Gauging the Differences of Marketing and Public Relations

Written by Dustin Manley

What is the difference between marketing and public relations? Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer. Most of the public—and even some practitioners—find it difficult to distinguish the two functions.

At their essence, marketing focuses on products while public relations focuses on people. The goal of marketing is to generate sales while public relations fosters positive relationships with stakeholders; however, both functions contribute to an organization’s bottom line.

Marketing’s impact is relatively transparent because it provides a tangible return on a financial investment. Understanding the financial impact of public relations is a little trickier because it deals primarily in intangibles. Here is a useful method to differentiate the two functions:

Imagine marketing and public relations as dial gauges. 

Marketing’s role is to move the needle as quickly as possible. Marketing is responsible for boosting product awareness as much as possible within a relatively short time-span; the needle will spike, but is expected to gradually fall back.

Public relations’ role is to continuously push the needle forward. This is accomplished by building public awareness through through initiatives like reputation management, fostering relationships, and earned media.

As often seen in agency practice, public relations builds audiences and marketing turns those leads into revenue. As marketing author Al Ries writes, “Let PR light the fire and marketing fan the flames”. While this perspective is true, particularly in consumer campaigns, it does not capture the broader function of public relations.

While most practitioners are loathe to hear it, the primary function of public relations during the 20th century was media relations. This is one of the reasons people continue to conflate marketing and public relations. The rise of social media and web 2.0 in addition to the press’ diminishing role as media gatekeepers has helped distinguish public relations as a powerful and strategic function.

Today, Public relations’ primary function is now truly public relations. Organizations are able to engage with the public without going through the media filter; however, the reverse is also true. Through platforms like social media the risk of crises has grown exponentially. As a result, instead of using social media primarily as a marketing platform, most organizations recognize it as a public relations platform for engaging directly with stakeholders through sharing information and providing customer service.

Public trust is a valuable currency that has never been a more important factor for organizations. Losing that trust can impact revenue and tarnish legacy. While marketing has and always will be the primary driver of revenue, it is public relations that keeps the needle in the black.