PR vs. Advertising: What’s the difference?

September 10, 2013

What is the difference between advertising and public relations?  To keep it simple:

Advertising is about telling your own story, PR is about getting others excited enough to tell that story for you.

In economic terms, advertising is paid and PR is free, though don’t be fooled into thinking one is cheaper than the other. However the most important distinction between the two is really validation and control. PR pros pitch a story to members of the press in hopes to have it told in a positive, public way. The upside of this is third party endorsement – readers trust an independent reporter far more than an advertisement they see on the street.

With this in mind: If choosing between a billboard ad and a feature newspaper story that reaches the same number of readers, is your gut instinct to pick the newspaper story? Probably – after all, an independent cheerleader is best. But what if that story is negative? That changes the game. With PR, you have no guarantee of the angle the story will take, if it is picked up at all. This is why building relationships with reporters and keeping a finger on the pulse of news is absolutely essential to a successful PR campaign. By leveraging a relationship with the press, a strong PR department can influence, though still not control, variables including if a story is picked up, angle, where within the program/publication it runs.

Interested in more guaranteed results? Advertising gives you control of the length, messaging, and placement of an ad – all things you don’t control in PR. Furthermore, sales teams can give you a fairly accurate estimate of reach before you even invest in an advertisement. However, with this control you are sacrificing valuable third party endorsement and shelf life. Why? Because ad campaigns run for the length of time they are paid to run, and then are taken down. So, if you pay Local Newspaper to run a website banner ad for one week you will get high visibility, but that visibility goes away after that week. A story, on the other hand, is searchable indefinitely.

Goal Setting

While an ad campaign may have the same bottom-line sales goal as a PR initiative, the benchmarks for the two are vastly different. Ad campaigns preliminary measure the number of ads they were able to take out, and would later measure the estimated increase in sales against the actual increase, often for a focused part of the market. PR campaigns focus more on the high-value earned placements in media outlets, and success is normally measured by outreach instead of a bottom line.

What about social media and community management?

The internet’s increasing presence has expanded PR to also include community management, or rather, pitching the story to a community and pushing for them to tell their friends. Community management blurs the line between advertising and PR, though most companies classify it as the latter. On one hand, you control the messaging and how often the messaging is relayed, much like advertising. However, like in PR, these efforts are normally seeking third party endorsement more than just telling an individual. Would you rather have a person like or share your company’s status? While a like shows an individual is engaged, a share then engages many other followers with a coveted third party endorsement, which is guaranteed to include your company’s exact messaging.  

Contact Us

3865 Wilson Boulevard
Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22205

Name* Email*
Company* Phone