LOS ANGELES—The trend toward greater convergence between marketing and public relations—a key finding of this year’s Global Communications Report—is driven in part by marketers becoming more enlightened about public relations and turning increasingly to an “earned first” approach, according to a panel discussion hosted by USC’s Annenberg School on Thursday evening.

Discussing research showing that both PR people and marketers predict closer alignment between the disciplines, Edelman’s global COO Matt Harrington offered a positive explanation: “I think the trend is real, but the way I like to think about it is that marketing has become more enlightened about PR, and in particular earned media. Many of the marketers I work with see earned as the tip of the spear to advance their brands and their products.

“We see it as an opportunity for growth. We have added skills and disciplines that play into marketing, particularly in digital. In the digital space, we are trying to do digital storytelling and that’s a space where we have a unique set of skills—earning credibility and passion for brands—and that has created a huge opportunity for growth.”

Ellen Ryan Mardiks, vice chair of Golin, agreed: “We are increasingly seeing an earned first mentality,” she told the audience of professionals and students gathered for the 27th annual Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium. “Even if a holistic campaign is the end goal, if it’s not going to work for earned it’s not going to get off the ground.”

But Matt Furman, CCO of Best Buy, representing the client side of the business, made the case for the continued separation of the two functions. “There’s an alignment in goals, but not in organizations,” he said. “My view is that the skills required in the near future are more likely to be found in a PR professionals: reputation protection and enhancement. These are skills the CEO will value more. That makes it less likely that PR will report to marketing.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Furman was protective of PR’s continued reporting line into the CEO. “If you buy the premise that we live in a confusing world where your reputation can come under threat in an instant, you value someone who can understand that environment, and for the most part that’s the CCO.”

A second corporate panelist, Oracle corporate communications manager Julie Sugishita, took a slightly different view, given that the software giant’s PR people report into marketing. “We find that when we all come together in this moment of crisis and then have our chief marketing officer represent all of us and go to the CEO it can empower. The corporate communicator has that expertise, but there is some power in being able to run our ideas past our marketers and make sure we are aligned.”

Asked by panel moderator Fred Cook, director of the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations and chair of Golin, about the survey’s findings about industry nomenclature—87% of respondents say PR will not accurately reflect the function’s scope in five years’ time—Sugishita acknowledged that “there are misconceptions about what we do. When you ask people what we do, you might hear a lot of pejoratives. I do think it’s important that we come together and re-describe what we are and get away from the idea that we are spin-doctors.”

Mardiks agreed: “For a profession that has been building brands  for 70, 80 years we have done such a poor job of building our own. PR is self-defined. We are misunderstood. We don’t object when PR is used as a synonym for publicity, or a synonym for spin. Let’s take this opportunity for groups like the Arthur Page Society and the PR Council and USC to come together and resolve this. I would like to keep the term PR and get people to really understand what it is.”

Perhaps the most spirited defense of PR, however, came from USC student Irene Bischofberger, one of those involved in the GCR research project: “We [students] are growing up an in era where we define it differently. We do content creation, we do social media management and we do earned media as part of PR. For people who have been in the industry, maybe they don’t see all those things as an integral part of PR, but we do.

“It might be that we are idealizing what PR is,” Bischofberger acknowledged. “But I would define PR as all the different things I’ve learned here.”