The ongoing debate about PR & Sales

37c10c2This is how the meme goes: Every activity by a commercial organization, profit or nonprofit, is in the end about selling. It’s the ultimate triumph of marketing, the absolute ultimate objective. Let’s explore this thinking.

Mike Love (@therealitygap), in a Twitter discussion with Judy Gombita (@jgombita) and several others, avers this perspective, which prompts this post. Love’s view is that the sale is the thing and challenged all of us to describe what else it possibly could be.

I realize that I straddle the fence between practice and academy, and so that makes me a bit didactic, but my view is the all marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing. I therefore reject the conclusion that sales is the ultimate objective. This might be better understood through the prism of the “3-outs.” When we measure comm activity (internal, external, regardless of industry) we need to measure at all levels — the output level, whether we are conducting activities appropriately; the outtake level, examining the immediate result of our activity; and outcomes, the business results emerging from the communication results.

An example would be following a strategy intended to educate and inspire employees involving changing the content of our intranet, increasing the number of stories focusing on strategy and the human results of our business strategy — we analyze the content to determine whether that occurred. First level measurement, but important. Second, we look at intranet traffic, to see whether employees consumed the content, including commenting, sharing, downloading, etc., AND we ask them to what degree the content helped them better understand our organization, feel more connected to it, and/or prompted them to recommend it or its products to others. Lastly, we look at retention, job performance, internal job posting, managerial affinity, etc. For some, we may examine impact on revenue or expense control. These are the business results and they constitute the deepest level of measurement.

In the Balanced Scorecard, enlightened organizations consider not only the usual metrics, but also the non financial metrics — attitudes and behaviors that might be distantly connected with sales, but largely are not, or at least are not provable conclusively. These types of organization define success more broadly than purely at the bottom line; it is true that enlightened organizations often do perform better than their counterparts, but which came first? Chicken or egg?

Contrast that perspective with that of a company that places sales at the point of the triangle – some of the most notable scandals (WorldCom, Enron, Arthur Anderson, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers) were also notable for their “anything goes” attitudes, driving sales at all costs.

This is what I think of when I see a meme like the one above. If everything is about sales rather than customer relationships, being a great place to work, being a stalwart in communities, making a difference in the world, then we risk becoming amoral slaves to the sales imperative.

In some ways, it’s a semantic distinction, and probably reveals a soft view of the role of business in societies. In others though, it reflects a sincere belief in the power of words. That’s why I see the “it’s all marketing” crowd as reductivist. It reduces the core relationships between organization and publics to a mere transaction, an exchange relationship. Especially as regards employee communication, such thinking makes building strong communal relationships (absolutely critical to employee engagement) much more difficult, more disposable.

When we declare that the only purpose to our activity is to sell, we define ourselves solely as agents in a transaction, powerless and dependent on the payment received. When we see the sale as one possible result of an effort to build a trusted relationship, we elevate ourselves and our publics to a more sustainable, deeper and more ennobling purpose.

Your thoughts?

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