Understanding the Difference Between PR and Advertising

May 2, 2016

Many people wrongly perceive public relations to be synonymous with publicity. In reality, PR is a broad and complex communications discipline that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their constituencies, with part of that engagement driven by media coverage. When leveraged correctly, public relations can build awareness and engagement, and advance an organization’s business objectives.

Similarly, advertising is designed to raise awareness of a product, person, cause, etc. among target audiences, generally with the intent to drive sales. Much like public relations, advertising takes place across multiple platforms, and is a much broader discipline than most people realize.  However, when considering engaging a PR firm, it’s important to understand the distinction between paid and earned media.

Earned Media vs. Paid Media

Pitching newsworthy stories to media is part of the art of public relations.  The content needs to be perceived as useful to reporters, editors, producers, etc. When successful, these pitches can result in stories that mention you or your business within the context of a broader story and add third-party credibility to your reputation.  This is earned media. An interview on the local news or a story in the paper are both examples of earned media. While paid media opportunities may appear in the same places as earned media, the methods to get them there are quite different. As the phrase implies, companies pay an agreed upon rate for a guarantee that their advertisement will appear in publication in question. With earned media, there’s never any implicit guarantee of coverage, which is why so many organizations engage third-party experts to help.

Controlling a Message vs. Pitching a Message

Advertisers control their message by crafting exactly what they want to say through audio and visual imagery. They get to decide what is going to be shown, and to whom. They can choose the platform (TV, radio, print, online, etc.), the location, and how many times their message is disseminated. While public relations professionals often can leverage their existing relationships with media to gain consideration, the story must be deemed relevant and newsworthy to result in coverage.


Advertising is useful for building brand awareness because it guarantees the message will be seen and how often.  However, consumers are aware that advertisements are part of a paid marketing campaign. If it’s something they are interested in, they might pay attention, remember it, and act on it when the time comes. But the unique discovery that comes from learning about a company, product or service in a news article can have an even greater impact on behavior.

Ultimately, there is no one size fits all approach when deciding what strategy is best for building your brand. No reputable PR agency will guarantee that your story will be covered, but if you can accept the uncertainty, and entrust your brand story to experts, your investment will be justified by the increased credibility you achieve when a story does happen.


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