Public Relations and Advertising

By Erin Dunn
© Precision Intermedia
 
During my 20+ years as a public relations specialist, I have often been asked, “What is the difference between public relations and advertising?” On more than one occasion I have been congratulated on creating “good PR” when my client has actually paid for coverage (advertising). Just as many times, I’ve been told, “I’ve been noticing your advertising in the papers” when they are actually referring to feature stories (earned through a Public Relations effort).
 
1. Paid Message or Free Coverage
The most obvious difference between Public Relations and Advertising (and the easiest way to explain it) is that Advertising is paid placement and media coverage that is earned through Public Relations (e.g. a feature story) is free.
 
2. Consumer Perception
With paid advertising, the customer knows that you provided the message with the intention of trying to sell them something—be it an idea or a product. When someone reads a third-party article written about your idea or your product (or sees/hears coverage on television or radio), the message is perceived as non-biased.
 
3. Content Control
With advertising, you are controlling the message—the size, what it says, how many times it runs and what medium will send the message. With public relations, you don’t have control over how the media presents your message—or if it will even run at all. The press is not obligated to run your news items or cover your event just because you sent them a news release.
 
4. Writing Style
Colorful and descriptive language with a call to action is the most typical form of advertising (the greatest thing since sliced bread!). You want to motivate consumers to buy your product and of course you are going to make it sound as appealing as possible. In public relations, you are writing in a news-style format. Editors are immune to hype and over-statements about products and events. You still have to be creative about the angles you pitch, but you need to be subtle about it.
 
5. Consumers or Editors
You aim for your target audience when you create an advertising plan. You tailor your message for the group you are marketing to--be it women, children, 50+, etc. With public relations, you pitch ideas to editors trying to convince them that your event, product, etc. is worthy of a news story or feature article.
 
6. Placement
Public Relations does have a few advantages over advertising, and one of them is placement. A sizeable print ad will never (or, hasn’t so far) run on the front page of a newspaper and many newspapers won’t run ads in the upper third of their pages (unless it is a full-page ad). The “news” always gets priority.
 
7. Longevity
You are paying for the advertising space, so you can keep your message in the public’s eye/ear for as long as your budget allows. With public relations, you submit a press release for a new product or event once and the pr coverage you generate only runs one time. An editor won’t run your same message three or four times in the their publication—it becomes yesterday’s news. If it’s a hot topic however, you may garner coverage from various departments within the same publication—while the first story may appear in the hard news section, writers from Business, the Living Section, Arts page or even Sports Section may cover the story from their own angle.
 
8. Contact With Media
A publication’s advertising representative will be your main contact when fulfilling an advertising campaign. You remain an anonymous player in the company’s marketing plan. With public relations, you represent the company not only with editors, but often times with reporters—through sound bites and written quotes. A good relationship with the media is vital and a complete understanding of the client is essential.
 
Are the lines sometimes blurred between Public Relations and Advertising? Absolutely. As advertising agencies become more clever, ads sometimes seem like third-party endorsements. When infomercials were first introduced, many consumers thought they were watching a talk show (a venue for public relations) when they were indeed watching a paid advertisement. And when a radio announcer does a live tag at the end of a recorded ad (or reads the entire copy live herself) it may sound like an impartial testimonial, when again, it is paid advertising.
 
Of course, the best marketing strategy has both elements—Public Relations AND Advertising. They compliment each other and reinforce the message you are relaying on behalf of your client.