The difference between advertising and public relations has been debated and disputed as long as each practice has been, well, practiced. There are explicit black-and-white differences, striking similarities and an emerging gray area, confusing everyone from industry experts to clients to consumers. A recent Forbes piece by public relations professional Robert Wynne explains the real difference between PR and advertising.
The first line alone makes this a great read: There’s an old saying: "Advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for." In the simplest of terms, advertising is paid for, and therefore owned. Public relations is unpaid, and therefore earned.
Advertising is a direct “buy” a company creates and pays for to position itself in the media. Public relations earns media placements through relationships with the media. As Wynne states, “This means you convince reporters or editors to write a positive story about you or your client, your candidate, brand or issue. It appears in the editorial section of the magazine, newspaper, TV station or website, rather than the paid media section where advertising messages appear.”
Public relations has the advantage of credibility. A third-party endorsement from an independent, trusted source earns the trust of the public the same way a word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend or family member would.
Advertising has the advantage of control. Public relations does not have a guarantee over what, if anything, will be covered. Advertising controls every aspect of a message: content, creation, delivery, medium and audience. With public relations, the media has the inherent right to say whatever it wants about an organization, no matter what the PR practitioner says. Another age-old saying, “All publicity is good publicity” has proven to be anything but true. Just ask Donald Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers.
In addition to paid vs. unpaid and credibility vs. control, the final outcome in the advertising vs. PR debate lies in just that: outcomes. Wynne explains the managing and measuring of outcomes with this anecdote: “A former client purchased one full-page ad in a popular weekly newsmagazine that cost him $125,000. He expected a wave of phone calls, viral media and multiple conversations about the ad. Instead, he got zero. In contrast, getting quoted in the New York Times, Forbes and Reuters resulted in national speaking invitations, calls from new and existing clients, and solid credibility.”
As different as advertising and public relations may have been in the past, the convergence of media and the emergence of social media has blurred the black-and-white lines between the two into a veritable gray area. While some of these age-old differences still hold true in some instances, a rapidly evolving modern media landscape has narrowed the tangible distinctions between the disciplines. Integrated communications has become the new norm, combining campaigns that used to be solely advertising or strictly public relations into something else entirely. Campaigns now consist of a combination of traditional and digital advertising, social media, earned media coverage, special events, and endorsements - any way to spread a message across multiple platforms. While public relations and advertising will still have philosophical differences, evolving media platforms will continue to stimulate convergence.