Ashlee Sierra

Almost everything in the world is about communication.

Think about it. Humans are built to tell stories with facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and more. We’re also uniquely capable of understanding these cues from others. That’s not to mention everything else that reveals stuff about you: clothing, art, the car you drive, even what you choose to name your pet. 

As a species so focused on communication, we naturally devised ways to do it better. Thus, fields like content marketing and public relations (PR) were born. But what makes you a content marketer vs. a PR professional? If both are based on communication with a target audience, why not erase the boundaries and make one big team?

Here’s what to know about content marketing vs. PR and how the differences impact your brand’s public perception.

Content Marketing and PR: A Communication Showdown

Here’s the thing: Communication may have been around forever, but that doesn’t mean we’re always good at it. There’s a reason miscommunication is a much-treasured trope in fiction.

That’s why it’s sometimes helpful to think of content marketing and PR as two little animals that chose different adaptations in the same harsh environment. But they’re generally not competing with each other for resources. Instead, they’re battling the elements: nuances, unspoken rules, contextual differences, complicated connotations and more.

But who thrives in the world of public perception? Let’s put these critters head-to-head to find out:

Content Marketing

What Is It?

Content marketing is about communicating through content. (No surprise there.) This “content” can be a blog post, infographic, eBook, explainer video or even just a string of emojis on social media. 

The idea is to provide a current or potential customer with tangible value that only your brand can offer. Better yet, it’s all for the low price of their time (and sometimes their email address). This, in turn, helps ensure your company will be the first place they go when they need a product or service.

Who’s Responsible for It?

Content marketers come in all shapes and sizes. These include:

  • Business leaders: While they may not be directly involved in marketing, these folks often determine a brand’s personality, values and goals — all of which help drive content marketing efforts.
  • Strategists: From user preferences to SEO algorithms, strategists build the framework for the whole marketing team.
  • Content creation experts: Content writing, design, animation — if it’s creative, you can probably find it here.

What Are the Goals?

The goals of content marketing efforts can differ depending on the company, strategy, channel and more. However, there’s one hope at the heart of it all: building relationships with current and potential customers. Other goals include brand awareness, search engine optimization (SEO), conversions and more. 

What Are the Benefits?

When done well, content marketing can:

  • Keep your brand top-of-mind among your target audience.
  • Establish your people as industry experts and thought leaders.
  • Build lasting value that will keep customers coming back to your website.
  • Develop a strong brand identity. 
  • Create new opportunities for leads, conversions, referrals and more.

What Happens When It Goes Wrong?

When not done well, a marketing campaign can offend, ostracize and demoralize your audience. Although you can remove or remedy individual pieces of content, the damage is generally done by the time you realize you’ve made a mistake. 

However, that’s a worst-case scenario. Far more common is the dreaded “flop” — a content marketing strategy that did nothing wrong except be unremarkable and fail to hit its key performance indicators (KPIs). That represents a waste of time, energy and resources more than an irreversible loss of audience trust. 


What Is It?

According to the Public Relations Society of America, PR is “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Traditional PR and digital PR differ a little, but the goal is always to reach the public — particularly existing audiences and the media — and cultivate a positive company image.

Who’s Responsible for It?

A PR professional can take any number of roles, including:

  • Brand ambassador: As representatives of your brand, these folks focus on communicating positive messages, often emphasizing your values and ethics.
  • Communication manager: This person is responsible for overseeing your company’s external communications, right down to the last social media post.
  • Publicist: A publicist works on cultivating, improving and maintaining publicity in all its forms, working closely with internal PR experts to strategize.
  • Media relations expert: These people focus on the media elements of PR — for example, a press release or talk show appearance. 

What Are the Goals?

A PR strategy generally focuses on one of two things:

  1. Building an ongoing, positive perception of your brand, particularly through the media.
  2. Responding to an incident, mistake or misstep.

The first is day-to-day PR, while the second is essentially an emergency recovery plan. Both are important to have in place — especially if you’re in a highly publicized, heavily scrutinized industry like health care.

What Are the Benefits?

When you manage media coverage with a steady hand, you could see:

  • Improved brand reputation.
  • Increased customer loyalty.
  • Boosted visibility, which leads to brand awareness and recognition.
  • More credibility and less concern or hesitation among your target audience.
  • Better opportunities to gain investors, partners, employees and new customers.

What Happens When It Goes Wrong?

Because a PR campaign is public by nature, any mistakes in this space could result in immediate and unforgiving criticism. Remember, the whole goal of PR is to prove that you can “say the right thing” — so saying the wrong thing puts you in a bad spot. The results can range from negative publicity in a single media outlet to widespread disapproval and condemnation from industry peers, experts, community leaders and the general public.

What To Remember About Content Marketing and PR

Content marketing and public relations have evolved in separate directions. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calls them “two very different departments.” But why are these communication-focused fields so distinct?

The main differences are:

  • Audience: Content marketing often focuses on reaching new audiences, while PR tries to inform, placate or impress existing ones.
  • Goals: In many ways, content marketing efforts tell stories about what you do and PR tells audiences who you are.
  • What’s at stake: PR efforts say that you’re confident in what you’re doing — which opens you up to criticism because you fully endorsed whatever mistake you just made. Content marketing, on the other hand, is more often seen as a field for creativity and experimentation, mostly because you’re “telling stories” instead of “telling your story.”

Of course, the two have plenty of similarities, too:

  • Audience: Yes, I know I just listed this as a difference, but think about it. In either case, you’re talking to people in your orbit, whether they’re just curious about the industry or already hardcore fans of your brand.
  • Experts: Some of the same people contribute to both fields, including strategists and content creators. (Hey, that catchy press release headline didn’t write itself.)
  • Values: Both content marketing and PR are about carving out space for your brand. Their methods are different, but they’re playing for the same team: yours.

So, what else is shared between these two fields? Can work for one benefit the other? Let’s take a look:

Audience Research 

While the specifics may differ, general audience research can apply to both content marketing and PR strategies. That’s because this stage helps you determine whom you’re talking to, what they want from you, what they consider “good” and “bad,” why they might choose a competitor and more. 

Word Choice 

Word choice is a critical tool because it determines how you come across. For example, saying something is “cool” makes you sound casual and friendly, while calling that same thing “excellent” may sound more professional.

Well … most of the time.

Bill And Ted 80S GIF by IFC - Find & Share on GIPHY

(Yeah. Context can completely change word choice, folks.)

Platforms, Formats and Channels 

Although PR and content marketing generally play in different spaces, they may sometimes cross over — especially when it comes to press releases. They also occasionally use the same channels to communicate their points or reach their audience. For example, your social media marketing could drive audiences to learn more about your media presence and vice versa.

You can also often use the same platforms to strategize, collaborate, create and distribute material for both fields. In fact, it’s helpful to keep everything in one place — that way, teams can learn from each other and work together to create a united front.

KPIs and Measurement Tools

While “success” looks different in each field, they do have a few elements in common. This is particularly true when it comes to KPIs like lead generation and conversions. You can use the same tool to track these interest spikes across PR and content marketing strategies — just be sure you differentiate your data so you can act on key takeaways.

Your Brand in the Spotlight

Whether you’re focused on PR, content marketing or a little bit of both, one thing’s for sure: Your brand is always in the spotlight. That doesn’t mean everything has to be a performance, though. Just keep in mind that your company exists to serve your audience — and that includes everything from the biggest product launch campaign to the smallest word choice in a social media post.