The Great Divide: Public Relations vs. Advertising

“Oh, like advertising?” This is the general response I receive when I tell someone my line of work, which is in public relations, and no, it’s not advertising.

The common misconception of public relations and advertising being one and the same can be resolved simply: public relations is earned media and advertising is paid media. 

Yet, it’s bigger than that.

While both fields fall under the umbrella of communications and aim to sell, their objectives, goals, and strategies, ultimately, the impact is widely different. This is where the great divide between public relations vs. advertising lives. 

Whether you are a company determining if a strategic PR plan is for you or a student deciding on what avenue to pursue in the communications industry, or my parents who still are not totally sure how my job works, reference these helpful tips that distinguish between public relations and advertising.

Public Relations vs. Advertising: How to Understand the Difference

“PR is the strategic crafting of your story. It’s the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you.” – Seth Godin

Credibility & Trust

Public Relations: A smart public relations team will focus on the storytelling of your brand and deliver tailored messages through trusted third-party sources. This unbiased accreditation means your target audience may view the journalist’s endorsement with more credibility over an advertisement that is blatantly selling them something.

Advertising: By trade, advertising is a pay-to-play field focusing on the promotion of products or services with the goal to encourage the target audience to buy. Aware of this, customers may not be as likely to buy into the brand messaging because of the level of bias opinion within the ad.

Control of Messaging

Public Relations: There is an old saying, “advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for,” and it holds true to this day. When a publicist pitches a story to a reporter they lose complete control of what the journalist highlights, when the story goes live and if the story runs at all. But, a good publicist will have set up the story to spotlight positive attributes, increasing the results of positive press. Further, a publicist will offer media training prior to interviews and have brand standards in place in the event of crisis communications (but we don’t need to address that right now).

Advertising: Pay to have it your way. You have total control over how much space your ad takes up, the placement, imagery, verbiage and when it will be seen in the media – but will it resonate and tell your story or be forgotten with the flip of a page?

15 Seconds of Fame or Immortalization

Public Relations: The internet is a virtual library that allows content to live forever. National and regional outlets’ content is available to a global audience, making that story your PR team secured more or less immortal. Another advantage of a story living online is being connected to it. For instance, M studio has a client who interviewed with The New York Times in 2009. If you were to Google her name the coverage will still pop up, breathing new life into her PR campaign and further positioning her as an expert in her space.

Advertising: Running an ad is similar to running a race – it’s short-lived. Yes, an audience is guaranteed to see your ad – be it a commercial, billboard or in-print placement, but what determines how many times that ad is viewed is solely based on how long you run it for and how much money you are willing to spend.

And there it is, the great divide of public relations and advertising. While both are huge players in the communications industry, their tactics, responsibilities and influence are indeed diverse.

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