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Marketing vs. Public Relations (PR): What’s the difference?

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Reviewed by Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

Many people are unaware of the differences between marketing and public relations (PR). The confusion stems from the professions sharing some characteristics, in-house departments often lumping them together and people frequently using the terms interchangeably.

Marketing and PR are separate careers with different objectives, bringing distinct benefits to an organization. Marketing is driven by actively promoting and selling products and services. PR focuses on crafting and maintaining a positive image of an organization and brands within the media and public eye.

Learning about marketing and PR can help you decide which career may best suit your personality, skills, strengths and goals.

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What is marketing?

Marketing is an umbrella term for developing, promoting and selling an organization’s products and services to its target clients and customers. Through research, advertisements, launches and campaigns, marketing intends to add value to what a client is trying to sell by telling a story to buyers.

For example, when a company develops a new product, its marketing department is often responsible for designing the launch strategy and determining how to stand out from the competition. Tactics may include placing the product with relevant influencers on social media or running giveaway campaigns. Marketing professionals must also liaise with other departments, such as sales and PR.

Marketing tends to be a broader sector than PR, providing a wide variety of careers. Industry evolves to keep pace with how people communicate and source entertainment, creating new opportunities. For instance, using social media as a marketing tool was still young back in 2010. But innovation remains necessary as users turn to fresh platforms, trends shift and new online tools emerge.

Core pillars of marketing

Marketing is built upon four pillars known as the 4Ps. These fundamentals have remained relevant even as communication, strategies and tactics have evolved along with society.

The pillars of marketing are:

  • Product: What is the good or service being sold? Examples are sports drinks, apps, audiobooks, wellness coaching and streaming services. Market professionals try to establish the value the product provides to its target customers.
  • Price: How much does the product cost? Marketing must determine how the price point affects the perception of the product and who can afford it. Other factors to consider include if the item is bought as a one-time purchase, bundle deal or subscription.
  • Place: Where is the product being distributed, sold or featured? The placement affects brand perception and its audience.  
  • Promotion: What’s the strategy to entice people to buy? Consider the messaging and tactics and how these will be measured. For example, including a tailored discount code on a podcast ad provides measurable data on its impact.

Daily responsibilities

Marketing professionals have strikingly different daily responsibilities from PR professionals. Marketing tasks aim to reach unique development, promotion and sales goals.

A marketing professional’s daily responsibilities might include:

  • Designing and managing advertising campaigns. Tasks include creating a marketing plan and ensuring that the steps within it are carried out accurately and meet deadlines.
  • Securing advertising placements in the traditional and digital spheres. The two biggest challenges when booking slots are ensuring that placements are relevant to the target audience and stay within the budget.
  • Conducting market research to support and drive the overall direction of marketing campaigns. Market research can help identify target audiences, how they respond to different types of messaging and price points and where they’re most likely to see or hear advertising. Examples of market research are interviews, polls, surveys, infographics and social media tracking.
  • Compiling collateral for websites, digital marketing, PDFs, sales pitches, launches, brochures, etc. Examples of marketing collateral are videos, images, graphics, social profiles, testimonials, case studies, logos formatted for specific platforms, and slogans.
  • Managing the social media profiles of a brand or client. Tasks may include creating a style guide and templates for the accounts, creating on-brand content, engaging with the audience and analyzing social media metrics.
  • Optimizing platforms and messaging. Websites, blogs and other social media platforms are only useful if they are being seen. Marketing professionals drive traffic by increasing a website’s organic traffic through search engine optimization. This involves updating tags, ensuring links are working and relevant, ensuring that content marketing and formatting align to the latest style guides, and verifying that logos are up to date.
  • Creating and distributing newsletters. Newsletters remain an effective way to connect with a target audience. For example, in the publishing industry it’s crucial to let readers know when books are being released by their favorite authors. Customers may miss announcements posted on websites and mentioned on social media, but a newsletter gets the message to them directly. 

Steps of a marketing plan

Marketing professionals create a marketing plan to provide a focus for objectives. It acts as an outline or road map, helping coordinate the tasks and roles of required parties.

Successful marketing plans consist of six steps:

  1. Establish a business objective. Marketing professionals need to set goals that meet an organization’s or client’s needs. First, a clear picture of an organization needs to be made, including understanding its history and current state. The research helps avoid old mistakes, uncover new opportunities and ensure goals are relevant to the objectives.
  2. Get to know the competition. Researching other industry players helps identify challenges and areas that need strengthening while revealing holes in the market that an organization can capitalize upon.
  3. Identify the unique value proposition. Establish the problem that the product or service is solving for buyers and why it stands out from competitors.  
  4. Develop target buyer personas. Outline the target customers’ characteristics, behaviors and demographics using data from research, such as databases, surveys and interviews.
  5. Design a strategy. Establish the channels, tactics and tools to promote and advertise the product or service to the target buyers.
  6. Optimize. Fine-tune and sharpen the marketing plan by adjusting it as new data becomes available.

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What is PR?

Public relations focuses on crafting and maintaining an organization’s positive reputation in the public eye. PR professionals build positive relationships and communicate with relevant audiences, such as the media, investors, partners, employees, customers/clients, influencers and the general public.

PR departments often work with marketing. For example, during a product launch, a PR department may be responsible for booking speaking events, sending press releases to relevant journalists and influencers, providing talking points to the sales team and communicating with investors.

However, their primary role is often protecting an organization’s reputation, especially during a crisis. It is typically up to the PR department to take control of the narrative, curtail rumors, reassure stakeholders, provide transparency and rebuild trust.

Key elements of PR                                                            

PR consists of four crucial elements. However, these are strikingly different from marketing’s four pillars, as they serve separate objectives.

The four elements of PR are:

  • Relationship building: Strong bonds with the audience must be built. For example, a PR professional working in media relations must forge connections with members of the relevant press.
  • Networking: PR professionals continuously network to create new opportunities and build relationships.
  • Honesty: PR professionals operate on a code of ethics that fosters trust by providing accurate information.
  • Public speaking: PR professionals influence and inform their audience by giving talks and making themselves available to answer questions in person.  

Daily responsibilities

PR professionals share common daily tasks regardless of their industry. These focus on crafting an organization’s image and maintaining and building advantageous relationships.  

A PR professional’s daily responsibilities may include:

  • Crafting and overseeing an organization’s or client’s messaging. PR professionals must develop a story about the company or person they represent. The content’s tone, style, and how and where it is told affects public perception. 
  • Developing and pitching press releases. PR professionals frequently write press releases for relevant press members and stakeholders. Due to newspaper and media offices shrinking and journalists being asked to do more work, it is more likely that press releases will be printed with little to no alteration. 
  • Arranging and booking public speaking opportunities. PR professionals schedule speaking engagements for themselves or clients at press conferences and launches, and secure invitations to conferences or events. Directly talking to a target audience fosters a stronger bond and helps frame and control the narrative.
  • Building the reputation of an organization, brand or individual in the media and other channels. PR professionals are image builders. They create positive stories through the press and other trusted or admired sources, such as podcasters and bloggers. Communication is paramount to frame the narrative and stay ahead of potentially damaging news.
  • Managing media relations on behalf of an organization or client. Building and maintaining relationships with the media takes time and requires tact and diplomacy. PR professionals skillfully act as the main media contact, saving clients time and protecting them from public missteps.
  • Liaising with marketing, sales and other relevant teams. PR professionals must work together with the other valued members of an organization’s or client’s team so that all parties have consistent messaging and their actions do not contradict or undermine each other.

Steps of a PR plan

A PR plan outlines an organization’s strategy to achieve specific goals with a target audience within a set time frame. Underneath these individually tailored plans is a standard process.

Successful PR plans consist of six steps:

  1. Outline the PR goals. What are the desired results? These should be as specific as possible and plotted on a timeline.
  2. Do research. Understand the industry, both internally and in public perception. Examine the competition. What are their PR teams doing? What’s working? Where are they weak?
  3. Learn about target audiences. Become as granular as possible about the desired audience, such as age range, relationship status, income, political leanings and location.
  4. Set the timeline. Create a schedule for when specific campaign steps must be achieved and the overall goal reached.
  5. Choose PR tactics. Outline the channels best suited to reach the target audience. If working alongside a marketing team, ensure the selected tactics work harmoniously with marketing’s strategy.
  6. Measure results. How will success be determined? Metrics may include surveys, impressions, news stories, mentions and engagements.

Marketing vs. PR

Marketing and PR are part of an organization’s toolbox. Like pliers and a wrench, they provide value in different ways. Understanding their differences allows an organization to know which one to use to achieve a goal or address a challenge.

To illustrate marketing’s and PR’s strengths, we’ve contrasted them in the following five aspects:

  • Activities
  • Target audiences
  • Communication
  • Business return on investment
  • Resources

Activities

Marketing and PR activities differ in focus and objective.

  • Marketing activities aim to drive product or service sales through promotions, advertising and direct marketing. The objective is to make an organization or client money.
  • PR activities focus on maintaining or cultivating an organization’s or client’s positive reputation by generating favorable media coverage and communicating with stakeholders. The objective is to make an organization or client look good.

Target audiences

Marketing and PR generally have different target audiences.

  • Marketing aims to reach current and potential customers. These are the people marketing professionals want to persuade to open their wallets to buy a product or service.
  • PR maintains and cultivates positive relationships with those interested or vital to an organization or brand. Examples are journalists, fans, investors, employees, legislators and partners.

Communication

Marketing and PR communicate to target audiences differently. The methods are not necessarily perceived as equally credible in the public eye, which can affect the level of trust in messages received.

  • Marketing pays to communicate to an audience through recognizable advertising and promotion methods. The customer base typically knows these messages are trying to sell them a product or service and might be more wary of the assertions.
  • PR often uses free communication channels, such as articles, conference speakers, or reputable online names that run respected blogs, podcasts or other platforms. PR also uses popular social media channels. Audiences may subconsciously regard these channels as more legitimate and be more likely to trust what is said.  

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Business ROI

Marketing and PR give an organization or client a different return on investment (ROI). Both cost an organization or client money, but the metrics used to determine their value are not the same.

  • Marketing is generally a straightforward business investment. Assessing a marketing ROI of advertising and paid branding and promotional activities can be measured by metrics such as the number of new customers or meeting or exceeding sales goals. Online traffic and engagement are also measurable and can be compared to the marketing plan’s objectives.
  • PR’s ROI is typically more difficult to measure, especially as it is difficult to place value on what didn’t happen. However, this isn’t always the case. A PR consultant’s role often involves damage control by reframing potentially harmful news into a positive. Also, it’s a challenge to quantify or demonstrate changes in perceptions or beliefs.

Still, some metrics are available to assess PR, such as the amount of positive press generated, industry awards, invitations to speak at events and organizations, the amount of online chatter and features on vlogs, blogs and reels, the quality of candidates applying for jobs, and partners and investors who want to work with the organization.

Resources

Marketing and PR use different resources and do not have the same impact on a budget.

  • Marketing resources cost money to accomplish goals. Marketing professionals pay to design and place ads and make financial deals with influencers to promote the product or service.
  • PR resources are generally free. A PR staff capitalizes on relationships with the press and taps people in their network, such as celebrities, social media influencers and public figures, to get their message out or spotlight a brand, service or product.

Similarities between marketing and PR

Marketing and PR share several similarities, contributing to why some people might confuse the two professions. The similarities are also why it isn’t uncommon to meet professionals with experience in both industries. Many have started in one career before discovering they were happier and better suited in the other.

Similarities in marketing and PR include:

  • Goals: Marketing and PR influence perceptions and awareness with the aim of gaining more customers.
  • Communication: Marketing and PR use storytelling to build trust with target audiences and raise a brand’s attractiveness, products or services.
  • Company interests: Marketing and PR put an organization’s or client’s interests first, keeping them foremost in mind when drawing up plans and taking action.
  • Audience: Marketing’s and PR’s messaging is directed to their main audience, the public.

Pursuing a career in marketing or PR

Marketing and PR are exciting options for creative people passionate about communication and storytelling. These professions may appeal to those who excel at adapting, finding solutions and making backup plans. Neither industry stands still, which many curious people find attractive as there are always new things to learn and fresh opportunities.

Nor does either industry require you to be an extrovert, although many are found in these professions. Introverts also find their place, often able to build strong connections and use their listening skills to deliver what clients want.

If this sounds like you, your next challenge is assessing which career path will motivate you and be the best use of your skills and efforts.

Marketing

Marketing uses storytelling to sell a product or service, but the messages often involve graphics in addition to words. Strong visual communicators often enjoy the advertising side of marketing.

Those motivated by hitting or exceeding hard targets may also prefer marketing. The sales and engagement figures and other data clearly show how close marketing professionals are to reaching their goal.

Researchers enjoy marketing because it allows them to use data to find opportunities, and the metrics provide solid feedback on performance and where adjustments need to be made.

Public relations

PR uses storytelling to build and maintain a positive reputation for an organization or client. The messages and communication are heavily word based, appealing to those who enjoy writing.

Professionals in this field use networking to build lasting relationships. Consequently, PR sometimes favors those who take satisfaction from playing the long game, where a reputation is sculpted over time.

Results don’t always lend themselves to easily quantifiable results. Sometimes, the joy in PR comes from turning a potentially disastrous story into a positive situation.

PR may involve public speaking and answering direct questions from the press or key stakeholders. Some people who struggle with small talk excel in this role as they control the narrative, framing it to suit their client’s interests.

Business and marketing at University of Phoenix

Does marketing appeal to you? University of Phoenix offers a Bachelor of Science in Business with a Marketing Certificate that teaches skills such as communication, marketing analysis, operations and leadership.

This program also teaches how to integrate business concepts and principles to advance organizational goals, analyze market research used to make business decisions, develop marketing strategies based on reliable marketing data and concepts, and more.

If a career in PR appeals to you, consider a Bachelor of Science in Communication, which teaches skills such as communication, writing, editing and leadership. This program also teaches how to integrate theories and best practices to determine communication strategies, develop communication plans for diverse purposes, evaluate communication effectiveness for a variety of contexts, and more.

Portrait of Michael Feder

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!

 

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