Before I started typing this piece, I wondered how best I should approach the topic. A quick Google search and I found a 101 blogs and articles listing the various differences between PR and advertising, all of which were very boring and none of which actually said “this is PR” or “that is advertising”. While I may address some of the differences in this piece, I hope that anyone reading this will at least come away with a better understanding of what PR is rather than a deep sense of longing for the 10 minutes they wasted reading it.
As an industry that prides itself on its ability to communicate the various qualities of its clients, the often subtle attributes that differentiate them from their competitors and to establish a high level of credibility for them within their particular fields, it’s a little ironic that we PRs seem to fail time and time again to do the same for ourselves. In short, PR needs public relations.
Let’s be clear, it’s not my intention to knock advertising. Advertising has its place and when done correctly can be a very powerful marketing tool. What I want to do is try and clear up that grey area where so many people seem to think PR sits. I’m talking about the people who, when you say you’re in public relations, they nod slowly, look over your shoulder and return to the conversation by telling you they have a cousin in advertising.
So why is there such confusion? Understandably, there are numerous similarities between advertising and PR:
- We both use mainstream media – print, broadcast, social, etc. – to communicate our clients’ messages to their markets.
- Before anything else, we both develop (or at least we should) a keen insight into our clients’ businesses and what it is they wish to achieve before developing a plan.
- We both pride ourselves on creative, original campaigns to differentiate our clients from the competition.
- Both can be very specific in terms of the market we target.
- We each generally think that the communications role we play is superior to all others.
Really that’s where the similarities end.
So What Exactly is PR?
Ultimately, as the name would suggest, public relations is about managing the relationships between a company and its publics, be they employees, investors or consumers. The role of PR is to build and maintain the reputation of your client’s brand, product, services…or indeed the CEO or CMO. Through all forms of media, whether it’s in the form of a blog, a press release, a comment piece, an interview or a product review, we communicate our clients’ messages to position them in a favourable light that will achieve the objectives set out at the start of any campaign.
Perhaps the most significant difference is that unlike advertising we’re not paying for the space or time in a particular publication or on a certain station. We identify the appropriate titles for our client, then we identify the most appropriate journalist for our client’s topic. Understanding that the journalist’s job is to provide useful, interesting content their loyal readers/ listeners, we sell the story to them and in the process secure invaluable third party endorsement, as well as increased awareness.
Understanding Journalism is Essential in PR
It’s this endorsement that gives credibility to our clients. The journalist didn’t (or at least shouldn’t) write about our client based on a financial incentive but rather because they saw real value in what our client is doing, producing, etc. that they felt would add value to their readers. What must be remembered here though is that we do not have editorial control over what the journalist says or writes. Even with a comment piece, it is at the editor’s discretion to remove any parts he or she deems unnecessary – especially if it’s blatant self-promotion but that’s a whole different blog – and that sometimes means that they won’t use your story at all. That’s the compromise you make.
Advertising Can Evoke Cynicism
With regard to advertising, in contrast with PR, you do pay for the space or time you get. Your reward for this is that you have total editorial control (so long as it’s within the advertising standards) over what goes into the ad. Because of this, advertising generally tends to be made up of three clear elements – identification of an issue, highly exaggerated claims about how company X’s product or service can improve your life and then a call to action urging you to buy from them. However, there’s a compromise: here it is twofold – for the freedom to include whatever message you want you sacrifice credibility and (quite often but not always) engagement. Advertising is everywhere these days. Because of this saturation consumers are generally less sensitive to it and are definitely a lot more cynical about it.
There’s an endless list of other differences between PR and advertising, from virality – you won’t generally see an ad in the paper being picked up and run by another press body but it happens all the time in PR – to shelf life. To me PR is primarily about establishing and maintaining a positive perception of your brand, product, etc. and nurturing the relationships between you and those most important to your business. Sales are a secondary benefit. With advertising, increasing sales is generally the primary goal.
As I said at the start, my intention is not to discredit advertising. The thing is that advertising is noticeably more expensive than PR yet far too many companies throughout the UK and Ireland do not even consider PR as an option when establishing their marketing budgets.
I’ve been told that if you keep getting poor referrals that don’t lead to new business, the issue is not with the people referring you but with the image and message you put forward. The same applies to public relations. We as PRs need to cut out the jargon and explain in simple English what it is we do and how it can benefit a potential client’s business and I hope I’ve done that here.