What’s the difference between PR and content marketing?

Getting traction for your business is difficult. You want to gain new users, but you also need to keep an eye on your budget. There’s several different routes you can go to make that happen—today, we’re discussing PR and content marketing, the pros and cons of each, and how to combine them for the best results in the least amount of time possible.


What it is: “PR” stands for “public relations.” Basically, it’s getting press: reviews of your product by journalists (or, in today’s media climate, popular bloggers), quotes from your founder or high-profile members of your company in articles at industry publications, and so on.

What it isn’t: PR isn’t advertising (paying to place media, whether video, image, or written content, on a particular site), guest posting (when a member of your company writes posts for high-profile publications), or content marketing (which we’ll be covering a moment). There are significant areas of overlap and they can be made to work together (or worked on by the same team), but they aren’t all the same thing.

How to do PR right:

First off, avoid the “spray and pray.” This is what industry pros call it when those who are less-experienced create a press release, and then email the press release out with a copied-and-pasted email to multiple journalists (sometimes, just BCC’ing all of them on the same email *cringe*), using whatever email address they can find. Then, they cross their fingers and pray.

Doesn’t sound particularly effective, does it? And it’s not—success stories with this method are few and far between. Instead, customize your outreach based on the individual writer’s beat. “A press release isn’t going to tell a reporter or an editor how they can cover your story,” notes Brigitte Lyons, owner of B Think Forward PR agency. “Your job is to find out what kind of angle they’re looking for, and then bring that to the right contact.” In other words, your outreach needs to have an angle built into the email and needs to be customized to the reporter.


So what, exactly, makes a good pitch email?

  • Personalize the email to the reporter. Don’t copy and paste—include their name and reference previous articles they’ve written as a reason that you’re reaching out with this topic.
  • On a deeper level, tell them why the story is of specific interest to them and why it’s worth covering. Tie it back into larger events or trends that they’ve covered before. Include statistics from reputable sources that relate to your industry or the need your product solves. This is the “angle” Brigitte references above.
  • If you include a press release, structure it correctly. This article has a sentence-by-sentence breakdown of what makes a good press release.

Related: Startup Chat #67 – Get noticed, startup press with Conrad Egusa

When you’re trying to get reviews, it’s even simpler. Here’s an example of a successful review request email that I received:

This is what a good pitch email looks like:

Eagle-eyed readers will notice there’s 1 or 2 small typos or instances of slightly awkward wording. The thing is, those didn’t matter here, because he did everything else right: he let me know what was coming with a clear subject line, he customized the email to me, he gave me a clear and up-front ask, he reminded me of our previous connection, and he closed on a friendly note. It sounds basic, but a solid amount of the PR emails I receive don’t check all of these boxes. And you can guarantee seriously high-profile bloggers get many more emails—which makes it important to check them all off.

Related: Pitching your SaaS to the media

Help A Reporter Out can be another useful tool, if you use it correctly. It’s hit-or-miss—sometimes I’ll go months without finding any good queries in it or getting any real results, and then have 5-6 media quotes in a span of 2 weeks. When it works, it works really well. I’ve been quoted in articles in Entrepreneur magazine and on CIO.com as a result of responding to HARO queries. The catch is that you have to do it right. Having been on the other side of a HARO request, as a writer looking for quotes, there are so many people who respond poorly. Here are a few quick pointers:

  • Try to keep your response as short as possible, while still answering the question in full. Many writers will go ahead with the article without emailing for clarification and just pull directly from your email. If your response is confusing or is too short and requires the writer to reach back out to you, you could be shooting yourself in the foot.
  • If they do reply back needing more information, respond as quickly as possible. Oftentimes, people use HARO as a last resort because they’re having a harder time coming up with quotes than they thought they would. That means they’re on a tight deadline, so responding quickly can make the difference between being quoted or not.
  • Be as specific and actionable as possible. As a writer, the things that make a case study (which is often how quotes are used) compelling are specific numbers and actions. Think something like, “We spent 10 hours doing [specific set of actions], and as a result, our sales through social media doubled.” On the other hand, don’t send a response like, “We put more effort into social media and our sales went up.”
  • Include everything they need to run with it. Again, writers using HARO are often on a short deadline. So aside from having all of the information they need in your actual answer/quote, you should also include your name, company name, title/short bio, and if you want to go the extra mile, your Twitter username (or a link to your Twitter profile so that they can use the headshot there, if necessary).

Related: Give good quote: How to make it easy for people to feature your business

Another thing to think about is if you’d rather go pro or do it yourself. Hiring professionals can be an option if you have the budget and don’t have the time or inclination to take care of PR yourself. However, it’s perfectly doable to get traction on your own. Conrad Egusa, a former writer at VentureBeat & founder of Publicize, notes, “Any founder, if they approach PR in the right way, can get these types of results,” when it comes to being featured on sites like TechCrunch.

Brigitte notes that if you do go to a pro, you should carefully evaluate them:

“The best PR pros are strategic partners. They do more than putting press releases out on the wire (a practice I don’t usually recommend unless you’re link building). They’ll interview you right back to make sure the fit is right, because it’s their reputation on the line, too.”

The main downside of doing your own PR is that it’s taking your time and energy from other potentially important tasks…but on the other hand, growth is at the top of most business wishlists.

Related: The Beginner’s Guide to PR

Content marketing:

What it is: Content marketing is the art and science of writing (or otherwise creating, in the form of infographics, videos, slideshows, etc.) informative, useful content that appeals to your target customer and establishes your brand as an industry leader. The content is usually—but doesn’t have to be—hosted on your site. Guest posts or articles are an example of the opposite tactic as a form of content marketing, where the article is posted elsewhere and used to drive traffic (and leads) to your site.

What it isn’t: Again, content marketing isn’t advertising. It’s also not advertorials or sponsored content. Ideally, good content marketing reads like a magazine article. It’s useful, relevant, and non-spammy. There might be a reference or 2 to your products/services, or a call to action at the end that relates to your products and services, but that’s it.

How to do content marketing right:

Avoid the spam trap. This is the single most common mistake with new content marketers: they think that “content marketing” is the same as advertising, and create a series of blog posts that are thinly veiled advertisements and provide no actual value. A call to action (to sign up for a consultation or a free trial, etc.) at the end of a post, or even sprinkled a few times throughout it, is fine. But if the content can’t stand on its own 2 feet by providing value, it won’t get results.

Try different types of content, and measure the results. The standard medium that pops into your mind when you think of content marketing is probably a 1,200-1,500 word blog post. That might be ideal for your audience—but they might respond much better to a video. If you don’t try different types of content, you have no way of knowing. Compare shorter posts to longer posts and text posts to visual mediums (slideshows, infographics, video). You can compare the results by looking at time spent on site for each piece of content, incoming traffic to specific pieces of content, and conversions to leads and sales from a specific piece of content. SumoMe’s free content analytics plugin will help out here.

Related: 15 essential elements of our most engaging content

Pre-validate your ideas. Just like you can validate a product idea by testing for demand first, you can validate a content idea before you create it. Search on BuzzSumo around a topic to see what types of posts are being shared—you don’t want to create duplicate “me too” content, but if there are several popular posts around a particular theme, it’s a good bet that a new post around an offshoot of that topic would do well.

You can also search on Quora to see what questions people are asking and what questions have the most followers, to come up with topic ideas. And the Coschedule headline evaluator can help you come up with the snazziest headline for your content. You can’t ever 100% guarantee the success of a post—but checking all of these resources beforehand will up your chances of success dramatically.


(Source: The Formula for the Perfect Headline)

Related: Headlines matter: A simple formula for high performance headline writing

Make sure you’re creating a distribution plan. If a blog post is published in the woods and not shared at all, does anyone hear it? As the State of Content Marketing 2015 infographic illustrates, you also need to have a strategy in place before you start writing the content, and a distribution plan in place for after the content is published.

When it comes to creating the content, you have a similar choice as with PR: outsourcing vs. doing it yourself. It probably won’t be necessary to hire a full-time content marketer for a while, and once you do, it’s a good idea to hire someone who can both create an overall content strategy and execute content creation. That person can then oversee freelance writers, which gives you the benefits of a full-time content team without the cost. Until that point, the best route is probably a mix of content you’ve created and content that freelancers create based on your strategy.

Related: How to scale your content marketing with a process for guest writers

Using PR and content marketing together

From reading this, you can probably tell that there is some overlap between PR and content marketing. They’re complementary areas and you can create your PR strategy and content marketing strategy to play off each other. As an example, Contently did a survey on the state of freelancing in 2015, and published a blog post summarizing the results. They then spun those survey results off into another post for a different audience on their sister blog. If they wanted to go a step further, they could send the results of the survey to publications with a press release covering the most important takeaways from the survey and information on why they’re relevant to the journalist or why they’re newsworthy.

In another example, Brigitte had a client get featured last year at the Female Entrepreneur Association. She knew from previous experience that their traffic is highly engaged and responsive with a tendency to convert well. “We worked with our client to design a specific landing page that offered a free tool that went along with the interview. She was able to weave a call-to-action into the interview, which brought folks back to her site and converted into subscribers.” Her main tip for mixing content marketing and PR? “When you include a call-to-action in your PR and link it back to your content marketing, you’re getting the most of that opportunity. Plan the full experience for the audience you’re hoping to reach and convert.”

Your next steps checklist:

  • Sign up for HARO. Check at least 1 of the daily emails for queries that are a good fit for your startup. Make sure you follow all the tips above for a good HARO pitch.
  • Create a list of 3-5 writers to reach out to with a press release. Follow the steps above when pitching them, making sure to tailor to their interests and provide an angle for the story.
  • Using BuzzSumo, Quora, and Coschedule’s headline analyzer, create a list of 5-10 validated content ideas.
  • Make sure you have a distribution plan in place for your content, not just a creation plan.
  • When it comes to both PR and content marketing, try to create strategies that can be played off each other for more leverage and better results.


Michelle is a freelance writer and business owner living in Austin, TX. She writes about business all over the web, and about productivity for freelancers and entrepreneurs at Bombchelle. Follow her on Twitter at @_chelleshock.

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