2015-10-30 10:16:00 Marketing English If you're a small business owner new to the world of marketing, taking time to understand these three concepts will save you money and time... https://quickbooks.intuit.com/r/us_qrc/uploads/2015/10/2015_10_14-small-am-whats_the_difference_between_marketing_advertising_and_public_relations.jpg https://quickbooks.intuit.com/r/marketing/whats-the-difference-between-marketing-advertising-and-public-relations-2/ What’s the Difference Between Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations?

What’s the Difference Between Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations?

5 min read

One might be compelled to call the combination of marketing, advertising and public relations (PR) “the promotional hat trick.” Many small business owners find these three subject areas confusing at best, or a waste of time at worst.

If you’re an entrepreneur who started your business because of a big idea or innovative product, chances are marketing, advertising and public relations are the last things on your mind. But with so many demands on consumers’ time and a saturated media marketplace, truly excellent marketing, advertising and public relations efforts have never been more important.

However, before you can create an outstanding campaign—or hire an expert to do it for you—you need to understand what these three disciplines are, how they differ and how they can help.

Definitions, Functions and Intended Messaging

Understanding the difference between advertising, public relations and marketing comes down to knowing what each is used for. Once you know what each is intended to do, you can start to think about how they can be used in your business.


Advertising is the paid placement of a persuasive message. Its sole objective is to compel the general audience to buy your good or service. Its messaging usually contains a strong call-to-action that directs the customer to take immediate action, although certain ads are simply to create a certain brand perception.

When placing an ad, what matters is getting a good return on investment (ROI), which takes the amount of money spent on a specific advertising message or campaign and divides it by the amount of sales. And although ROI can be hard to measure at times, the higher it is the better.

Public Relations

Public Relations (PR) is messaging that is directed towards a wide range of audience, including your consumers, employees and stockholders. Unlike advertising, the placement and distribution of the messaging is not paid for.

The function of public relations is to build relationships. PR professionals spend copious amounts of time reaching out to a variety of different audiences, including the media, shareholders and employees. The goal of any PR professional is to establish clear lines of communication with these groups, so that when a message needs to be communicated, there is an easy way of doing so.

Public relations really earns its stripes during times of crisis or intense organizational change. The information disseminated by the PR team should be clear and understandable, serving as the “voice” of the organization.


Marketing professionals are in charge of crafting the organization’s overall message for each of its target audiences. Because of this, the function of marketing is twofold: use advertising to make sales and PR to build relationships. After marketing professionals determine what a business’ overall message is, it’s up to the advertising and PR reps to determine ways to communicate that message to their specific target groups.

In other words, marketing is the strategy behind promotion. Advertising and public relations are the ways through that the overall marketing goal is executed.

Where Each Discipline Works Best

After reading the above, you might be under the impression we’re just splitting hairs. If advertising and public relations are forms of marketing, why can’t they all just be the same thing? The primary reason is the medium. Each form of marketing is suited to a particular message, and each message is more effective in certain channels than in others.

  • Advertising – For a long time, advertising was confined to five different types: outdoor (e.g. billboards), direct mail, radio, print and television. But with the fast rise of digital technology, other avenues such as social media platforms, mobile advertising and more have made advertising a more diverse and splintered discipline. With so many choices, organizations are only going to use the media that work for them, keeping track of ROI in order to optimize their spending.
  • Public Relations – Similarly, PR professionals normally reached out to the local beat reporters to get their messages out to the general public. However, technology has allowed PR departments to cut out the middle man and go direct to their target audiences. Using platforms like Twitter, a company can tweet out a message that will reach millions in seconds. And because news organizations have lost some of the exclusivity they once enjoyed, Twitter feeds are monitored constantly for the latest “news.”
  • Marketing – The true challenge of such diversification has fallen squarely on the shoulders of marketing departments across the world. Marketers must now understand their audiences’ buying patterns and behaviors in order to use the media that works best. This has made the gathering and interpretation of data such as media research and customer analytics a very important part of marketing departments.

Do You Really Need to Focus on All of These?

As a small business owner with little prior knowledge of marketing, you may find all of these elements overwhelming, and rightfully so. Your time and attention are in high demand and taking the time to truly dissect and understand marketing, advertising and PR may be impossible right now. Trying to then implement these tactics might result in hair pulling.

So, what can you do?

  1. Hire an expert. Marketing, advertising and PR professionals abound, and there are many freelancers out there that can provide the insight you seek. Make sure to establish a clear scope of work up front so that you and the consultant are sure to get the most out of your partnership.
  2. Take classes. When it comes to learning about marketing, advertising or PR, you have many low-cost or free choices. You can take an online class from a MOOC, a webinar from a company or a class from a local college or university. Taking classes also gives you a chance to make connections with other business people, which may prove very helpful down the line.
  3. Start small. This is probably good advice no matter how you choose to proceed. Your business will start small and as a result, you don’t need an overblown marketing campaign to launch. In fact, sometimes too much exposure can lead to an over-extension of resources that could sink your business from the start. Choose one or two things you want to explore or media you want to test and go from there. There is no reason to sink thousands of dollars into an advertising or marketing plan from day one.

Understanding how marketing, advertising and public relations can help you is possible, and using each one to your business advantage is a key to your ongoing success. If this is truly a new area for you, take your time and make sure the choices you make are right for your small business. To learn more, continue on to our article about how to avoid overspending on your marketing.

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Information may be abridged and therefore incomplete. This document/information does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for, legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

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