The 4 main differences between Public Relations and Advertising

Is Public Relations advertising? As I said in my previous post this week, both are related, but they are not the same thing. Although some people like to say that PR is free advertising, I personally find this statement an open door for confusing different concepts, even though it’s not a misunderstanding when we think of PR as a free ad.

In today’s post, I would like to explore how PR and advertising are similar, but not the same. Before I figured this all out, it was also confusing for me to differ PR from Advertising and even from Marketing. Call it what you want, but I like to call this a complete lack of information. Once it became clear to me what was the difference between such related and exciting topics, I made my choice and elected PR as a career to take over.

I know it’s a little nerdy, but if you like this topic as much as I do, feel free to check out my other posts on this matter and give me your feedback! Without further ado, let’s get right into the differences between PR and Advertising.

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How PR differs from Advertising?

You might already know that PR works with trends, which might lead you to wonder if PR is a form of advertising. Perhaps I can make things clearer if we talk about the similarities between PR and Advertising before separating them.

When we talk about Communications, we are talking about messages. In Communications, the main goal is to reach out to an audience and send a particular message about whatever you want them to know. Both PR and Advertising are forms of Communications. Both careers and professionals aim to come up with a message that will influence their target audience on a particular action. It could be anything: buying a product, investing in something, consuming content, and educating themselves… The possibilities are infinite. Long story short, the goal here is to conduct a certain behavior or outcome. How do they do that? It depends. First, they have to take a deep look into their target audience and understand who they are, what do they want, what are they interested in (can you feel the marketing vibes already? We will talk more about it in the future 🙂). With that in mind, the next step is to create a strategic plan considering the most adequate channels to reach this audience, how to talk to them, how to show off the offer, etc. They build up a campaign to let people know the offer and why making business with them will lead to better outcomes. Therefore, you want to come up with a straightforward message, with inspirational touches and credibility to convince people of your full potential.

The actual difference between PR and Advertising lays in the role they play in this game. Most people don’t know that and this is possibly one of the reasons they mistake Advertising for PR for years and years. You can absolutely work with both, because they will get you powerful results if they have a nice dialogue between the professionals working on the project, but you also can choose one or another. Once again, each case is different, each goal is unique.

What is Advertising?

Advertising is a paid announcement created to promote whatever a brand wants to promote. When you are watching a YouTube video, right before the streaming of the content you want to see starts play, you will likely see a product being promoted (and probably get anxious to skip the ad too, but who’s judging you?). This is advertising. When you are walking around your local subway line and you see those posters covering up the walls announcing fast food with those appealing pictures of it, that’s advertising. When you are listening to the free version of your music streaming service and you listen to someone talking about a product between the songs, this too is advertising. The brands you are being “introduced” to actually paid to be there, popping out to reach your attention. The brands have purchased the space the channels offer for them to promote their product to you.

A good example of advertising is commercial ads during the Super Bowl. I am positive you have heard about how the brands put themselves out there in ads during the megaevent but have you ever look for how much do they pay to be there? I kid you not: it’s so expensive you might have a mini heart-attack. According to Business Insider, in order to get 30 seconds of a commercial ad for your brand rocking it during the Super Bowl, you will have to pay the bittersweet amount of no less than US$5.6 million. Ouch, right? But wait, there’s more! The audience for Super Bowl has a range of more than 90 million people and we are familiar with that good old economical principle of offer and demand – the greater the audience, the higher the prices for advertising spaces will reach.

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What is PR?

Meanwhile, with PR we have a different scenario. The amount you have to pay for media coverage on your brand is… zero. Yes, you read it right, PR is free attention, which doesn’t mean is free advertising. In PR, you will build the relationship with your target audience – and they are not the public that Advertising is aiming for (just please, read this other article I wrote you if you haven’t already). Both PR and Advertising might work with the exact same informational defusing channels, such as TV, newspaper, magazines or even radio stations (consider the similars on internet streaming for millennials and gen Z individuals).

However, while Advertising is looking towards the larger scale audience to get some attention, PR will be much more interested in those guys who bring the information to you. Again, remember when you saw that article in that magazine you like that was telling about a promising new product? That’s PR. Or when you saw that story on the news about how a brand acknowledged their unequal payments to men and women and came up with a campaign to make it fairer, so they spoke up and featured in their local news, which had interviewed their CEO? PR, baby. Nobody paid for that kind of attention at least not to the channels announcing it.

How does PR and Advertising work together?

I know it might still be a little shady. So let’s make it practical before diving deeply:

This is AdvertisingThis is Public Relations
Paid mediaEarned media
High control range on content Low control range on content
Less credibility, high exposure rangeMore credibility, exposure range uncertain
Directed audience channelsWider audience channels
Paid Media vs. Unpaid Media

I don’t think I have to say it, but I am not the one to make assumptions on anything. When I say you won’t pay for PR, what I mean is that you won’t pay the media to cover your story, but you will have to pay the publicist for coming up with the strategies, the researches, the plannings, and all that jazz. I know you know it. Don’t you? Of course, you do 🙂

With advertising, you will pay for an agency to come up with an appealing way to spread your message through selected channels regarding your product to influence them to make business with you. Besides the service of the agency, you will also pay for the advertising space – prices flow depending on your choice of media, target audience, and so on. Also, as long as you keep sending them the payment, you will keep the advertising space for yourself (if the signed contract allows this option, let’s make it clear!).

With PR, you pay nothing for the space you earn and get brand awareness. You will hire a PR agency or a freelancing publicist and they will develop strategies to get you positive attention from the media and the people responsible for running the chosen media will spread your message around for you, for free. The number of times they will keep on talking about you, though, is not a choice you have. This is why you want to have a good publicist, to maintain your story relevantly.

Content Control

With advertising, nobody has to like what you are promoting, they sold you the ad space. So you have control over how to spread your message and promote your product. Can you remember any case of an advertisement that went completely wrong and lead the brand to be negatively associated with something? That’s a risk you can mitigate more easily (I mean, you are not going to pay for advertising that offends people, right?).

When it comes to PR, the control range is way, way lower. Your publicist will approach an opinion maker (such as a journalist) and build a relationship with them to show how your business might be interesting for them. If they like you, yay! You get earned media, but on their perspectives over you. If they don’t… Well, it’s one out of two ways: they might completely ignore your publicist’s pitch or they might get you that earned media but saying bad things about you.

Be sure to have good Corporate Communications to manage the possibility of an upcoming crisis, because bad PR can cause serious damage.

Credibility – why should they believe you?

Advertising will go out of their way to expose you and try to convince your audience that something is good and worth their time and money. But let’s be honest here: we all get a little skeptical when we see an advertisement for a product that promises too much. Depending on how old are you, we used to have those advertising for miraculous and very peculiar products on TV with actors swearing on their souls that they had tested the products and it was, indeed all that. I don’t know about you, but there were some products I just couldn’t believe…

But with PR, you are not looking at a promotional environment, you are looking at the point of view for someone or a brand that you already trust. Let’s say you bought a magazine for traveling and this travel journalist you like says something about this backpack brand that has a super cool product, different from everything you have seen so far. Your trust levels are way higher when the news comes from someone that already influences your behavior, other than a miraculous product promise while waiting for your YouTube video to start. The exposure, in comparison to advertising, isn’t necessarily lower. You can even achieve higher exposure with PR other than Advertising, it will all depend on the strategy and the relevance of your message.

Target Audience – Whom am I talking to?

With advertising, you can buy as many advertising spaces as you want, in as many channels as it makes sense to your campaign. Sure, it’s smarter to buy the ad space in which your target audience is more interested in and, therefore, already consumers of that channel. I mean, if you want to promote your brand of hot sauces, why would you buy ad space in a magazine specialized in construction tools? I am not saying it’s wrong, your target audience might relate to that other niche as well, but you got the idea.

Publicists will consider a wider list of channels to fit you in. Once we are not talking about spaces you will buy, they will offer the content by pitching to channels that your audience might relate to (this is why is so important to know your audience!). This list is wider because there is no “wrong” place to have it. It can be via e-mail marketing, blog post, news story, a tweet… The variety of mediums to reach the audience is huge. The key here is to persuade the media to reach out to your goal.

Is PR more effective than Advertising?

This is a golden question. Personally, I don’t like to see a “winning” side on this, because it’s not a competition. As I said once, I will say it again: if you want to know what’s best for you, it will depend on your particularities. However, I cannot ignore the opinion of my colleagues. As seen in Forbes a few years ago, there are studies that state PR as 90% more effective than Advertising.

The final answer is, in my humble opinion, subjective. But what I do know is that PR and Advertising can work together in perfect harmony and complete each other open spaces in order to achieve a successful outcome.

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Published by flaviastamato

Publicist and writer, a citizen of the world trying to free herself from writing cliches (but it's so tempting....)

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