Public Relations vs. Advertising

One of the most common questions I get as a PR professional is, “What’s the difference between PR and advertising?” While there certainly are some similarities between the two, they are quite different and can be used to achieve different objectives.

Advertising involves paying for space in publications or airtime, and then using that opportunity to deliver a message directly to consumers. It is created to sell an organization’s products, services or ideas. Through demographic identification and research, ads are created, paid-for, and appear in print, on TV, radio, billboards, direct mail, digital banner ads, and more….all in an effort to call attention to the product, service or idea (and hopefully generate sales or impact the bottom line).

In advertising, almost everything is guaranteed, and ads can be built from the ground-up. This means the business/organization (who’s paying for the ad) plays a role in determining the size, layout, structure and placement of a final ad. For those who are “type A,” this is a dream! But – and this is an important but – although the messaging is controlled and the ad exudes the desired ‘look & feel,’ advertising can be expensive.

Public relations (PR) covers a wide range of tactics, usually involving providing information to media sources in the hope of gaining favorable coverage. The media exposure — which is not paid-for — is built on creating positive relationships with the public and results in media coverage and attention. A 2014 Nielsen study on the role of content in the consumer decision-making process concluded that PR is almost 90% more effective than advertising.

With PR, the process is more about third-party recognition for a business, its products or services. PR pros contact editors and reporters to gauge their interest in developing a story on a specific topic. The stories that result from this type of engagement are often very powerful. Consumers view these stories as credible information from unbiased reporters, which ultimately helps build strong consumer relationships and increase brand awareness. That third-party validation is key. And, bonus – there’s no cost associated, with the exception of the time spent.

In a nutshell: It’s paid vs. unpaid. Purchased vs. earned. Visibility vs. credibility. Saying you’re great vs. others saying you’re great. And my favorite: “Advertising is what you pay for, PR is what you pray for.”

Advertising Public Relations
Paid Earned
Builds exposure/visibility Builds trust/credibility
Audiences can be skeptical Media gives third-party validation
Guaranteed placement No guarantees
Complete creative control Very little or no creative control
Mostly visual Language/text-heavy
More expensive Less expensive
What you want to hear What you need to hear