PR, Marketing and Advertising: The Key Differences

October 9, 2020

One of the most commonly misunderstood distinctions within the marketing sphere is that between PR, traditional marketing and advertising. Countless communications professionals have likely experienced the confused expression of a recent college graduate when, during an interview or networking event, they are informed that “PR/marketing” are actually two very distinct fields.

Although these encounters can be amusing for seasoned communications professionals who have developed a nuanced understanding of the differences between the three fields, the distinctions aren’t always obvious – especially to those just starting out in their careers and, sometimes, even to clients.

Below is a guide to distinguishing between the subsets of PR, marketing and advertising. Whether you have just finished school and are considering different career paths, are looking to make a switch from marketing to PR (or vice versa) or trying to find the best partner for your business’s needs, we hope to shed some light on the key distinctions between these three very different fields.


Marketing is defined as “the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners and society at large.”

Marketing is almost exclusively focused around driving sales – whether that means attracting new customers or maintaining strong relationships with returning customers. The tactics involved in raising consumer awareness include market segmentation, advertising, sales and merchandising. What all these activities have in common is that they are designed to target the consumers most likely to buy a specific product and tailor that product to be most appealing to said demographic.

What marketing professionals aim to do is generate a comprehensive strategy that will attract new customers to a brand, ultimately turning them into repeat buyers.


A key aspect of marketing is raising brand awareness. One of the ways companies and marketing firms do this is through the use of advertising. Advertising is a form of marketing that involves promoting a specific product via paid means.

Advertising is a form of paid media – what this means is that brands pay external platforms, such as radio stations, billboard companies and Google AdWords, to feature promotional content generated for them by marketing professionals.

Typically, an advertising specialist will focus on identifying the best platform (i.e. social media, billboards, etc.) for a company’s advertising to appear in and the style of content and formatting to be included in these advertisements based on the company’s target audience.

Public Relations

Public relations is defined as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Many PR firms work across the PESO spectrum to generate coverage for their clients, meaning that these firms work across paid, earned, shared and owned media channels. These channels can include traditional media outlets or even a company’s blog or social channels.

The goal of public relations is to build a positive reputation for a company and protect that reputation from negative attention. One of the key characteristics of PR is that it’s extremely time sensitive and often revolves around the news cycle. For example, if a negative story breaks about a company, its PR team must respond immediately to minimize the damage to the company’s reputation.

In essence, PR is about storytelling. Public relations professionals work with their clients to create a narrative that will project a favorable image of their brand and generate interest amongst journalists and reporters who cover the industry in which the company operates.

Although there is much more to unpack about the distinctions between marketing, public relations and advertising, we hope this guide will help clarify the key characteristics that set these fields apart from one another.

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