Communications and Marketing: Which is What Exactly?

Here’s a confession. I’ve never fully understood the difference between communications and marketing. Or at least I struggle to come up with a useful answer in a nonprofit environment.

For a long time, I’d say prevailing wisdom in higher education was “we’re really, really good; we just need you to inform people.” Thus, when I started out in this business everyone in communication-type jobs in higher ed. was called an “information officer.”

One day in the later 90s, the HR leaders in my institution switched the information officer job classification to “communications manager.” Today most communications-related job titles, including mine, tend to name both marketing and communications. And it’s all about promoting a brand with strategic communication and marketing.

Apparently, somewhere along the way communications and marketing got married. That makes sense. It’s not like they don’t have a lot in common. And maybe they’ve been together so long now that they’ve started to look like each other?

In any case, I’ve noticed no marked improvement in most people understanding what communications or marketing jobs entail no matter how blended the two may be.

Usually when someone asks me what I do, I just flail around terms like public relations, communications, writing and editing, promotion, marketing and, even, information officer. Until the asker either loses interest or seems to comprehend something.

One heated online discussion I stumbled onto regarding the difference between marketing and communications came up with the following collective wisdom:

  1. In Neuro Lingusitic Programming terms, you cannot, NOT communicate. So everything you do is a communication of some description.
  2. Marketing on the other hand is about crafting a message to achieve a desired objective.

If we can accept that, then communication is far broader than marketing and could include the scribbles on my office white board. Even though they are not exactly brilliant or strategic.

My Office White Board

David Williamson in “Marketing and Communications in Nonprofit Organizations” by Georgetown Public Policy Institute says marketing gets no respect in the nonprofit world. He writes:

“..the marketing function masquerades under many names within nonprofit organizations—Communications, Advancement, External Affairs, Public Relations, or Brand Management — the primary objectives are pretty much the same: to define and then defend an organization’s position, and move it closer to success in its mission.“

So does it matter what you call it? And if so, is there any agreed upon, clear designation between marketing and communication? Does it make a difference if you are working in nonprofit or commercial? What do you use in your organization?

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One thought on “Communications and Marketing: Which is What Exactly?

  1. Good post and a good question at the end–this has been coming up (a derivation of this anyway) with MarComm (Marketing Communications) departments and Technical Communications departments. There has been a long-standing cold war between the two but recent trends and thought suggest that MarComm and TechComm should be merged. I still think that the two departments (similar to the departments you describe) have separate and distinctly different goals and shouldn’t be combined.

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