Understanding the Difference: Marketing, Public Relations, and Advertising

When mentioning I work in public relations, I am often met with a follow up question along the lines of “So, what exactly does that mean? People pay you to get them in the news?” My answer is, of course, no.

I say of course, but the truth is, it’s not so simple or obvious to people who don’t work in a marketing field. Many people don’t understand the difference between public relations and advertising, and still more don’t quite realize how broad a term marketing is and the various professional fields it represents.

Hopefully, the following information will help clear up the confusion.   

What is Marketing

Marketing is the general term and process used to introduce your product, service or company to your target audience, while ensuring that your existing customers remain interested.

The discipline is made up of various fields, which include advertising and public relations, as well as research, product design, customer service and support, company and product reviews and so much more.

Think of marketing as a jigsaw puzzle. There are many different pieces, each fitting into a specific spot. On their own, the pieces are just that – a piece. But when it’s put together with the next piece, it begins to show parts of the bigger picture and once all the pieces are in their place, you have a complete picture and a final product.

When your company is creating a marketing campaign, you need to consider all aspects and understand how they will all work independently as well as interdependently as part of the larger campaign. If you conduct months of market research and pay for advertising and public relations but design a label that doesn’t match the image of the product or convey the message you’re trying to send, your entire campaign could be a bust.

To break it down even further, marketing is made up of the four P’s: product, price, place and promotion.


In this case, product refers to either a tangible good or an intangible service that your company is offering to consumers. Companies need to have a solidified idea of what their product is or what they are offering before bringing it to market, and they need to know what makes their product or service unique.

Why should customers buy your goods or use your service?


Price refers to the actual cost of the product that you are selling, and correlates with the perceived value of that product. If you are selling your product for too much, or assess the value too low, consumers will not buy it. In addition, be mindful of how competitors are pricing similar products, as that should indicate how to price yours competitively.

Keep in mind that price also determines profit margin, so be sure to factor it into your supply needs to keep up with demand.


This is where advertising and public relations come into play. Promotion is when a company conveys its messaging to consumers through various platforms. In today’s digital world, this also includes social media platforms. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter make up the “holy trinity” of social media, while LinkedIn serves an important purpose for corporate businesses selling a service.

When considering which form of promotion you would like to use, make sure to do your research and determine which will work best. Once you’ve determined how you want to promote your product, research competing companies in the space so you can hire the best advertising or the best PR firm to do the job.


Place literally refers to the place where the product is sold. It should be accessible to the end users and somewhere that they shop. Today, the place usually includes some sort of e-commerce platform, but it can also include a supermarket, brick-and-mortar location or even pop-up stands.

However you decide to market your product, one thing is certain: It is crucial that your company’s marketing team fine tunes all aspects of the campaign to ensure that the product you are selling to your customers is exactly as you intended it to be.

What is Public Relations

If marketing is the sum of all pieces when assembled, then what exactly is PR and how do you create a successful PR campaign? And how is it different from advertising?

Despite being used by many businesses around the world, public relations is still one of the least understood marketing tools. To break it down at its most basic level, the best way to explain what public relations is and how it differs from advertising is with this old saying, “Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for.”

Think of a PR professional as a storyteller, as someone telling your brand, product or organization's story through unpaid or earned media, to your target audience. Public relations media can come through various mediums, including online or print news sources, broadcast, or even speaking engagements and social media platforms.

The goal of PR is inform the public, your public, of something happening within your company, whether it’s a new product launch, a major hire or a new partnership, to name a few. PR is also an effective tool for establishing credibility for yourself and your company because of the people choosing to tell your story.  

Reporters, editors and producers have their own credibility and have built reputations with consumers. Those narrators have the power to influence consumer behavior just based on the stories they choose to tell. They are not forced to write or broadcast a story about your company or product, so if and when they do, it is because they believe in the story you’re telling or the product you’re selling, and want to share that with their audience.

An effective public relations campaign also helps keep your brand visible. Whether through expert commentary, speaking opportunities or full-feature pieces on your brand, remaining in the news is important for your business. A good campaign will incorporate both elements -- expert commentary on topics relevant to you and your business and profiles.

In addition to all the positive information that public relations helps spread, public relations can also be incredibly important when it comes to crisis management.

A crisis can come up at any time in your business. Whether there is a production line issue, an employee walkout or strike, faulty products or recall issues to name a few, it’s best to have a trustworthy partner or team in place that is prepared to help mitigate the fallout and impact to your brand.

Whatever your need, a public relations team works to earn your time in the spotlight, which brings us to the topic of advertising...

What is Advertising

Whereas public relations is all about unpaid and earned media, advertising is the exact opposite. It’s all about paid media with the intention of promoting your brand, product or service. Advertising generally reaches a very wide audience, and is not always well-targeted.

There are many goals of advertisements, which include creating a sense of need with consumers -- to make consumers feel as if they need to buy your product or service -- introducing them to a new product or service, or even just generally creating brand awareness. However, where PR helps establish credibility among consumers, ads do not. The majority of the time, consumers are aware that they are reading an ad and they know that the content is paid for and therefore written by the company.  

One of the best aspects about advertising is that you -- the brand -- control the messaging. No one can write something you don’t want and nothing will be left out (unless you forget to write it). You can also encourage consumers to act through the ad, by including statements such as “buy now” or “book now” or “call now for a free quote.” These statements help create a sense of urgency and can help push consumers to buy your product or use your company sooner rather than later. You also control the creative, or the design, aspect of the ad. As the advertiser, you can also determine how many times you want your ad shown, as long as it fits into your budget.

No matter how you choose to promote your business, product or service, it is important to understand the difference between marketing, public relations and advertising. You don’t want to approach an advertising agency and expect a public relations proposal from them, nor would you want to approach a PR firm and ask for an advertising proposal. Generally, firms specialize in one of these areas - public relations or advertising - and do not cross over into the other. Understanding your needs as a business will help guide your decision of where to spend your marketing budget.

By Samara Schaum