Throughout my 30+ years in Communications, I have encountered many people who believe public relations and advertising are the same. In fact, they are two distinct business practices and strategies. And, it’s important for your clients and prospective clients to know the differences so that you can provide them with the most effective and cost-efficient communications services.
While complex business approaches, I nonetheless believe you can start a productive conversation with your clients by communicating the following three differences between PR and advertising.

  1. One of the simplest ways to distinguish them is found in this humorous rhyme:


With advertising you pay. With PR you pray.”

While that’s sure to get a laugh, there is some truth in it. Your client pays for advertising to be placed in media outlets or as banner and other sponsored ads on Facebook, Twitter, and so on. In contrast, because your client does not pay media outlets or social media for PR placements, the client cannot control when, how, or what is placed. Instead, we hope for the best outcome. Again, while this is an example of poetic license, it does contain fragments of truth.

  1. Another pithy distinction is about how content is generated:


“Advertising is paid media. PR is earned media.”

Although both advertising and PR can be media-focused, they take radically different approaches to how they generate media content. Content for ads is conceived and created, and then space and time are bought to place those same ads in specific media. In PR, in contrast, content is developed to pitch a story idea to a journalist, blogger, or other media influencer. The journalist, for example, then independently determines if the story idea has merit and if so, shapes the news or feature story, which he or she must also vet through an editor or producer. PR professionals must work diligently to convince key third-party media reps and other influencers that the content is of high value. They must earn the media placement.

  1. The issue of “content value” is another important difference. This issue is generally summed up as follows:


“Ads aren’t trusted. PR generates trusted content.”

Advertising content is usually found in “sponsored media” sections, whether in newsprint, broadcast or social media. Those sections – for the most part – are separate from the “editorial” sections of the media, where PR-generated content appears. Overall, media organizations continue to label advertising as “pay to play” – and, as such, is viewed as being of less value than and not as trustworthy as “editorial” content. Keep in mind that PR-generated content is subjected to scrutiny by an independent, unpaid source (i.e. journalist, blogger, for instance) which is then further “credentialed” by editors as well as fact checkers.

Why These Differences Matter?

Clearly, I believe it is important for clients and prospective clients to understand the differences between advertising and PR. But I also believe that in understanding the distinctions, I am arming my clients to make more informed decisions about the services and expertise I can offer them.
In close collaboration with them, I always ask, case-by-case: When will advertising make the most difference in increasing product sales or announcing a non-profit fundraising event or projecting their brand? When will PR make the most difference in raising awareness of a social cause or in managing a crisis or announcing poor financial returns?
As a communications expert, I want my clients to spend their dollars where it matters most. And, I want them to know that I and my BPR team are right by their side, offering them advertising and PR choices — or some combination of both. After more than three decades in the communications business, I know without doubt that educating clients and prospective clients about these and other strategies and approaches is good business — for everyone.