The forbidden arts: what Marketing can learn from PR

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Garry Dix

28. 09. 2022 | 5 min read

The forbidden arts: what Marketing can learn from PR

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“If a young man tells his date how handsome, smart and successful he is – that’s advertising. If the young man tells his date she’s intelligent, looks lovely, and is a great conversationalist, he’s saying the right things to the right person and that’s marketing. If someone else tells the young woman how handsome, smart and successful her date is – that’s PR.” – S. H. Simmons

A little over 12 months ago I did something rash: I left a 7-year PR career to start over as a marketer.

You’re not supposed to cross that aisle. Marketing and PR practitioners have a Springfield vs. Shelbyville level of contempt for one another.

For marketers, PR pros are dead-eyed, bouncy-haired spin merchants, who’d sell their own mother for the vague promise of ‘coverage’ and ‘exposure’.

For PRs, marketers are either ‘activation’ obsessed consultant weirdos, or trembling internal teams of 50 that work on powerpoints for 75% of the year.

As someone with a foot in both camps, allow me to cut through the rivalry: there are way more similarities between the two disciplines than either side would care to admit.

In fact, as a reformed PR hack, I’m here to tell you: marketers could stand to learn a thing or two from the dark side.

Crossing the divide 

Here’s my outrageous theory: even the most mediocre of PRs respect their audience way more than lazy marketers. They know no-one wants to listen to them so they work overtime to earn the attention they’re paid to deliver.

Conversely, marketers routinely underestimate how well-attuned their buyers are to marketing, often trying to sneak into their wallets with all the subtlety of a spoon aeroplaning into a toddlers mouth.

Let me give you an example.

In PR, if you want to tell a story, then you have an additional gatekeeper that you need to impress: the journalist.

This isn’t just another stakeholder. Journalists actively advocate for quality on behalf of their audience. That means (good) PR stories have to be smarter than your average marketing yarn.


Because there’s a clear – and crucially, externally validated – value exchange taking place:

  • The PR wants to promote a particular message, or gain brand exposure, for the business they work for
  • The journalist wants a story that brings something new and interesting to get past their editor and entice readers
  • The readers of the publication need to be entertained or informed by what you are saying

Everyone involved in the creation of the story knows what the other participants need for it to be a success.

The result? A story truly accountable to both quality and commercial outcomes.

The marketing-place of ideas

This is where a lot of content marketing falls down – there’s no tertiary arbiter of editorial standards or audience value. Most often, the editor-in-chief is a senior marketer trying to dress up company messaging in a fun hat.

That’s not to say PR is perfect. The industry puts too much weight on vanity metrics that draw flimsy parallels between impressions and actual buying behaviour. But in many ways it’s more accountable to the audience because there’s a third party vouching for them – the publication.

On the other side of the aisle, marketers routinely prioritise imagined ROI over the basic sniff test of “would someone actually click on this?” And it shows.

So what’s the lesson for marketers? To be more entertaining? To try and build mass appeal? To act more like a publisher?

No: it’s to get razor sharp on the kind of value your audience cares about most (by getting real about your relationship with them) and then create your own editorial standards around it.

Create your own editorial standards

The bar is higher for marketers. PR’s are often measured on brand awareness. Marketers are measured on actions and behaviours. “I’ve heard of that company” is an easier target than “I’d like to spend budget on that”.

Here’s a thought experiment to sharpen up your focus. Try looking at your audience as a readership, your brand as a publication and become your own coffee-fuelled, red-pen-wielding editor. Would you let commercial KPIs be the main deciding factor in what you write about this month? Hell no. Then you’d be writing a catalogue.

Advocating for audience value in your editorial standards means reframing the question “how does marketing support the business?” to become “how does marketing support our audience?”

What are they going to engage with your marketing for? What is their end goal? And how is what you’ve developed going to help them get there? You should show understanding and empathy of where the customer finds themselves and the issues they battle against.

Of course, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) jettison commercial considerations from your marketing planning. It’s just about keeping your audience value exchange in view when making decisions.

Here’s something to get you started on that journey: four rough categories of things audiences are drawn to that can guide better marketing decisions:

  • Entertainment: Marketers miss this target constantly, often because they put format before substance and treat “fun” like a disguise. No-one wants to read “23 machine learning lessons” just because you made it a listicle. Also, funny is really bloody hard, so if that’s your preferred entertaining route, get a second, third and fourth opinion on if it lands.
  • Education: This isn’t just about “what you do and how it works”. Create stuff that helps audiences define their own needs more clearly, have better conversations with internal stakeholders, qualify competitor offerings against your own. you aren’t educating your audience about YOU but about THEIR current buying needs.
  • Concrete offerings: Perhaps the clearest value exchange is just to put some money on the table in exchange for your audience’s time and attention. Referral codes, discounts, genuine, business-focused consultation; these kinds of offers give a clear picture of the benefits they’ll receive to your users. And sometimes that is enough to get your toe in the door.
  • Community: People are drawn to crowds – they like joining a party already in motion. Frame your marketing around events, resource libraries, panels with experts and more, to offer something that the average B2B-er in the street doesn’t have access to.

From Spotify Wrapped to Stripe’s API library, technology marketing that cuts through the noise succeeds for one reason: it provides a clear value proposition for those that engage.

If you spend too much time focused inwards on your messaging and what you think is cool, then you’ll do your audience a disservice. Treat them as an equal partner in the marketing exchange and you’ll see results skyrocket simply by reframing your goal.

There aren’t many other industries that would stoop to stealing from public relations, but shrewd marketers could learn a thing or two about how PRs make content that audiences actually want to engage with.

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