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Public relations and advertising both help to build brands by communicating with their targeted demographics; while advertising focuses on paid space, PR provides media outlets (web, radio, TV, print, etc.) with compelling, relevant information regarding their clients in the traditional forms such as pitching stories and sharing press releases that support the “pitch.” Or, to put it in the most basic form, referencing the age-old saying, “Advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for.” With ads, a brand will tell people how great they are; with PR/publicity, other credible sources sing their praises.  

Public relations media space is earned. Ad space is paid for.  PR professionals must convince reporters or editors to write a positive story about you or your client, your candidate, brand, or issue. Then, it is hopefully placed in an editorial section of a magazine, newspaper, TV, popular blog, or website, rather than the “paid media” section where advertising messages appear.  So, your story has a lot more credibility because it was independently verified by a “trusted” third party rather than purchased. 

Public relations is just that; a relationship with the public (i.e., demographic, audience, etc.). A quality PR pro will continuously work on developing relationships with not only the demographic but with the media reps as well. That is a full-time job in itself, as the media industry pros move around a lot, whether they are moving up the ladder, moving over to a competitor, or starting their own gig as an independent blogger, keeping track of where they are and staying top of mind with them, takes a lot of work. But, if the time is taken, PR strategies have the potential to morph into yielding positive results that are bigger, better, more effective, and more cost efficient than paid advertising could ever generate. 

With the advent of social media, a great story in a magazine, TV, or newspaper can last a long time with emails, posts, re-posts, and tweets.  Of course, you can always post something clever about denture cream or the coolest new taco chips on your Facebook but try not to expect a lot of “likes” or have much influence on an audience.

A lot of writers, editors, reporters will sit and work in front of a computer for most of their day.  With the onslaught of bloggers, the internet, and fewer print publications, there are a lot less journalists working today versus how it was more than twenty-five years ago.  Instead of “beating the bushes” by calling sources, visiting government agencies and manufacturers, gaining investigative stories the old way, many rely on sources that work directly for those companies to feed them the necessary information.  Media outlets need to get out stories faster than ever, with most not having the budgets or the time to travel as they did in the “good old days.” Nor are they Clark Kent. 

It is said to be a “love-hate relationship” between the media and PR pros, as they each depend on one another for their performance to be considered adequate. Relationships are everything in their world.

What is a main difference between advertising and public relations?

Advertising continues to embrace an old-fashioned, top-down, inside-out way of communicating. It reflects senior management’s view on what a consumer or business-to-business buyer should think is necessary. PR, on the other hand, depends upon listening to the conversation and understanding the who, what, when, where, why, and the how of engaging in the discussion. Public relations pros excel in storytelling. They will present a perceived problem right alongside the solution that their client “magically” has.

MeaningA technique of drawing public attention to products or services, mainly through paid announcements, is called Advertising.Public Relations is a practice of strategic communication that aims at building a mutually beneficial relationship between the company and the public.
CommunicationOne wayTwo way
Focuses onPromotion of products or services to induce the intended audience to buy.Maintaining a positive image of the company in the media.
ControlThe company has complete control over the ad.The company can pitch the story but has no control over how the media uses or does not use it.
PlacementGuaranteedNo guarantee
PublishedAs long as you are willing to pay for it.Only once
Credibility Less thanHigher

Almost every article read or seen in the media is “gift-wrapped” or has originated from a public relations agency.  Whether it was a new smartphone, an attack from a congressperson criticizing the latest policy, or the recent report on glaciers melting in Antarctica.   None of these stories came out of nowhere and ended up in front of millions of consumers. Instead, these stories have been written, tested, practiced, and formulated by PR pros, publicists, staffers, speechwriters, or corporate experts before being sent to reporters who processed the information, rejected some assertions, accepted others, then decided to produce a news story.

Just like anything in life, all sources have agendas, some good, some bad.  Do a quick search to see the hugely expansive coverage all the Apple products released in the past fifteen years have received.  It is well-known inside the media that Apple Founder Steve Jobs personally called many influential journalists and alternately charmed and harassed them. Nevertheless, the brand remains incredibly valuable today thanks to his PR efforts which continue to add value years after his death.

Public relations is like plutonium.  It can be used for good or evil, depending on your viewpoint.  The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays understood human nature and the psychology of motivation like few people on earth.  A few of his innovations he pioneered that are widely used today include:

  • Utilizing opinion leaders and experts like doctors, scientists, and celebrities to boost or add credibility to the arguments/views of clients and promote their products
  • Creating publicity stunts like women marching in public for the “right” to smoke cigarettes, a ploy he created for the American Tobacco Company.  He called cigarettes “Torches of Freedom.”
  • Hiring focus groups to determine attitudes and prejudices
  • Political propaganda as a tactic to promote commercial interests

What is the state of Public Relations?

According to a reputable PR and marketing firm in the Detroit area, “Many people think PR is dead. It’s just not so. The media, whether social channels, newspapers, radio, television, or streaming news services, is a vast place with many options for you to share your message. Sure, you can try and tackle this complex arena alone, but our PR pros have many contacts in the world of journalism as well as the experience and knowledge to connect with people always on the lookout for a good story,”.

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