Spotting the difference: PR versus advertising

Furniture clearance sale sign

In the previous post in our Spotting the Difference series, we put PR up against marketing. Here is a comparison that causes many a PR agent (and journalist) grief – and for good reason. Let’s take a look. 


Putting it as bluntly as it needs to be, advertising may be a part of your marketing budget but it is not PR.

  • With advertising, you buy media space in order to promote you brand, message, products and/or services. You pay your way to attention.
  • With PR, specifically media relations, you earn media attention through being relevant for the media’s audience or readership. It helps create trust in your product and your story and that gets consumers talking.

Media coverage is not free advertising.

PR versus advertising: Would you rather earn your way to consumer trust, or purchase it?”Tweet: #PR versus advertising: Would you rather earn your way to consumer trust, or purchase it? via @Phoebe_Netto


Good PR is newsworthy

Many businesses confuse something new with something newsworthy. But the idea that everything new is news worth covering and will spark attention with journalist and customer alike is a fallacy.

If your message is something that you would normally use an advertisement to express, such as announcing your business is having a stock-take sale or that you’re better than your competitors, this is not newsworthy.

The right kind of PR will show how great your business is by sharing your expertise or case studies, communicating your news or ground-breaking activities, winning awards, doing important research or performing noteworthy acts.

PR is a way to show the world the best parts of your brand and enhance the reputation of you or your organisation.

It demonstrates credibility and is often far more interesting to your potential customer than reading an advertisement. You find PR via trusted media outlets such as a magazine that targets your audience, presenting your business as something that is relevant and engaging to their readers. Or it’s a blog that focuses on your special interest area or a radio or TV program with a credible and recognised expert as the host or interviewer. The audience knows that your organisation was chosen to be included for their merits or newsworthiness, as opposed to being in there because they paid for ad space. It could also be an award won and then promoted. Or it’s positive discussion about your organisation on social media or an online directory, including dialogue and action from your organisation.

“PR is newsworthy content. Advertising is whatever you can afford it to be.” Tweet: PR is newsworthy content. Advertising is whatever you can afford it to be: by @Phoebe_Netto #PublicRelations


Advertising is blatant, guaranteed self-promotion

Advertising is not always given the same level of care, attention or trust by an audience. This is because no matter how pretty the advertisement or how enticing the language, everyone knows advertising is a paid service. And paying for media space means the main aim is acquiring revenue, rather than it being audience driven.

The bonus is you can guarantee advertising. And the level of prominence that the ad gains and the amount of interest your ad achieves largely through how much money you have to spend.

PR is a lot less set in stone than booking advertising. You cannot guarantee media coverage. Even if a journalist interviews you and is impressed with your news, angle or business, there are many things that can hinder the media coverage going to plan. For example, at the last minute there may be only limited space available for your interview to be published or aired and so your big three page feature with photos is postponed or becomes a short mention elsewhere. That is largely beyond the control of even the best PR agents.

Coupling advertising with PR helps hits two bird with one stone. It helps affirm your commitment to the chosen media outlet through advertising while giving the audience of that publication a story to remember.

Let’s take a look at an example of PR and advertising working together for fictional company, Furnitrice, as they attempt to upsell their customers via a local paper.

Example: Furniture hire company Furnitrice is trying to get people to hire more than one item of furniture at a time because it makes the transport cheaper per item and also frees up room in the warehouse. Furnitrice buys an ad page in the local paper to promote a new deal where customers can hire a second piece of furniture for half price.

Separately, a website aimed at newly arrived migrants runs a story on hiring furniture and whitegoods, and includes an interview with Furnitrice’s managing director on the benefits of hiring over buying furniture with some anecdotal examples of some of their new migrant customers hiring patterns.

The promotion in the local paper is advertising as the space was purchased. The web story is PR because the writer found a connection between her readership and Furnitrice, and she decided the managing director was the best person to speak to regarding the topic of hiring goods. No money changed hands for the editorial (web story), and being part of the article was not guaranteed.


The bottom line on advertising and PR

When it comes to building a relationship and reaching out to an audience, PR can be far more powerful than advertising. The downside is it’s not as simple as submitting some advertising material and paying a bill. But if you want to get the word out about something that is not newsworthy (such as a stocktake sale) then advertising may be the only way.

Whether your effort is directed towards crafting a newsworthy story (PR) or you want to make the most out of your spending (advertising), or you want to do both, it is important that you never confuse the two.


So now you know the difference between advertising and PR, PR and marketing, and PR and publicity.  Feel free to leave your questions in the comments below.

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