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The Differences Between Public Relations and Advertising

The tradeoffs for advertising and public relations are many and tilt toward p.r. But if you can afford to advertise, then do so.
The tradeoffs for advertising and public relations are many and tilt toward p.r. But if you can afford to advertise, then do so.

For business owners who are just starting out, knowing the difference between advertising and public relations is important. Advertising is paid for, public relations is earned.

When you are able to convince a reporter to write a story about your company, cause or candidacy it is positive public relations. It is written or broadcast as a news story or feature. Those who see it will know that it is not a paid advertisement. Stories that appear in the media as editorial or news items like this are granted more credibility and are better remembered than ads because they were written and validated by a 3rd party who has no financial stake in the company or cause covered.

Depending on who you ask, articles that are presented as news are 5 – 100 times more valuable than an ad with the same information. In fact, a recent study from by Nielsen commissioned by inPowered on the role of content in the consumer decision-making process concluded that PR is almost “90% more effective than advertising”. According to the study, “on average, expert content lifted familiarity 88 percent more than branded content…” but I think that’s low.  Your ad is unlikely to attract positive attention like invitations to speak at conferences. With advertising, you tell people how great you are.  With publicity, others tell how great you are.  The later is more effective and persuasive.

Advertising Is Beneficial

An advertisement is purchased and people who see, read, or hear them know that advertiser paid for the time/space allowed. Paid media is a great way to promote a business and though my background is in public relations, I often use and recommend advertising. But realize that everyone who experiences your ad will acknowledge that you paid for it, compared to the public relations placement that was earned. With advertising you can pay for the right to tell your story the way you want it told. And you can tell it as often as you want to or can afford. It’s not for nothing that you sing the Armor Hot Dog song, or started doing a Mathew Mcconaughey impersonation of him while driving a Lincoln (mine is spot-on, but I have the advantage of being from Texas, ‘time is a flat circle…”).

Advertising also allows control, where public relations cedes control to the reporter or editor who publishes/broadcasts the story. When I was working for a large chemical manufacturing company whose name rhymes with “cow”, those interviewed by the trade press would ask or in some cases demand that their words be reported exactly as they were uttered. I recommended they buy an ad if they wanted that level of control. For the demanders I found someone else to do the interview when the next opportunity came to us. And for those who have trouble relinquishing control, pursue advertising. When you rely on a reporter to tell your story you are at their mercy. But the trade off of control for other benefits is such that it is a really good bargain. Here is why.


Next to word of mouth endorsements by your friends and neighbors, articles and news stories have a lot more sway than an ad. The fact that a public relations person wrote most of the article, sent the photo, told the interviewee what to say and what not to say are facts below the radar. The public is not aware of any of those details. All they see is an editorial about how good the product, service, candidate or cause is. They never see anything or have knowledge about how the story got there, unless they are reading this. Another difference is the cost.

Expensive vs. Not Expensive

Public relations is far less expensive than advertising. When you see the reports of how expensive a minute of advertising is on the Super Bowl, that is only part of the story. The costs to employ writers, editors, actors, stunt people, costumes, make up, lights, sound, video cameras, editing, etc. are all contributors to the to the costs of advertising. Public relations will employ a client representative who more often than not does all the writing him/herself. Sometimes there is a photographer or videographer and that’s pretty much it. In the case of value for the dollar, public relations deliver far more than the cost.


Comparison of ads vs. p.r.


Ads                                                                  P.R.

Paid for                                                           Earned

Control of content and frequency                  No control or guarantee of coverage

Less credible                                                   Very credible

Expensive                                                        Not free, but not that costly

Good for exposure                                          Good for memorability

Shameless sales appeal                                   Conveys importance


Here is my final word on this for now; if you can afford to advertise you should. But if you are advertising do not neglect the public relations possibilities for your enterprise as they are many. Do both. If you can only afford one or the other choose public relations. It will deliver far greater value and better outcomes for you.

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