What is Public Relations?

What is public relations ?

Public relations is the art of crafting and delivering messages that inform and persuade the public, and get people to change opinions or take action.

Public relations (PR for short) is often done to generate publicity and promote a business. A typical PR campaign might focus on getting a business covered on television or radio shows or featured in newspapers, websites, magazines or blogs.

Today, the lines are blurring between the traditional definition of public relations and other forms of marketing.

“In practice, public relations is a multistrategy, multitactical means of reaching various external and internal target audiences, called ‘publics’ by practitioners. Public relations enables you to deliver messages that inform, educate, and create or change opinions, attitudes and actions that have an impact on your objectives,”  write Roman Hiebing and Scott Cooper in their book, The Successful Marketing Plan (3rd Edition, McGraw Hill).

But, you might be thinking, that sounds so broad. Can you be more specific about the public relations definition?  And how exactly does public relations differ from marketing as a whole and various marketing techniques?

Communication is Key

At its core, public relations is about communicating. PR is about the messages the company communicates — and its ability to persuade others to voluntarily adopt or share those messages.

In large corporations, for example, the executive responsible for public relations might hold a title like Vice President of Communications.

Some people try to diminish PR by calling it spin or buzz.  But putting a spin on something or making it interesting enough to generate buzz are not bad things. They are valuable techniques in a PR pro’s toolbag.

Then there are those who define PR as corporate propaganda. But that’s wrong because the word propaganda suggests a deliberate intention to mislead.  Effective public relations is ethical and factually accurate. The goal is not to lie, because that could backfire spectacularly when the truth comes out (and eventually it will).

Rather, the goal of effective PR is to present truthful messages — just framed positively for your brand.

A perfect example is the rhetorical question: is the glass half full or half empty?  Both are correct. But only one way presents the message positively. Words matter.

The best communications are relevant and timely.  Are you sending the right message, at the right time?

That’s why a technique like newsjacking can be effective PR. Newsjacking is about capitalizing on a current event in the news to gain attention.  When you think about it, newsjacking is a very good way to appeal to press outlets and captivate your end customer. After all, people are going to be more interested in current events than in a plain-vanilla business message.  Newsjacking can convert a message from “meh” to “WOW”.

What is Public Relations?

What Public Relations Is Not

No piece defining “what is public relations” would be complete without addressing what PR is not.

In the following sections, we will look at how the definition of public relations differs from marketing and other promotional activities. There are distinct differences.

  • One difference is the form of the messaging.
  • Another difference is whether you go directly to your target market or work through the media or influencers.

We’ll explore those and other differences in the rest of this article.

Let’s start with a picture — which is worth a thousand words as they say. The image below is loosely based on a famous image defining common forms of marketing. This is our fun updated take on public relations vs marketing in general and specific types of marketing.

Public relations vs marketing advertising social media

Public Relations vs. Marketing

Let’s first look at the relationship between marketing and public relations.

According to the American Marketing Association, “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.”

Notice how BIG that definition is.  Marketing is much broader than public relations.  Marketing involves communicating but is more comprehensive.

To better understand, let’s step back and look at marketing a different way, through the lens of the five Ps.  The 5 Ps of marketing is shorthand for a framework to think about everything marketing involves. It started back in the 1960s as the 4 Ps, when marketing professor E. Jerome McCarthy coined the term. Later someone added a fifth P.

Today, the 5 Ps of marketing refer to:

  • Product (differentiation, appearance, packaging)
  • Price (price, discounts, credit terms)
  • Promotion (advertising, PR, sponsorships)
  • Place (distribution channels, markets)
  • People (customer service, employee skills)

Everything you do in marketing falls under one of these Ps.  Public relations has traditionally fit under the P for “promotion.”

Looking at the five Ps, can you see how much broader marketing is than public relations?

Stated differently, it isn’t public relations vs. marketing. Rather, think of it as how to fit public relations in marketing.  Your marketing plan should include public relations. But PR should not be your entire marketing plan.

What is Public Relations?

Public Relations vs. Advertising

“The primary difference between public relations and advertising is that advertising is a paid form of media. PR results are an earned form of media,” said Saru Saadeh, Co-founder & CEO of AdRobin in an exclusive interview.

You may have heard the term “owned, earned and paid media.” It is a way of thinking about your content and messaging:

  • Owned media is content and brand assets like images that you create.
  • Earned is when others share your messages voluntarily.  Securing a story in the Wall Street Journal after sending out a PR pitch is an example of earned media from public relations.
  • Paid media is advertising. You are paying to place or amplify your messages.

Advertising can include traditional advertisements in print publications. Or it can include digital ads in Google, on websites and on social media.

When it comes to public relations vs. advertising, PR has some powerful advantages:

More Neutral

PR is more neutral, points out Saadeh.  A third party such as a newspaper or website journalist is sharing your message, and usually is perceived as trustworthy.

More Budget Friendly

You don’t have to pay for PR messages. Remember, it’s “earned” media.

More Longevity

Your messages will last longer than an ad campaign. Articles mentioning your brand may live on for a long time through the search engines.

AspectPublic Relations (PR)Advertising
Nature of MediaEarned form of media (voluntarily shared messages).Paid form of media (messages are placed or amplified through payment).
Media TypesCoverage in newspapers, websites, and other media outlets.Traditional print ads, digital ads (Google, websites, social media), etc.
Message NeutralityMore neutral perception as messages come from third parties (journalists).Message control with less neutrality, as it's paid content.
CostGenerally, no direct cost for PR messages (earned media).Requires a budget for creating and placing ads.
LongevityPR messages have longer-lasting impact, often visible in search results.Ad campaigns have a specific duration and may not have long-term visibility.

However, PR also has three disadvantages vs. advertising:

Less Control

PR is communication targeted toward intermediaries such as journalists, influencers and analysts. You won’t have control over what these intermediaries say or how they interpret your messages. With advertising, on the other hand, you have complete control over your message, including the design and written copy.

Less Targeting

With advertising you can target who sees your message. “Although some may argue that you can achieve targeted placement through PR, the degree of this is certainly higher with digital advertising. For example, you may choose to show ads to people who search for a specific keyword on Google. Or on Facebook you may choose to target specific locations, interests, and behaviors that characterize your target audience, using the Facebook Ads Manager,” Saadeh adds.

Less Tracking

The third disadvantage of public relations is the lack of specificity in tracking and reporting. PR efforts are trackable, but not to the degree of paid advertising, which allows the use of custom links, conversion funnels, and budget optimization.

Because of the advantages and disadvantages, he advocates using both — advertising together with PR. “In addition to running an advertising campaign in parallel with PR efforts around the same message, we have found that small businesses succeed by applying advertising spend to the press articles themselves. Multi-channel syndication of the PR results, including paid ads on that content, allows for a wider and stronger brand presence online.”

More NeutralThird-party sharing is perceived as trustworthy.Complete control over the message.
More Budget FriendlyEarned" media, no direct cost for messages.Requires budget for ad campaigns.
More LongevityMessages last longer, live on in search engines.Ad campaigns have a set duration.
Less ControlLimited control over message interpretation.Full control over message design and copy.
Less TargetingLimited targeting compared to digital advertising.Precise targeting options (e.g., demographics, keywords).
Less TrackingTracking is less specific compared to paid advertising.Advanced tracking, custom links, conversion funnels.

Public Relations vs. Social Media

When it comes to public relations vs. social media, the line is extremely blurry.

Savvy PR professionals and business owners know how to leverage social media to generate buzz and publicity. They use social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to communicate positive brand messages.

Also, a large part of social media involves influencer marketing. That’s really about communicating with the people who communicate with and are trusted by consumers.

Refer to the image above for a lighthearted look at how social media differs from PR and marketing, yet has similarities.

What is Public Relations?

Content Marketing vs. Public Relations

Content marketing is about creating and distributing content for marketing purposes.  Content could be articles, ebooks, videos, blog posts, podcasts and more.

In one sense, this content marketing definition sounds a bit similar to the public relations definition. Both are about communicating.

But content marketing is broader than public relations — that is the difference. With PR, you are crafting messages with the goal to shape public perception and attitudes.  With content marketing, the main goal of the content you create may or may not be to shape brand perception.

For example, you might engage in content marketing to:

  • Generate sales leads:  Email-gated content such as an ebook can help collect sales  lead information to follow up on.
  • Improve search engine optimization: Content marketing can attract links and build a more authoritative website.
  • Increase social feed reach: Content marketing may be done to pump up  interaction with your social feeds. For example, sharing funny cat images on Facebook isn’t about your brand directly. But increased engagement can trip the social feed algorithm, causing Facebook to organically display your other brand-oriented messages to more people.

In summary, content marketing often supports PR goals. But content marketing goes  beyond public relations.

What is Public Relations?

Event Marketing vs. PR

Event marketing is often considered a type of public relations.  Holding a webinar, seminar or client event builds brand awareness. It helps reinforce a positive impression about your company.

Personal networking at third-party events is also a form of public relations.  When you go to a conference and meet people, it establishes and reinforces your personal brand.

Some businesses make it a specific goal for the founder or another executive to establish a reputation for thought leadership on behalf of the company. Having that person speak at industry events is a key way to build brand recognition and credibility.

Event marketing is about generating a memorable experience and in that way shaping positive sentiment. Can you see the relationship to public relations?

Cause Related Marketing vs. Public Relations

Here’s another question: what is the difference between cause marketing and public relations?  Answer: one supports the other. “Supporting a cause creates a message that gives PR a purpose, an engine to amplify the cause marketing efforts, and sparks an interesting conversation. They work hand in hand,” says Saadeh.

Putting weight behind a cause such as a charity or a social issue is an opportunity to get media coverage. It shapes public sentiment about a brand by forging a connection with others who believe in the cause.

“Cause marketing and PR heavily overlap,” says Saadeh. “As a small business, it’s important to tell the world (or local community) how you are a positive force.”

Cause marketing can take a while to show results.  But put a PR campaign behind it and you may get faster results.

In the end, though, you must be authentic. Don’t lose sight of the main purpose of supporting a cause, asserts Saadeh.  “It helps the world. That’s the most important thing.”

Don’t Overthink It

Finally, don’t get hung up on searching for the perfect answer to “what is public relations”.

A public relations definition is good only insofar as it helps you learn how to do public relations to meet business goals.

Develop a basic understanding of what PR is all about, and the differences between public relations and other forms of marketing. Then you’ll be positioned to jump in and develop a PR approach for your startup, small business, corporation or nonprofit organization.

Images:  original Small Business Trends infographic; DepositPhotos,

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Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.