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Public Relations, Advertising & Marketing - What's the Difference?

Here is a quick rundown of these three fields. How are they related and what are their differences?

Public Relations

The local news broadcasts a segment on the availability of music, games and internet options via a new cell phone service or a national magazine covers a story about the amazing new cancer drug being developed by a biotech company-these stories are the end results of successful public relations (PR) campaigns. These campaigns most likely included writing press releases, contacting the media, and creating a buzz about the client to entice the media to report on it. While the advertisements produced by ad agencies are easily recognizable, the work of PR firms is much less conspicuous. Public relations, like the title implies, is about managing the public's perception of clients. PR firms work for politicians, entertainers and sports teams as well as corporations.

In addition to trying to get their clients noticed by the media, PR firms also keep track of how and how often their client companies are mentioned in the press. They comb through various publications and other media, clipping articles and compiling the information. PR firms are also called into action when there is a crisis that requires a client to take a public stance. For example, in the case of product tampering decisions need to be made about pulling products from the shelves, assisting victims and their families, and strategies for buoying consumer confidence in the company and its products. A public relations firm will assist their clients in good times and bad to manage their public image.


Advertising agencies conceptualize and produce the advertisements we are exposed to everyday via TV, radio, billboards, newspapers and magazines. Ad agencies also help their clients strategize their market appeal and brand themselves with targeted audiences. A full-service ad agency will develop an advertising strategy, conceptualize and produce the ads, and even buy the print space or TV/radio air-time needed for ad placement. Here is a quick overview of the core departments in an ad agency that ensure all this work gets done.

Account Management acts as a liaison between the ad agency and the client. They coordinate the efforts of the various departments within the agency to meet the client's advertising vision on time and within budget, as well as pitch the ideas developed for the client to the client.

The Creative Department comes up with concepts and drafts the initial designs for the ads. The creative team that produces the words and images used in the ads is made up of copywriters and art directors.

Production is responsible for making the finished product. Many agencies will produce print ads using artists and graphic designers that work in-house. The production of TV and radio ads is often contracted to outside TV and sound production companies.

The Media Department is responsible for placing ads where they will most effectively reach their target audiences. Media planners decide where ads should be placed based on market research they conduct. If the market they want to hit takes public transportation, a billboard located on BART may hit the mark better than one placed on the side of the I-80. Media buyers negotiate with various media outlets to purchase ad space or airtime within the client's budget.


Public relations and advertising functions often are preformed by outside agencies that specialize in these areas while the marketing functions are usually performed within a large or midsize company or corporation. The marketing department hires the PR, advertising or market research organization to perform these functions. Some smaller companies that don't have an in-house marketing department will also contract outside marketing firms to handle all their marketing needs as well, but the majority of marketing jobs are found within larger companies and not at marketing firms.

Some marketing positions are closely related to sales while others are more involved with the strategic aspects of the job. A marketing director may help the sales force reassess how they target potential clients or may be involved in the development of a new product to insure that consumer expectations (and needs) are being met. She may suggest a new feature be added to an existing product based on feedback from the sales staff or review potential ads submitted from the ad firm she hired.

The marketing department of a large organization is like the center of a wagon wheel with each spoke connected to other departments (in- and out-side the company) including sales, production, research, advertising, etc. The center of the wheel connects the various parts so they work in harmony. With this analogy it's easy to see that the main function of marketing is managing relationships in the organization, with outside vendors, and the consumer. Without marketing there is no consumer and without the consumer there is no use for the product or service the company is producing.

Public relations, advertising and marketing all use strong communication skills to get across their message, apply psychological principles to understand and influence consumers, and utilize basic data analysis to assure they are hitting their target markets. In addition, these fields require the use of creativity to generate the ideas and messages as well as critical thinking skills to make sense of the market research.


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