What’s the difference between PR and advertising?


Many small business owners are often left confused and clueless about the difference between PR and advertising. It’s a rare week that passes without me getting asked how my PR services can get some great “ads” in the local news.

It’s nobody’s fault, really. Many entrepreneurs don’t have a background in PR or advertising. They tend to be masters of their own universe, operational geniuses in their own industry – restaurants, consulting services, manufacturing, tech startups, healthcare providers, etc.

So this week’s post will attempt to set the record straight by explaining the differences between publicity – which is the goal of PR – and advertising.

Earned versus Paid Media.

This is a big differentiator. PR is firmly on the earned media side of the equation, which simply means that you do not pay to get your business covered by a media outlet. Publicity is ‘earned’ in that you have to earn the attention of a reporter, editor or producer with a unique story idea about your business. There is no fee involved in getting the media to cover you, apart from what you pay a PR professional or your own internal PR person.

Advertising, on the other hand, is all about paying for media placements. You pay for guaranteed ad space in a newspaper, magazine, TV show, website or, these days, free mobile apps. There’s a lot of art work involved, decisions about when to run the ad, how frequently, etc. As long as you are able to write the checks, you are never going to run out of media outlets that will work with you to help you spread your brand messages.

Facts versus Emotions.

Another difference between PR and advertising involves emotions. Because PR involves convincing journalists and other news media professionals to cover your business, your primary message has to be grounded in “facts” rather than emotions. That’s not to say that a cause related PR campaign – think breast cancer awareness month in October – can’t appeal to emotions; it just has to be as reliant on facts and helpful information for the broader public as it is on emotional triggers. After all, the job of a media outlet is to keep its audience informed, entertained and coming back for more.

Advertising is a lot different in that it can be purely emotional in nature, highly factual or anything in between. The job is not just to inform but also to drive interest about your product or service with the intent to increase sales (or fundraising if you’re a nonprofit). PR’s goal is very similar, of course, but the way it goes about it is fundamentally different. A commercial on TV can show a grandfather with his adorable granddaughter sitting in a chair reading a book with syrupy sweet background music to play on your emotions with a message about financial investments or heart medicine, and viewers will decide whether to tune in or out depending upon their psychographic make-up. A PR pitch with the same tone would undoubtedly turn off most reporters.

Cross your Fingers versus Absolute Control.

Because PR is ‘earned’ and not ‘paid’ media, there is an element of chaos theory at work. In other words, you don’t control the message that is ultimately packaged for consumption by the broader public. It’s firmly in the hands of a reporter, editor or producer, hence the ‘cross your fingers’ element. Still, if you reach out to the right media outlet and reporter, lay your story out in a clear and organized fashion, work hard to make sure the media outlet has all the information (pictures, video, quotes, hard facts, etc.) in a timely manner, then your chances are pretty good that you will net a good piece of publicity. Mind you, that doesn’t mean you will come away smelling like a rose every time! And some reporters take a thesis-antithesis-synthesis approach, meaning that they will present a negative (or counter) point to challenge or question your business approach, and then end with a recap of your ambitions and assertions.

Advertising is a blank canvas and you are the artist. It is virtuous in its ability to give you total control over your message’s elements – color, composition, music, tone. As long as you have the money, you can create any kind of message in any kind of medium. Think Super Bowl ads, which have become the only reason that some tune in to watch the game and cost a cool $4 million for 30 seconds – not including the cost to produce the ad.

Opt-in versus Tune-out.

The main advantage of PR is that information consumers – whether in print, radio, Internet or mobile – are interested in acquiring the information produced by a given media outlet. In other words, they are opting in – think news content found on CNN, TechCrunch and local newspapers and also reality-based entertainment like Diners, Drive-ins & Dives, Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain or locally produced shows like Austin’s Daytripper with Chet Garner. If your tech startup is featured on TechCrunch or Fast Company, then you ARE the focus of what readers want to learn.

Advertising is window dressing around the featured product the media outlet produced. Given the explosion of ads over the past decade plastered over every media imaginable (not to mention inside produced content like TV shows, movies and even novels), it’s no surprise that we consumers have a knee-jerk reaction to tune out the constant assault on our senses. True, some ads do capture our imagination and become a subject of fascination and viral social sharing, but those tend to be few and far between. 99.9999% of all ads are viewed as a necessary evil in our quest to acquire helpful information or entertainment.

Fans versus Sensory Assault Victims.

The beauty of getting publicity in national or hyper-local media outlets is that you become the object of the audience’s attention. In the hands of a good writer or producer in the right media outlet, you can become an overnight success with hordes of fans following your every move on social media and new customers raving about your products or services. Oprah was famous for her ability to rave about a product on her show and generate an avalanche of sales within 24 hours to the extent that some businesses would sell out of inventory overnight. Steven Colbert has his ‘Colbert Bump,’ which is the recognition – often expressed in social media or commercially through sales of books or songs – a particular guest or product gets after appearing on The Colbert Report.

Advertising, on the other hand, is rarely that inspiring to the masses. Every blue moon you may see an ad go viral and get everybody’s interest on social media. It’s incredibly rare and the interest in the ad can be as much about the ad itself as in the product or service. Advertising tends to play on human emotions by manipulating our responses to certain sensory triggers like attractive models in clothing ads, maudlin music in investment commercials aimed at aging Baby Boomers, cute kids smiling and laughing at an amusement park, etc. Some ads are purely promotional in nature and serve to alert consumers to imminent sales: Labor Day sales, Mother’s Day sales, Black Friday sales. Bottom-line: advertising is the white noise in our day that we have to tune out in order to stay sane – or else we risk turning into a gelatinous mass of emotions binging on Sonic milkshakes, ordering Viagra, flipping through Victoria’s Secret catalogs, or God only knows what else.

In summary, both approaches provide incredible value for a brand. The frequency of advertising is a great way to stay top-of-mind among customers and prospects. The newsworthiness of publicity is the meal consumers pay to eat and enjoy.

When used together, PR and advertising provide businesses an opportunity for growth in revenue and brand awareness over time that is hard to match.

About Dave Manzer: Dave Manzer founded an Austin PR agency for startups and emerging-growth businesses in 2009. Dave Manzer is one of the only agencies in the country specializing in technology, healthcare and energy PR to provide blended performance-based pricing. To contact Dave directly, please email him at dave(@)davemanzer.com.

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