Even among professionals, the difference between public relations (PR) and marketing is confusing. 

There is an ongoing “discussion” between the two disciplines as to which is a branch of which (is marketing a tool of public relations or vice versa?).  Each is vying for the penthouse corner office.  How do we answer the question, which one is the “boss”?

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines PR as the following: “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines its craft as: “Marketing is 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.” 

Obviously, both national groups spent a lot of time coming up with those complicated definitions. The simple explanation is that PR is about building long-term, favorable relationships with every stakeholder and marketing is about promoting and selling a product or service. Public relations works to target multiple audiences including staff, media, stakeholders, etc. Marketing is focused on the needs, wants and expectations of the customers that help sustain a business.

Marketing cares deeply about the customer because, without sales, no business survives. A PR professional also cares about public opinion and public awareness. PR strategies include plans for responding to a crisis and monitoring a developing issue that could affect an organization’s reputation. A strong positive image helps carry a company beyond the ups and downs of sales and the economy. 

In fact, a few of the greatest businesspeople of our time emphasize the importance of public relations. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, said that “a good PR story is infinitely more important than a front-page ad.” Microsoft founder, Bill Gates adds that “if I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget, I’d spend it on PR.”

So, between marketing and PR, which is the most important? Both are necessary, and both require planning and a long-term strategy for the best outcomes. A marketing emphasis is great if you are already well-known, have a solid business foundation and are focused on trying to sell a product or service. If you’re trying to build strong relationships, have a community presence and develop a strong reputation, then public relations is the boss for you.


Mary Louise VanNatta, APR, CAE is the CEO of VanNatta Public Relations a PR, Event Planning and Strategic Communications firm located in Salem, Oregon. PRSalem.com.

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