Marketing vs. Advertising vs. Public Relations

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 5.14.52 PMI’m in marketing. More specifically, social media marketing and even more specifically content marketing. But as you can imagine I often get asked to handle matters that would be better classified as public relations or advertising. Sometimes I fulfill these requests quite seamlessly because of the overlap among them. Other times, I refer the requests to specialists. When I explain that PR and advertising are not my fields of expertise, I often get asked, “What’s the difference?” To the outside viewer the answer is, “Not much,” in that all three are about creating a positive image for your business in such a way as to enhance profits. After that, the differences can be striking. Let’s break them down:


“The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous.” ~ Peter Drucker

In its broadest sense, marketing encompasses practically every aspect of business, from research and development to sales and service. To me, marketing is fostering desire for what you offer. This can be done in a number of ways. You might research the audience to find out what they want and then give that to them, which is how many venerated brands operate. Or you might create something completely new and make the audience want it, which is how innovative brands do it. For most small businesses, it’s somewhere in between.

Many small businesses start out by offering something they know a particular audience already wants, such as legal services, groceries or party supplies. However, the trick becomes getting that audience to want it from you rather than your competition. In this way, a good marketer can help a business craft its offer so that it differentiates itself from the rest of the field. On the flip side, that same marketer can help find exactly that right segment of the population that is already a unique fit. Once the audience is identified, the marketer can employ advertising, public relations and other techniques to make them aware of the offer, enticing them to buy. The marketer then helps ensure that the customer’s experience generates more business, either through repeat engagement or through referral or both.

In many ways, marketing is the architecture of your business, helping to design everything from the product to pricing to delivery to service after the sale, and then making sure the broadest possible range of people want it.


“Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.” ~ Mark Twain

In the most traditional sense of the word, advertising is direct communication with your marketing audience in such a way as to influence behavior. In general, most ads are composed of any combination of these elements: The offer, its virtues, the competitions faults and/or a call to action (“Buy now”, “Call now”, “Click here”, etc.). The advertiser has almost complete control over the message and its delivery. The media channel accepting the advertisement may choose to run or not run an ad, but it’s not likely to change the ad to suit itself.

Advertising agencies and professionals specialize in crafting cost-effective campaigns that will deliver maximum impact on behavior, using artwork, copy and placement in appropriate media. They understand advertising’s fineries and vagueries, including purchasing the time and space to run the ads, which can be quite complicated. They have a good sense of what to expect from specific types of campaigns and will know whether adjustments to a campaign are warranted. Advertising is often the most expensive element in a company’s overall marketing effort because of its direct correlation to sales.

Public Relations

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” ~ Warren Buffet

Public Relations is exactly what it states: your relationship with the public. It’s not necessarily about getting free publicity through popular media, as many people think. It’s about maintaining a positive public image that is separate and apart from your marketing and advertising campaigns. For many companies, it’s about staying out of the newspapers, which can take as much effort as getting into them. However, public relations differs from advertising in the level of control that is relinquished when delivering the message, which can get augmented for better or for worse by the media channel publishing it.

A Public Relations Representative, often referred to as a PR Rep, will usually start by crafting a strategy that is in line with your business goals, such as increasing sales. As part of that strategy, he or she will determine which industry channels will be most appropriate, such as business, finance, technology or entertainment. They will then help craft an interesting angle or hook that will appeal to journalists in the targeted channels. Finally, they will draft press releases and compile press kits to put in the hands of said journalists such that they will be compelled to publicize your message. Once a PR campaign has been launched they will monitor media to make sure the message is clear, favorable and working to your benefit, and act accordingly to adjust it when it is not.

In moments of crisis, when your company’s reputation is at stake, a good PR Rep can be invaluable. The best PR Reps have longstanding connections within various media channels that they leverage to marshal journalistic forces. At the upper echelon of public relations these media connections mean everything. A top PR Rep can launch a minor story or quash a major story with just a phone call. Probably the most famous case of public relations crisis management was the Tylenol scare of 1982 (read about it here).

Effective public relations can be quite expensive and therefore belie the “free publicity” myth. In today’s social media world, it extends past traditional journalism into realms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It’s all about crafting and maintaining a positive public persona, whether for a group or an individual.

The Overlap

In today’s highly interconnected world, it can be hard to clearly delineate between marketing, advertising and public relations. It’s not because the definitions are muddled but because they often are used together with a great deal of synergy. For instance, a business blog such as this one can deliver a very clear message about a particular good or service without directly trying to effect the reader’s behavior. It’s clearly a marketing tool, but it’s not advertising or public relations yet because it doesn’t have a clear call-to-action and the author maintains complete control of its content and delivery. However, the blog page can contain advertising with a clear call to action and the blog content can also be offered for possible placement in other media channels, turning it into a public relations tool.

In one of the most synergistic marketing efforts I can recall, a clothing manufacturer, Weatherproof Garment, once discovered a stock photo of President Obama wearing one of their coats while strolling the Great Wall of China. They showcased the photograph in a billboard advertisement overlooking Times Square which immediately drew the attention of the White House. See the ensuing public relations buzz in the New York Times here. Genius!

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