What do I think?

What's the difference between PR and advertising?

How do you leverage PR an advertising to achieve your marketing goals? Photo by  Siddharth Bhogra  on  Unsplash .

How do you leverage PR an advertising to achieve your marketing goals? Photo by Siddharth Bhogra on Unsplash.

When I started my first internship at a PR agency, I thought I was joining a Mad Men-esque office creating pithy one-liners and hypnotizing graphics. I learned very quickly that not only is drinking in the office no longer acceptable, but that PR is not advertising.

From the outside, PR and advertising seem to be the same: they aim to garner positive public attention for a company so that people will buy from or work with them. Though this is true, PR and advertising work in different ways to achieve this goal. I’ve outlined the three main differences between the two below.

Difference #1: Relationship-building

Ads are about the RIGHT NOW. Facebook knows that I’m going to Portugal in three months and that I’ve looked up suitcase options, so they push ads toward me that show me a suitcase company who can help solve my current problem.

PR, on the other hand, is about creating a long-term relationship with the public through trust and credibility. Just because I see someone on TV once, doesn’t mean that I trust them. I have to see you again on TV programs that I already watch, hear you on podcasts or radio shows that I regularly listen to and read about you in the news outlets that I fully trust. This allows me to see that the people I trust to inform me see you as a trustworthy person, so maybe I should, too.

Constant appearances aren’t the only thing to consider in PR, but it’s also the content of what you’re saying in these news outlets. Do I like what you’re saying? Are you adding something interesting or useful into my life? Or are you just a product pusher?

I have a client who is constantly featured in news outlets across Canada to discuss education. The reason the media continues to call her to comment is because she never mentions the education company she owns. She’s explaining what education policies mean for parents and kids, which is exactly what all these outlets are trying to do – not to push her business for her.

This is why you can’t just ask reporters to report on the new suitcase you launched. How does that add value to their audience or help them do their job? You’re better off using ads for that.

Difference #2: Speed

If you’re looking for a quick turnaround in sales and clicks, digital advertising is your best bet. It’s right on someone’s feed, you control what kind of people see it, it’s based on previous search terms – it’s very effective and you can easily track the ROI.

PR, on the other hand, is not so quick and not so trackable. You can be in the local news and have a slight uptick in web traffic (which isn’t always clear that it came from people watching local news), but it’s unlikely to be as busy as when you put an ad on Facebook.

The major exception for a quick turnaround on PR is if you’re in a major news outlet, such as on Good Morning America or in Vogue. This kind of media coverage is how Warby Parker blew up within a week of launching. But even this kind of coverage takes time to plan because these big shows and magazines require lead-time to prepare segments and articles.

Most companies can’t get into these large outlets, but the more local outlets can also create huge upticks in web traffic and inquiries. I’ve seen this happen for my clients when they’re on local Toronto morning shows, like CP24 Breakfast or Breakfast Television.

So if you’re looking for an immediate turnaround, PR may not be your best bet. But if you’re looking for a long-term trust and credibility strategy, PR may be more effective than ads.

Difference #3: Payment

In traditional explanations of the difference between advertising and PR, you’ll see that the main difference is that a company pays for ads, but earns PR.

This is no longer true.

With sponsored content becoming an option for an ad that looks like PR, this is becoming part of a company’s marketing strategy and the responsibility of many PR departments. It blends the PR and advertising worlds together, which is blurring the line between the two even more.

However, the best PR is still “earned,” a.k.a. it’s not paid for. This means that you’re written up in a newspaper or on TV because that outlets think its audience will be interested to hear from you about an issue or because you having something valuable to add to their lives.

Sponsored content often does have a value-add in it, but the goal of a sponsored content post is for the readers to buy your product. Sponsored content can build trust and credibility (fashion/lifestyle outlet Man Repeller does a great job at this), but it’s often a one-time occurrence. You can make sponsored content a more long-term strategy with a podcast from your company or a series of articles in an outlet, but most companies aren’t generating multiple sponsored content opportunities.  

Earned PR’s goal is to constantly remind people that YOUR company is trustworthy, so it’s a better long-term strategy.

Do you have other questions about the differences between PR and advertising? Comment below and I’ll answer!


Sabina Wex