• Lyle Neff

The difference between public relations and advertising

Updated: May 15


Advertising and public relations are closely-related activities. Subsets, really, of the organized outreach activity we call marketing.


Public relations people prime the media environment to be receptive to your messages and branding. The ad team’s task is to furnish the message with a call to action (eg. “Buy this now and get 20 percent off”).


Good PR planning is like a friendly cousin to your ad strategy, with the two working in concert to achieve the same goals.


Herewith, some tips for understanding this distinction. Let’s see how the two chatty cousins of marketing add real value to your business.


Earned vs. paid marketing results


“Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for," goes an old saying. It’s not entirely true, of course; good publicity is hard to come by and it’s rarely just accidental good fortune (though when it is, you need people trained to build off it).


PR is earned media coverage, and thereby considerably more valuable than the paid-for kind. Not to denigrate our cousins who do advertising, but they are constantly faced with a credibility problem: no one really likes advertising, and there’s a level of distrust for it brands need to overcome.


By contrast, PR professionals get mentions of your company in the editorial sections of trusted publications/ outlets, thus piggybacking on that trust. The effect can be astounding powerful; one Nielsen study found “independent content” is 83% more decisive in consumer buying decisions than branded, paid-for content.


Using public relations to overcome resistance to advertising


No consumer comes to a website, TV programme or periodical looking to hear your corporate message. Today’s media-savvy audiences have an inbuilt suspicion of ads, and it’s expensive and tricky to overcome that irritation factor.


Good PR, however, circumvents the problem. It gets your message into the news, commentary and even entertainment people actually pursue.


For PR pros, the problem to be solved is not consumers’ resistance to your ads. It’s the absence of your brand and people from the ongoing conversations of the mediasphere.


For example, the legendary #IceBucketChallenge was a great example of cultivated spontaneity in PR. The good folks representing the ALS Association simply took note of a building trend for DIY viral stunting videos that was in the air in 2014… and added their message organically into the trend.


Why you might need both public relations and advertising


If PR is indeed 83% better than advertising at influencing buying decisions, you might think, why advertise at all? It might seem that one of the cousin departments is immensely more valuable in telling your brand story.


But in fact, the two sub-species of marketing are so closely intertwined, you can’t really have one without the other. It’s all about the precise deployment of assets.


A PR pro, for example, might through sheer tenacity get your company a laudatory mention in a major magazine.


Advertising helps a company strike while that iron is hot. The buyer is now aware of this company they read about in a news article - from a reliable source. Time to throw an ad into that target’s Facebook sidebar or into a magazine spread where they are a subscriber.


Public relations is about getting your story out there. It’s about building trust. And once you have that, you can start selling.

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