Old Spice Campaign

The Difference Between PR and Advertising

When it comes to PR and advertising, it’s easy to think the two are interchangeable. I’ve heard business leaders say: “I don’t need PR activity. I already having an advertising campaign.” Or they refer to getting “good publicity” when they’ve actually paid for advertising space.

But the fact is, advertising and public relations have completely different roles.

It’s true both approaches help brands communicate with their audiences. But advertising builds brand awareness. PR helps build brand credibility. As the old saying in advertising and PR circles goes: “advertising is what you pay for, PR is what you pray for”.  In other words, advertising is about creating content and paying for it to be promoted through various media channels. While PR is about convincing those same media channels to help you build a connection with your audience by promoting your key messages for free.

What are the other key differences between advertising and PR? What approach is best for your business? And has the arrival of social blurred the lines between the two?

To begin, let’s look at the main differences between advertising and public relations.

“Advertising is saying you’re good. PR is getting someone else to say you’re good.” – Jean-Louis Gassée, former Apple executive.

Paid Media vs Earned Media

Nicole Kidman in Chanel ad

Advertising is paid media. You pay for ad space, whether it’s in print, online, radio, television or out-of-home, and the chances are it will consume the bulk of your marketing budget. Although it’s an extreme example, think of Chanel. They hold the top position in the list for the most expensive advert ever made for their 2004 Chanel No. 5 perfume. The cost? A whopping $33 million.

Advertising is expensive. And as your brand is unlikely to be as well established as Chanel, in order for it to have any effect, you’ll need to run ads regularly to build brand awareness. Running just one or two ads will do little to promote your product or service.

On the other hand, PR is free. Sort of. It’s up to you or your PR team to develop a PR strategy to convince journalists, bloggers, social media influencers, and TV and radio producers that your brand is worth writing about and your images, videos and stories are worth sharing, in order to raise awareness with your target audience. Any coverage of your story or product or service through PR activity is known as earned media.

A PR professional will get you ‘free’ publicity through press releases, news events, media pitches and good relationships with the media, and by positioning your product or service as part of a human interest story, rather than a full-on product promotion.

“If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget, I’d spend it on PR!” – Bill Gates

Controlling the message vs influencing the message

With advertising, you’re the boss, as long as you’ve got the cash. You decide what your ad says, how it will look, and when and where it will run. How many people potentially see your ad will depend on the size of your budget and how long it runs for. But this kind of control costs top dollar. Advertising, even in small publications, is anything but cheap.

With PR, there is less control and it’s the media that make the decisions. They decide if you make it into the publication or media outlet. They decide the size, length, word choice, format and which photos, if any, are used. You can’t dictate when it will be published or how the publication will use it.

And even if an interview or a press conference has been set up, an important breaking story can easily take precedent over your own announcement.

But despite the lack of control there are ways to influence the outcome of any PR activity, and a good PR professional knows how to increase a company’s chances of positive publicity. This could be through having an outstanding relationship with the media, knowing exactly what publications are looking for and coming up with an interesting angle, right through to offering media training and preparing you for interviews. By practising your soundbites, there’s more chance you can become the go-to person for your industry and make the most of any media opportunities created for you.

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.” – Daniel J. Boorstin

Quick Results vs Longevity

1980s Levi 501 TV ad

As long as the marketing budget allows, you can pay to have your press ad published or your TV ad broadcast for as long as you like. But in reality, most ad campaigns run for a short amount of time to launch a new product, or to cover a seasonal event like Christmas or Easter, or the summer sales.

The aim during this period is to boost sales. But once the ad disappears from the press or TV channels, it’s usually forgotten about. (There are notable exceptions of course. Cadbury’s Drumming Gorilla, Levi’s Laundromat, and Guinness’s Surfer ads stick in the mind.)

But PR activity is all about the long game, the bigger picture. It’s about delivering meaningful information about a brand that helps build a strong relationship over a period of time, whether that’s with customers or other stakeholders.

And once an article has been published or an interview has been televised, it’s on the internet for ever and can be easily found and shared. It’s easy to search online using the company name, product, TV channel or journalist’s name. In a nutshell, the internet has extended the shelf life of PR activity. The other advantage, of course, is your story may be shared by different journalists in different ways, from writing an in-depth article and liking to it on Twitter, to sharing a post on a Facebook news page. It means that over time, your message can be seen by your target audience in many mediums, not just one.

“Stopping advertising to save money is like stopping your watch to save time.” – Henry Ford

Lack of credibility vs believability

Advertising by its very nature is biased. When a company pays for an expensive double page spread, they’re going to use all that newspaper real estate to tell the audience about the stand-out features and benefits of their product or service. The trouble is the audience knows that. They know that paid ads come from a biased source. They know that when they see an advertisement, the brand that’s featured is trying to sell them something.

But PR is a different ball game. PR is about providing newsworthy information and stories about a product, service or brand that a media outlet is happy to share. An article that’s crafted by a journalist that appears in a reputable news outlet is deemed much more legitimate. It’s seen as unbiased, well researched and fact-checked. And this means your target audience may view the article as being more credible than an ad because it’s not blatantly trying to sell them something. This third-party recognition is more trusted than self-promotion.

“Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” – Howard Luck Gossage

Consumers vs Stakeholders, Employees AND Consumers

The primary target for most advertising campaigns is the consumer. Someone who is so impressed with a company’s goods or services that they’re willing to spend their hard-earned cash with them and not go to a competitor. And how do you reach them? Print media, broadcast media and social media.

What about PR? It’s true that advertising and PR both want to communicate a message to the target audience. But that audience is considerably wider for PR activity than it is for advertising and can include employees, investors, the media, legislators and social media influencers, as well as consumers.

And because there are different audiences, different channels are required: an article in a company newsletter, a letter to local residents, a guest blog post, an event for well-known Instagrammers, or an interview in a city’s free magazine.

PR is about knowing the audience you’re trying to reach and getting the right message in front of them in the right place.

“Publicity is absolutely critical. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.” – Richard Branson

Social Media: Where PR and advertising meet

Woman from Dove ad

So the differences between advertising and PR seem pretty clear. But social media has blurred the lines between the two. Just think of all the big marketing campaigns that have ‘gone viral’ i.e. shared on a mass scale, over the last few years, such as the Old Spice campaign or Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches campaign. Most likely, the vehicle for sharing these campaigns were social shares, which are considered earned media.

But, if you think about how much the company paid their social teams to distribute the campaigns, or their digital agencies to develop the campaign in the first place, it’s not as easy to classify the campaign as entirely earned. It certainly wasn’t free.

Take a look at Facebook. You can set up a business page for free and run it for free (apart from the digital manager’s salary) and you can share up-to-date and interesting content including behind-the-scenes videos, product images and company stories. Essentially, it’s free and it’s PR. But you can also pay to boost your posts, so they appear higher up the newsfeed. And you can pay for Facebook ads too. That’s all advertising.

“Social Media puts the ‘public’ into PR and the ‘market’ into marketing.” – Chris Brogan, President of New Marketing Labs, chrisbrogan.com

PR and Advertising: So what’s best for your business?

Advertising and PR should work hand-in-hand to ensure that all messaging meets your marketing team’s overall objectives.

And for most brands, an integrated communications campaign that combines advertising AND public relations is the ideal approach. It’s the best way to reach your audience; it increases the number of ways your audiences hear your key brand messages and the ways in which they are heard; and it builds third party credibility, all of which will lead to business growth and cash in the bank.

“In a downturn, aggressive PR and communications strategy is key.” – Doug Leone, VC, Sequoia Capital – Silicon Alley Insider

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