Public Relations versus Advertising

By Sue Voyles / April 19, 2021 / , ,

What’s the difference?

There are many ways to get an organization’s brand seen by potential clients or prospective employees, whether that brand is a service, a specific product, or even an idea.

The many methods, or channels, for communicating, marketing, selling, informing and sharing can sometimes be overwhelming. Whether your company can support a marketing team or hire outside consultants to help may make a big difference on what works best for you, but no matter what, you need to seriously consider two specific approaches.

Even with SEO, social media platforms, video and audio podcasts and modern data crunching tools, there are two-time tested methods you need to understand: public relations and advertising.

For the purposes of this blog let’s tackle the topic with a “compare and contrast” approach, looking at public relations versus advertising.

Public Relations – A century of success

The idea of public relations really took hold just before the turn of the 20th century with the advent of a more consumer-based culture in this country. That led to both advertising (more on that in a moment) and the development of concepts like public relations (PR).

Modern PR is built around making connections and relationships with all of a company’s “publics,” whether that is the local community, shareholders or loyal supporters of a product or service.

More importantly, though, is PR’s impact on connecting a company or business product to its wider audiences – by using the broader world of media, whether that’s radio, television, newspapers, or magazines.

PR specialists work diligently to interest these media sources with the kind of material they need to fill their website, printed pages or airtime. Besides covering local politics, crime, sports and things like weather or entertainment, many media outlets are interested in stories about the business world. And that could mean being interested in your company’s new building expansion or new line of products suited for the local marketplace.

Generally, public relations teams focus on securing publicity for their clients, often because that publicity is usually free and a direct benefit to sharing your brand, product or service.

Entrepreneur magazine defines free publicity (or PR) as:  “Using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products; cultivating a good relationship with local press representatives.”

So besides seeking to leverage the media to share a story or information on behalf of a client, PR specialists seek to develop relationships with journalists who are always on the lookout for interesting stories to share with their readers or viewers.

In that sense it is a mutually beneficial arrangement, both sides need each other and both sides benefit. The company gets free publicity, or what is called “earned” media and the newspaper or television station have something to fill its pages or airwaves, which, by the way are highly supported by advertising.

Advertising – Usually necessary

Which brings us to advertising itself. Often dubbed “paid or unearned media,” advertising is tool companies use with the aim to increases sales or clients by paying for the promotion of those products or services it offers.

Advertising is a great resource for marketing teams who have a budget and can spend money to share a company message or product. It’s not only done in newspaper or on television, but through direct mailers, billboards, online ads, email newsletters, corporate or event sponsorships and numerous other channels, including, of course, on social media with Facebook campaigns.

Advertising dates back to the first newspaper that began appearing in Great Britain in the 17th century and was simply something found of the pages of the broadsheet papers.

Advertising took off in the 19th century with the growth of mass appeal businesses and consumerism across all layers of society. The first agencies began with the best media source of that day – newspapers and magazines. Today, of course, those marketing firms who help companies advertise have a greater toolbox to work with, as noted above.

Public relations versus advertising

Obviously, advertising is not free, like “earned media.” Companies pay a premium to be seen and heard in the world of free media. The larger the ad or longer the message (on radio or television), the greater the cost impact.

That’s all well and good for large national companies, but sometimes the cost of advertising is just not practical for smaller firms. Even though a PR specialist cannot guarantee that they can get a client in the news, turning to public relations offers a less expensive way to be seen and heard by potential customers.

While PR is often a more cost-effective way to proceed versus a big advertising budget, this lack of control or sure results makes public relations a different proposition than advertising.

At the same time advertising gives the company full control – the ad message is based on the company’s desires and direction, and the timing and placement are controlled by the company as well.

In fact, one of the key challenges with public relations and the media – besides getting a response – is timing. If you are lucky enough to be of interest with the local television station, for example, you better be prepared to respond immediately and in a way that meets the media’s needs, not necessarily yours.

So, working with the media has great benefit, especially since you’re not paying a fee for it, but you lose a great deal of control; you react to them, and being reactive is not always the best for business owners and their needs.

The other concern when the media comes calling – besides you or your team being ready – is that you have no idea how they are going to “use” your story, whether it will be a positive report (many business stories are upbeat, but not all) or whether you will be the feature focus or perhaps part of a “trend” piece with several other businesses mentioned. This is where a PR pro can be useful in helping to navigate media contacts.

Lastly, counting on free media means you have to count on them getting it right — the facts, quotes and background correct. When you get a call from a local publication about your new manufacturing plant, you want them to report the facts as you presented them. They may not, either through human error, some form of media basis or agenda, or just an outright mistake.

No matter what, when deciding whether to advertise or utilize the path of public relations, remember these points shared as much as the bottom-line cost that goes with either approach.

In that end, be guided by your instincts as well as the facts.

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