Social Marketing versus Public Relations: What’s The Difference, Really?

Last Updated on October 7, 2021

There was a time not so long ago when marketing and public relations were two very distinct – if closely-related – fields. The former was primarily concerned with selling the products and services of a brand; the latter was entirely focused on maintaining relationships. Then social media came along, and thoroughly muddied the waters.

With the advent of social media, an entirely new marketing paradigm was born – relationship marketing.

“The days of traditional marketing, such as running ads, commercials, and other one-way forms of promotion are rapidly fading because the rise of relationship marketing is taking a front seat,” writes Technori’s Katie Leimkuehler. “Relationship marketing means reaching out to your consumer base and keeping them engaged not only with your products and services, but also through your online content and community.”

Sounds startlingly similar to public relations, doesn’t it? It isn’t, though. The changes brought about by social networks may have made differentiating between the marketing and PR a little more difficult, for sure; the two are nevertheless independent of one another.

Today, we’re going to examine how. Through a comprehensive look at social media marketing, we’ll establish how it’s become its own distinct entity, separated from both advertising and public relations. Let’s dive right in.

Is Social Media Meant For Marketers Or PR Firms?

As noted by Scott Elser of Inc, the majority of companies view their efforts on social media as a PR thing. After all, relationship management lies at the core of every social network, and that’s something that’s the purview of PR professionals. Conversations on social media demand a rapid turnaround, they demand that one understand how to release controlled messages and relate to whoever they’re communicating with.

There’s more to it than simple conversation, however.

“Social media is maturing, evolving quickly from just a place to communicate to an environment that can help sell and inform messaging,” explains Elser. “Many people ‘like’ and follow companies not to be part of a community, but to stay connected to products, promotions, and developments. For instance, while they have a huge Facebook audience, few people ‘like’ Charmin on Facebook to share their thoughts on toilet paper usage.”

“The real interaction is around sweepstakes and promotions that drive activation,” he continues. Increasing business investment in social media is coming in conjunction with new capabilities that enable tracking through conversion – clearly an advertising metric.”

In other words, social marketing is something of an amalgamation of both marketing and PR. Business success on Facebook or Twitter demands that one understand not only how to juggle their connection with consumers – consumers who, I might add, demand fast response times and priority treatment – but also how to create awesome content, host interesting events, and generally just engage with one’s audience.

Elser’s conclusion is that whether a business considers social marketing a PR or advertising deal comes down to what that business is looking to accomplish. If it’s all about customer care, then you’re looking at a PR-oriented campaign. If it’s geared more towards lead generation and sales, then it’s marketing.

Unfortunately, for our purposes, Elser’s conclusion doesn’t really work all that well. We’re here to establish what makes social marketing distinct from public relations – not further blur the lines between the two. Keeping that in mind, let’s move on.

Social Marketing Targets A Much Larger Audience

As a general rule, the first (and perhaps most noticeable) difference between social marketing and PR is the scope of one’s efforts. In public relations, you’re generally focused on establishing and maintaining relationships with a few individuals – influential clients, investors groups, business partners; et-cetera. Social networks work on a much larger scale than that.

While you still might pursue a lasting business relationship with a particularly important lead, working from a social marketing standpoint means you’re generally concerning yourself with a much larger audience – potentially your entire customer base. This also means that individual relationships are much less likely to make an impact in your overall marketing efforts.

“It’s rare that a single hit in social, even if it’s coverage by an influential blogger, will move the needle for a company or campaign,” writes Social Media Explorer’s Stephanie Schwab. “Social media is a slow build that requires ongoing, daily effort to make an impact. This is a hard concept for a lot of clients to understand; because in PR, one link from The New York Times or an appearance on Oprah will drive attention, traffic, and sales for a company and will undoubtedly make you a hero to the client.”

“For some brands there may be fewer fans or followers necessary to generate engagement, and for others they’re looking for mass, but it’s certainly more than a handful of journalists,” she adds.

Public Relations Needs An Angle, Social Marketing Needs A Voice

Another difference pointed out by Schwab is the fact that the majority of PR pitches are centered on an angle or a hook. They’re focused on delivering a very specific message; most of the time, this is something of direct importance to the company. As such, in order to get that message across without appearing too ‘salesy;’ they usually tend to couch what they’re saying in commentary of some sort.

That doesn’t work in social media.

As I’ve said on many occasions before, modern event planners need to have a natural flair for storytelling because of the way social marketing works. On a social network, people don’t want a sales pitch. They don’t want a unique ‘angle’ for every post you make, nor do they particularly care about sifting through press releases.

What they do want is for the brands they deal with to have a voice. They want to be able to put a human face on those they do business with; to ascribe a personality to an organization’s social media presence. That voice needs to be consistent, so as to maintain a cohesive picture of the business it represents.

And as for what happens if you change your voice constantly, tackling your posts from a new angle each day?

People are going to get angry at the inconsistency. And like it or not, that will damage your brand. People aren’t going to be able to verify whether or not your business is authentic, and as a result, they’re likelier to jump ship for one that is.

Social Marketing Is Much More Active Than Public Relations

In a way, traditional PR is a bit of a holdover from the older days of advertising and marketing. Much like its close kin, it’s generally a passive pursuit. Sure, you can send out announcements, get in touch with mailing lists, and advertise your posts…but at the end of the day, people consume the content you put out as a PR specialist in a passive way. They don’t engage with it in the same manner as they do content on Twitter or Tumblr.

Social marketing, meanwhile, is all about reaching out to customers, both current and prospective. It’s about providing people with valuable advice, resources, tools, or simple entertainment. In essence, it’s almost like you’re treating your audience as friends rather than leads – and much like real friends, they’re not going to stick around if all you do is spout sales copy.

Social Marketing Requires A Sustained Effort

One last bit of information from Schwab before we move on. According to her, social marketing is “a slow build.” It’s something you actively sustain over a long period of time; something that requires a consistent, active effort to develop and maintain. It isn’t something that can just be turned off or ignored

“PR is certainly best when it’s also a sustained effort, so that writers and editors get to know a brand and use them as a go-to resource year-round,” Schwab admits. “But it’s also pretty easy to jump in and out of in order to promote a company at key time periods or for product launches. If you turn social platforms on and off like that, you’re going to look like you’re uncommitted to those channels – you’ll lose followers/fans and have a hard time attracting new ones as a result.

Social Marketing Is Directly Measurable (Sort Of)

Another key difference between social marketing and public relations is that it’s a whole lot easier to establish ROI on one’s efforts through social media – mostly because you can measure pretty much everything associated with your campaign. Not so with traditional media coverage. Certainly, you can look for correlations – increased traffic after coverage by an influential blogger, increased sales after an appearance on a talk show – but ultimately PR’s metrics tend to be a bit more nebulous than those associated with social marketing.

Social Marketing Is (Probably) Better At Fostering Trust

As of September 2011, 55% of Americans had little to no trust in journalists.  I can’t say I see that number getting any lower as of 2015 – especially when pieces like this one are surfacing Bloomberg. What that means is that public relations campaigns are generally less successful than they used to be; it’s a lot harder to generate suitable buzz amidst such an atmosphere of mistrust.

Contrast that with social media, where most consumers don’t trust the brands on there, either. That shouldn’t come as any surprise though. The majority of brands have a tendency to fumble social marketing pretty thoroughly.

What consumers do trust is other consumers. We trust reviews we find on websites like Yelp, recommendations from our friends that we see on Facebook, and advice from independent reviewers in communities like Tumblr.

They are, after all, just like us – they aren’t trying to sell us anything, nor are they attempting to measure any metrics. They’re simply sharing information. With that in mind, it’s a lot easier to gain and maintain trust on social networks as a brand, even if it’s indirect.

Closing Thoughts

There are plenty of similarities to be found between social marketing and public relations. Both deal with relationship management to a degree. Both are concerned with generating buzz about a business or brand. Where they diverge, however, is how they go about doing so.

Social marketing generally operates on a much larger scale than PR, with a greater focus on conversation, and the need for both a consistent personality and a sustained effort. It’s also a lot more measurable, too – and perhaps as a result of that, is far more active.