What Is PR? And Why Do I Love This Coffee?

So, what is PR, exactly? Is it marketing or is it something else entirely? And, if it is different from marketing, how do the two work together? Oh, and what about advertising?

“Marketing and PR, it’s all the same.”

We were sitting on the patio of a riverfront restaurant, enjoying a couple beers and some unseasonably warm February weather when my good friend uttered that statement.

No, I didn’t strangle him, and not just because he happens to be my attorney. Rather, it’s because what he expressed is a common misunderstanding about PR and marketing.

And to be quite honest, many practitioners of the two don’t do a really good job clearing up those waters. Sometimes that’s unintentional, while at other times it’s done on purpose for professional reasons (I’ll explain those in a later post).

But, to answer the first question in this article’s headline, let’s start with…

The definition of “public relations”

It’s not hard to find a good definition of PR.

Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about the matter:

“the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution”

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Now, let’s turn to the definition of marketing, again from Merriam-Webster:

“the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service”

As you can see, there’s a substantial difference between the two. So, no, my friends (side eye at my attorney), public relations and marketing are not the same thing.

How I explain PR

Whenever I meet with a prospective client, right out of the gate — or as close to it as possible — I try to make sure we’re on the same page about what PR actually is. If they don’t have a solid grasp, here’s how I explain it.

I tell them that marketing is the larger school, and that two of the main disciplines within that school are advertising and public relations.

There is much more to it, but advertising mainly represents the “what” of marketing.

Here’s an example: I have this great coffee and you need great coffee.  

“What” I’ve got in that scenario is great coffee.

As I discussed in an earlier post, we get hit with, according to one estimate, at least 4,000 advertisements every single day. That’s a dizzying number, and marketers spend good money finding their target audience and pinging them with these ads at every turn.

Now, let’s go back to that definition of public relations. In particular, let’s focus on the meat of the definition: inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill.

Heavy emphasis on goodwill.

If advertising is about the “what,” PR gets at the “why” of marketing. By explaining why your brand exists, you can deepen the bonds that resonate with consumers and the general public.

Back to the coffee example: This great coffee is more than great coffee, and we believe that by bringing it to you we can help make the world a better place. It is a high quality fair trade product, and we give 10 percent of all profits to a clean water initiative in developing countries. When you drink our coffee, you’re enabling others to drink clean water. 


Beyond the great coffee part, this “why” gives customers a more substantial reason to purchase the product. Instead of simply buying the coffee, they connect with the brand.

Whereas advertising moments are paid for (television, radio, Google ads, billboards, promoted social media posts, etc.), PR is often deployed through organic opportunities like:

  • Earned media and op-eds
  • Thought leadership
  • Custom editorial content
  • Cause marketing
  • Crisis communications

The Patagonia example 

These days I’ve been talking a lot about Patagonia, the outdoor brand, when giving an example of a company that does an incredible job balancing the “what” of product advertising and the “why” of public relations.

Patagonia makes some of the best outerwear on the market, hands down, and I’m sure they have a massive budget dedicated to advertising those products. However, as environmental regulations have been softened during our current presidential administration, Patagonia has doubled down on their vocal environmentalism — even suing the president. Their CEO has penned opinion pieces and scores of articles have been written about the brand’s efforts.

They’ve got industry leading jackets and they’re using their position to fight and save the planet. For this stance, Patagonia has found increased favor with new customers while cementing loyalty with their existing fans.

Providing customers with both your “what” and “why” is paramount. You’ll get them with the former and you’ll keep them with the latter.

The best have mastered this.

David Martin is the founder of Heed Public Relations. You can reach him at david@heedpr.com.