Association marketing and public relations (PR) are two of the most easily confused terms in association management.
It’s easy to see why:
- Both involve similar skillsets, including the ability to create and distribute an effective message across multiple platforms.
- In associations—which almost always have a small staff relative to their impact—marketing and PR are typically managed by the same staff member.
- In many associations the same committee oversees marketing and PR.
But marketing and PR are fundamentally different parts of your association’s administrative operations.
Association marketing is mainly focused on internal stakeholders—those directly involved in the profession or the industry—with the intended result of selling something. In fact, the very definition of the word marketing is “the action or business of promoting and selling products and services.”
Marketing is selling, and most associations are selling their products and services to a very defined audience. Those products and services might be memberships, conferences and events, webinars, or certifications, but whatever they are, if they’re being marketed, they’re being sold.
Marketing is about revenue generation, and without revenue an association will eventually cease to exist. In a way, marketing is a fundamental part of “how” an association can do all the things it does: It takes money to make things happen, and marketing is what brings money in the door.
Public relations isn’t about selling. Instead, PR is about maintaining a favorable public image and telling an association’s story to the rest of the world.
In a way, PR is one of the fundamental reasons for any association’s existence. While associations serve multiple purposes, one of those purposes is to make sure the public understands the importance of the profession or industry. PR also gives an association the ability to respond on behalf of all members and stakeholders when something bad happens.
One of the most vivid examples of the difference between association marketing and PR occurred with the The United States Polo Association (USPA). The USPA is not a professional association, but like the NFL and other sports leagues, it is legally organized as a 501c6.
The USPA focuses its marketing efforts on potential polo players, who become members, as well as promoting matches to polo enthusiasts. Like any association, these are revenue-generating activities requiring effective marketing campaigns.
USPA experienced the difference between association marketing and PR when 21 horses unexpectedly died during a match in 2009, due to a batch of toxic medication given to the horses prior to the event. The deaths of those horses transcended the polo world and became a national story—and a flashpoint in a larger conversation about animal rights. The association unexpectedly had to answer to a larger group of external stakeholders, including the national media and animal rights activists.
That response required good PR, not marketing.
Though extreme, it’s an illustration of the difference between association marketing and PR.
As an association management company, Sentergroup prides itself on delivering exceptional marketing and PR for your association. Though we don’t work with any associations that might see the unexpected deaths of 21 horses, we work with associations in important industries like healthcare, property appraising, and philanthropy.
Each of those associations markets its programs and services to members, partners, and sponsors—but each also plays an important role in the broader economy, which makes PR especially important. For example, we utilize internal and external PR experts to make sure Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy produced by Sentergroup client, Giving USA Foundation, receives national coverage in publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Association marketing is the “how”: It brings revenue into the association, which helps keeps the doors open.
Public Relations is the “why”: It’s the mechanism that gives members a collective voice to the world, which is a big reason why any profession or group starts an association.
Your association needs a strategy for both.
At Sentergroup, we look forward to making sure your marketing campaigns bring revenue in the door—and using good PR to tell your association’s story.
Interested to see what Sentergroup can do for your association? Reach out to us!