How to transition from PR to marketing: 6 execs offer their advice

PR can be a thankless and exhausting business. I’ve had countless conversations with PR executives ultimately want to get out of PR entirely and move into marketing.

Having worked with PR professionals for 20 years, there are a few glaring educational deficits for many wanting to make the transition. It’s not just practical skills around marketing disciplines missing; it’s often a shift of perspective to “thinking like a marketer.”

I asked some stellar marketer’s in my network for their advice to PR pros who want to transition into marketing. Each respondent started in PR and had personally transitioned to full-time marketing roles or a hybrid between the two.

Not surprisingly, universal themes and recommendations emerged.

Stop overly-focusing on media relations

Almost every respondent mentioned how PR folks, especially agency, overly rely on media relations — done in isolation of looking at the bigger picture of the company, especially business and sales goals.

Julie Crabill, CMO at Descartes Labs following a 17-year career at top PR agencies, including her own which saw an exit to the HighWire group, said “PR pros can be short-sighted when thinking like a marketer when media trumps all other priorities of the business. And forgetting that media coverage for the sake of it is nice, but rarely can be tied back to what matters -- revenue, customer acquisition, customer satisfaction, and board and investor demands.”

Max Kalehoff, advisor at MAK and longtime marketing industry vet who’s worked with Burson-Marsteller, Xerox, Nielson, and Clickable, echoed the sentiment.

“The common violation is offering a media relations solution to every problem. That's fine if the only reason you're there is for media relations, but communications should play a more strategic role in moving a business forward. Establish a deep-seated point of view about the industry and the business!”

Get to know the business

The loudest comments were about “understanding the business.” This means not only knowing facts, figures and product one-liners, it means knowing how the business works, sales goals, client service challenges, product development, and more.

Heather Meeker has 20 years in PR and marketing and exposure to the marketing discipline early in her career. She oversees the Meeker Consulting Group and is acting Head of Corporate Marketing for Aconex (acquired by Oracle).

“To think like a marketer, you need to understand who you are selling your product to -- who is the buyer? Get a deep dive product demo with the sales team to understand how they sell the product; and work closely with the product marketing team to understand where the product is now, and where it's headed. Talk to the customer service teams to understand the major issues (good and bad) with the product. Marketing (like PR) is about building brand awareness but also helping to build a solid, qualified pipeline of leads for the sales team.”

“The biggest violation is not understanding the business very well, especially if it's a technical one, and this is often a challenge when recruiting and working with agencies. Consider your primary duty to understand the business and industry you're working in -- regardless if you're in an agency or in-house team,” said Kalehoff.

Devan Fearman, former PR pro turned marketing with adtech companies such as SHIFT.com and MetaMarkets (both with exits under her tenure), had this to say: “If you're in-house or at an agency, always make sure you're getting insight from cross-functional partners - Product, Sales, Partnerships, etc. Getting the perspective of the business helps when you're focused on creating a holistic strategy.”

Expand your viewpoint

Some pro’s positioned themselves as more than PR.

Kalehoff said, “If you're good at the narrow PR function, and that is your sanctioned role, it's convenient for the stakeholders inside and outside of the organization to box you into that. PR people often box themselves into this positioning without even thinking about it. I worked hard to position myself as business problem-solver first, and PR professional second.”

Keith Pillow never planned on PR but now has 25 years of agency and in-house experience, runs Caddy Marketing and Communications, and teaches college courses on the subject. He’s always considered himself an integrated marketer vs a “PR” person.

“You immediately have to think in broader terms and consider more audiences than if you were just managing the PR function. I’ve always viewed PR as playing a critical role within an integrated marketing strategy, and directly interfacing and impacting other important areas of the business, including sales, HR, operations, legal, and finance.”

“To this day, as I did at the beginning of my career, I describe and position myself as a marketing professional who just so happens to have a great deal of experience in PR and many of its related disciplines."

Learn about marketing practices

Every respondent was empathic about the importance of understanding marketing disciplines.

Pillow said, “I strongly believe PR pros should have a working knowledge of many aspects of the marketing spectrum, as in today’s economy, more PR practitioners and agencies are being asked to provide strategies and support in areas which used to be exclusively handled by advertising and interactive agencies.

“You absolutely MUST know about traditional and cutting-edge marketing practices which are being utilized every day in Corporate America: branding; advertising, in all of its forms and mediums; direct mail; email marketing; direct response; etc.…Without a robust knowledge of integrated marketing strategy and implementation, a young PR professional will not able to successfully transition into this kind of role.”

Meeker offered similar thoughts: “PR pros [who want to transition] need to understand product marketing, field marketing, online marketing, content marketing, marketing analytics, social media, global campaigns/strategy, sales, customer service, and branding. You don't need to be a "pro" at all of these disciplines, but understand how these roles work and come together to support goals, especially sales.”

Kalehoff said, “Take practical courses or achieve certifications in the industry you're specializing in. Also, learn marketing and advertising attribution and measurement. Know how the other 95% of the communications budget is planned, measured and evaluated!”

Elisa Schreiber, former PR pro turned Marketing Partner at Greylock Partners, echoed the importance of understanding (and creating strategies for) marketing toward business goals.

“It's helpful to get visibility into the different ways the different parts of the marketing organization measure success. Is your company focused on customer acquisition? Retention? Brand building? Ultimately, PR people and marketing people both need to be executing campaigns that support the overall business goals.”

Become a domain expert

Dig deep in a particular industry or vertical to create expertise and counsel that you can bring with you into the marketing realm.

Kalehoff said, “If you're at an agency, don't hop around to different clients like a social butterfly, because your value will be short-term and superficial. You need some dedication and commitment to go deep and drive both strategy and execution -- and eventually business ownership and client intimacy. Focusing on a single client, or a single industry will create a valuable, linear knowledge base and professional network that will make you a domain expert and business person first.”

The advice these experts laid out mirrors what I’ve seen and heard over the years. It’s the root of why businesses grow frustrated with traditional PR agencies. They want bigger thinkers focused on business outcomes – in their PR teams and marketing. If you’re looking to transition, start reading up on mechanics, not just influencer relations. Learn about data and metrics, become familiar with email marketing and lead generation practices. Sign up for topical newsletters and attend online webinars. As you become exposed to funnel-driven strategies, it will change the way you think about PR and move you into thinking like a marketer.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.