What’s the difference between a PR degree and a marketing degree?

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Public relations and marketing have always been somewhat interconnected, and their integration has only become tighter in recent years, especially with the growing prominence of social media in digital communications strategies. A 2017 survey from the Association of National Advertisers found 62 percent of marketers planned to boost PR staffing and 75 percent expected to increase overall PR spending in the next five years.

Accordingly, the age-old PR versus marketing dividing line is perhaps no longer as clear cut as it once was, and many professionals now routinely synthesize skills from both domains through activities such as content marketing. At the same time, there are still significant distinctions between PR and marketing, at the degree level in particular.

Their respective academic programs take divergent approaches to the courses they require and the techniques they help hone. Let’s dive into the most salient differences between marketing and PR master’s degrees.

Master’s degree in public relations: How it compares to a marketing credential
Graduate programs in PR typically emphasize the research, development and application of public relations skills on behalf of a broad range of potential clients, including corporations, nonprofits, governmental agencies and political campaigns. Strategic public relations (SPR) tracks, such as the one at the George Washington University (GW), add the extra dimension of strategic thinking and planning, which is useful in making the leap from entry-level PR positions to more advanced roles.

In an SPR master’s program, students take courses in:

  • Ethical standards in PR
  • Press relations in the new media landscape
  • Issues management and crisis communications
  • Strategic marketing communications
  • Fundamentals of finance for PR professionals
  • Political socialization and public opinion

There is some overlap with common topics from marketing, particularly in the coursework on communications and finance, two subjects marketers study to enhance their efforts to boost sales and gain market share for their companies. The differences between public relations and marketing are more apparent in the classes on how to interact with the media and understand key influences on the public.

At its core, marketing is about trying to sell something to someone. In contrast, PR is primarily about establishing relationships and fostering trust with audiences. This distinction is reflected in the specific SPR program requirements, which develop knowledge of the roles played by a variety of groups and individuals — from governments to social media managers — in influencing public opinion.

SPR graduates have everything they need to lead integrated PR strategies that connect customer service, social outreach, crisis response and even marketing itself. In fact, attaining a PR master’s degree is a common career pivot for marketing and advertising professionals who can transfer their skills to modern PR initiatives such as metrics-based analyses of campaign results.

Marketing degrees at a glance: Some similarities and differences compared to PR
As one of several degree options grouped by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics under the umbrella of “business,” marketing is among the most commonly earned degrees at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Compared to PR, its core courses are much more quantitative, containing classes in domains such as statistics, pricing and consumer analysis. For graduate students, marketing programs are often similar to the popular Master of Business Administration (MBA) track.

One key area of intersection for marketing and PR is brand management. While there are multiple dimensions of a brand, including its tangible appearance (e.g., its colors and fonts, as well as the design of the physical products sold under its name, if applicable), an important component is how consumers perceive it. Cultivating a consistent brand image is a PR-like activity, albeit one narrowly focused on driving sales rather than building relationships for more general purposes.

Despite the differences between marketing and PR, each degree option can lead to a wide variety of possible careers with different employment outlooks. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has forecasted faster-than-average growth in employment for advertising, promotions and marketing managers from 2016 to 2026, a set of occupations that attracts marketing and PR graduates alike. BLS projections are also positive for PR specialists and the higher-level public relations and fundraising managers. However, it foresees a slight decline for sales agents and editors, two common positions for new graduates.

How should you select the best possible degree for your career?
Beyond subject matter, any evaluation of advanced degree programs has to account for their formats, which will profoundly affect how the pursuit of additional education fits into your existing personal and professional requirements. An online master’s degree is often the most convenient option.

At GW, the SPR master’s program is 100 percent online and can be finished in as few as 18 months. With four possible start dates spread across spring, summer and fall, it also has highly flexible scheduling. Students can complete rigorous coursework from anywhere en route to earning a recognized credential from a regionally accredited institution.

A PR student works on an assignment remotely.

The SPR track provides the same preparation as a traditional equivalent program, except with the added benefit of not having to devote time to commuting to and from campus. Its combination of an online format with a comprehensive, up-to-date PR curriculum makes it ideal for everyone from recently graduated students seeking additional expertise to seasoned professionals across advertising, marketing and PR looking to take the next step on their career journeys.

Getting started is simple — just visit our main program page and request our free brochure for additional information on courses and admissions. Also be sure to visit our main blog and resources page for deeper dives into PR news and advice.

Recommended Readings:
The most important ways in which marketing and PR converge
Defining integrated marketing communications

BLS advertising and marketing managers
The Muse: the difference between marketing and PR
Public Relations Program Website
ADWeek Marketers plan to increase PR spending over the next 5 years according to new report
Think Bonfire: Masters degree in marketing vs. certificate
NCES Website
BLS Public Relations Specialist