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Oftentimes, these two closely related marketing terms are used interchangeably. But the truth is, there is a stark difference between Public Relations (PR) and Communications. When making a hire for your business, it is important to differentiate and understand how both are impactful, yet serve different purposes for your business’s needs. 

Here’s the breakdown.

What is Communications?

Think of Communications as the overarching umbrella that covers all different types of Communications functions, such as: events, sponsorships, social media, content, and yes, PR. Communications also sets the strategic messaging for your business—the themes, messaging strands, and most salient points you want your audience to know about your business, product, or service. 

So when you say you need to hire someone for Communications (i.e., Director of Communications, VP Communications), you could very well be speaking about any of those important tools. It’s somebody that oversees and manages all of these functions.  Depending on your needs, this could be a priority hire for your business. 

What is Public Relations (PR)? 

PR is merely a  function and subset within Communications and uses strategic messaging and different non-paid media channels (we’ll get more into that below) to create, maintain, or improve a company’s reputation, relationships, and brand image with the “public.” The “public” can be defined as parties that you do not do business with, but are important for your company. Think: community, media, employees, investors, etc.  PR works very closely and in tandem with the other Communications functions.

An important side note is that PR is sometimes referred to as “Media Relations”. This is because a major role of PR is to interact with journalists and editors to reactively respond to media questions and proactively place stories that help enhance credibility or authority, sell products, or whatever their strategic business goals may be.

With that information in mind, consider PR as just one (yet an incredibly important) tool in your Communications toolbelt, to get your messages across to influential audiences. 


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I want to dive in deeper with PR, and outline some of the characteristics and qualities of what a PR professional specifically does, to help bring clarity about its function and purpose.

In a nutshell, one of the most important functions of a PR professional is to relay the right messages, to the right people. Read: take the news announcement and make sure that it gets in front of the right audience (wherever they are consuming their information).

Depending upon your business objectives, your audience will vary greatly. For instance, if you are selling a tech product, your audience may be tech reporters. If you are working with a government agency, you will have a strong focus on government relations. You also might focus on investors, the community, developers (if you are hiring) and of course, the media. While Communications may also touch upon some of these audiences, the intent and objective is different; PR is designed to influence an audience’s perception and opinion, whereas Communications is simply designed to inform (for instance, a customer communication about a safety recall or a memo to the company). Your PR strategy will always depend (and differ) depending upon the audience you want to reach.

With your audience in mind, PR professionals then have to determine how they want to reach these different audiences. If you think of your audience and break it down in an incredibly simplistic way, think of how your channel (the mode in which you communicate) would vary from trying to reach a teen versus an elder. If you wanted to reach a teenager, would you pitch your news to AARP? Furthermore, if you have a new wine label you’re launching, would you pitch it to Bloomberg? When it comes to PR, you go where your audience is that you want to reach.

Types of channels can differ. 

Given that PR is the specific field of placing or influencing non-paid external communications (paid communications would be tactics like digital advertising, direct mail, etc.), the channels in how you reach your audience can vary greatly depending on how they consume their information. Other channels aside from press include:

  • Press releases
  • Media alerts
  • Interviews with media
  • Speaking engagements at in-person or virtual events or trade shows, podcasts
  • Thought leadership pieces, including contributed articles in business press or trade publications
  • Social media mentions
  • Testimonials or customer/case stories

The above list is simply skimming the surface on the different types of PR channels. Today, many modern PR Professionals also dig into paid and owned media if it falls within their jurisdiction while working closely with marketing. Paid media may include influencer marketing and paid social media promotions. “Owned” is any media that your company creates on their own such as blog posts, social media, website copy and more.

The case for both: There is absolutely a world where you would hire both – say, a VP of Communications and then under him/her is a PR Director, Social Media Director, Internal Communications Director, Government Relations and Content Creator, etc. There is also a world where you would hire these all piecemeal. There is no perfect one size fits all, but it’s simply important to understand the differences in what they do when building out this arm of your business.

To put a button in it, Communications is the encompassing umbrella function that dictates the strategic messaging and information the business wants to communicate; PR is merely one method to communicate those messages. Clearly understanding your business needs and the audiences you need to reach will help you determine the right fit—either Communications or PR—for your business. 


Learn more about PR and get connected with a PR Professional that can help boost credibility, assert authority, and enhance your business’s reputation here.