Marketing vs public relations vs human resources: what’s the difference?

The lines between marketing, public relations and human resources may be blurring but the fundamentals remain constant.

There’s a turf war taking place between professional disciplines. In many instances the lines are blurring to the extent that it’s not possible to tell one from the other.

  • If a retailer develops content to earn links to optimise for a search term is that marketing or public relations?
  • Is an online community for people working internationally for an organisation internal communications or public relations?
  • The employee engagement scheme which encourages staff and their families to use an organisation’s products or services. Is that public relations or human resources?
  • How about the promotion of articles in national media on third-party websites? Is that marketing or public relations?
  • What about the social media listening campaign that proactively helps customers? Is that marketing or public relations?

As digital technologies and social forms of media rampage through organisations the lines between functional areas of an organisation are turning grey, if they haven’t faded completely.

Forget blurred lines: the line has disappeared

This will be a macro trend for years to come until all organisations are social.

This issue is most acute in areas that lack a professional framework. Finance and legal have no such insecurities.

It is most obvious in supply-side agencies. Interdisciplinary pitches are commonplace.

Advertising, creative, digital, internal communications specialists and public relations agencies compete and partner.

Communities, content, paid promotion, search and social media are the battle grounds in this turf war.

No discipline owns any area of practice

The debate over who owns which area is irrelevant.

Human resources has been slow to recognise the potential of social media for employee engagement.

Public relations missed out on search engine optimisation and is crying shy on paid.

Marketing has turned its back on two-way engagement in social media.

New areas of practice are emerging as a result and human resources, marketing and public relations are encroaching on each other’s space.

Formal definitions

It’s worth retuning to the formal definitions of each area of practice. They are typically much misunderstood because of a lack of formal training and the issue described.

Like public relations, human resources is concerned with people. It seeks to optimise the performance of an organisation through a motivated workforce.

Marketing seeks to match product or service with a customer, at the right price, in the right place, at the right time.

Public relations has always been and will always be about people. It seeks to build trust and reputation through conversation and mutual understanding.

I shared a sketch with a group of students summarising the differences between marketing and public relations last week. I’ve smartened it up and added human resources below.

Characteristics of marketing, public relations and human resources


It’s both exciting and scary to work in any of these disciplines at the moment because of the lack of formal frameworks and the pace of change but it means the opportunities are great if you capitalise on them.

You’ll get ahead by being open to innovation and willing to fail. A positive attitude to learning also goes a long way.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


  1. Wadds,
    As always a stimulating post. Have you missed out Brand Storytelling here?
    Underlying any change is a story narrative.
    The thread linking organisational performance, sales, and reputation and trust is a story narrative.
    Who are the best equipped people (potentially) to be organizational storytellers? PR people if they seize the opportunity with new thinking and supporting efforts, like #PRredefined, to create not just a new definition and theory for PR, but a better definition and theory to take us all forward together.

  2. We’re currently grappling with where Customer Service sits within the social mix? It’s about people & relationships but traditionally seen as a marketing function.

  3. Black Ops Zombies… […]some folks nonetheless have not played this game. It’s hard to picture or believe, but yes, some men and women are missing out on all with the fun.[…]…

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