Perspectives in Public Relations.  London. International Thompson Business Press.

McKie, D., Toledano., M. (2008). Dangerous liaison or perfect match? Public Relations and Social Marketing. Public Relations Review, issue 34 , p. 318–324

Tench, R., & Yeomans, L. (2006). Exploring Public Relations. Pearson Prentice Hall.


Thanks for reading, I’m Neil Thornely and  you can get in touch with me through any of the links below.  @NeilThornely

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07 January 2013, 05:40 PM

Hi thanks for the interesting article, which is a lot more interesting to read than the original McKie article. I agree that there are a lot of similarities between PR and social marketing and that both should be based on good understanding of the targeted audience. Indeed your article should be the start for all organisations to combine their PR/comms research with their service design and monitoring research to ensure they are as cost effective as possible in using and commissioning research.

I also agree that most social marketing interventions would need an element of PR. However, I would suggest that one of the main differences is that most social marketing prgorammes focus on service design or re-design which most PR progammes do not. This goes back to why research is commissioned and how it is used.

Please keep up the blogs and the infographs – they are brilliant and have a great second year.

I think your article


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