I’m often asked what is the difference (or perhaps more correctly, what are the differences) between marketing and public relations.

While I can provide a pithy (but ultimately unsatisfying) answer, it’s an issue that comes with a number of layers and thus deserves a deeper explanation. So here we go!

Definition of public relations

My definition of public relations is deepening the intensity of connection an entity (company, individual, organisation) has with the people who matter most to the success of their business, cause or issue.

These could be your clients or customers, industry influencers such as analysts, bloggers or journalists; it may also be a local council, industry body or government authority if they’re somehow integral to the successful running of your business.

Notice I did not mention generating media coverage for your organisation. While there’s a definite need for companies to gain editorial exposure for their brand, product or service, by just focusing on this aspect you will miss out on the myriad opportunities that fall under the PR banner.

If I was to ‘dumb down’ my definition, PR is very much about establishing, growing and maintaining reputation. Of course building reputation requires increasing awareness, credibility and influence of, and trust in, an organisation.

Why is reputation important? Because people do business with people and organisations they know, like and trust. In today’s connected economy, reputation is everything – indeed, it’s the foundation that holds up entire businesses.

Marketing, on the other hand (and in the interests of clarity, I’m going to be blunt here) – is all about ‘selling stuff’.

I’ve dealt with hundreds of marketers of all persuasions over several decades and the one thing they all have in common is they want to sell more widgets, they want to win more clients for the services they provide; they want to sign up more members to their website; they want more people to visit their venue.

Reputation versus selling stuff

Do marketers place equal measure on reputation? Of course they do – the smart ones realise people do business with brands they trust.

Are PR people interested in selling more stuff? If you’re in the marketing communications side of public relations, of course you do – you want your efforts to lead to tangible business results.

Example marketing PR tactics might include:

  • development of a multimedia platform (off which multiple promotional activities can ‘hang’);
  • staging an event-based brand experience, public stunt and/or social experiment (I love this campaign, part of a strategy developed by PR firm Edelman);
  • running a blogger and social influencer ‘outreach’ campaign;
  • leveraging a brand’s sponsorship investment;
  • initiating and managing community partnership initiatives;
  • creating and socialising content designed to facilitate conversation around a particular topic or issue;
  • … and yes, publicity and media relations activity (this could include everything from staging a media-only event through to direct one-on-one contact with journalists to pitch a story).

(By way of comparison, the corporate communications side of PR tends to be longer term in nature and more focused on building a favourable perception of a business or organisation; it includes functions such as managing crises and issues, communicating corporate governance initiatives, building relationships with key internal and external stakeholders etc. Importantly, there will often be crossover of corporate and marketing communication activities).

Public relations concept in tag cloud

Breathtakingly broad

I’m not a classically trained marketer but from my experience a professional marketer’s responsibility is breathtakingly broad and includes:

  • gaining insights from the market to inform new opportunities to increase revenue;
  • developing (and pricing) new products and services for the marketplace;
  • launching and promoting said products and services (including overseeing supporting advertising, digital and PR activities, and dealing with retailers in the case of physical products);
  • growing and developing product and organisational brands.

Each one of those marketing elements requires deep expertise, and I ‘dips me lid’ to those professionals who can master such a broad scope of work!

So just as PR people are more often than not boxed in as publicity merchants – and marketers painted into the corner of just advertising and promotion – we can see there is much, much more to both sides of the equation.

That said, I’m going to finish up by making the following generalised (but I believe, fairly accurate) statements:

  • Marketers will often put sales ahead of brand.
  • PR will put brand (reputation) ahead of sales.
  • But the good ones will find a way to align the two.
  • Marketers prefer pushing one-way promotional messages directly to consumers.
  • PR people prefer sparking conversation as a way of fuelling two-way engagement directly with consumers and stakeholders as well as via third-party influencers.

But the good ones on either side will see the other’s point of view and adapt accordingly.

And just to throw one final layer of perspective:

Marketers will often bring in PR people to add value to a campaign, but in some organisations, PR (or corporate comms or public affairs – the departments sometimes go under different names) will lead the way. Confused? :)

For small businesses, all you need to know is that much of what you do currently probably falls under a PR remit.

Creating content that builds reputation and authority; engaging with people and influencers on social media; speaking at events (or running your own), partnering with local community groups, or building relationships with bloggers, podcasters and journalists.

These activities, my friends, constitute PR today.