The Distant Cousins of Public Relations and Advertising

Listening to the news or to talk shows can be mind-boggling these days, not to mention terrifying. There are so many forces driving our economy that pundits are desperately seeking someone to blame it on.

Time Magazine recently came out with a story titled “25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis,” attributing the financial downturn to everyone from former presidents to predatory lenders. What I submit to you however is that a primary driver in our economy is advertising – a multi-billion dollar industry.

Years ago I thought advertising would make a great career, an opportunity to turn my creativity into an exciting profession, until someone introduced me to public relations. Then my life changed.

So are the two concepts really that different? Aren’t they basically kissing cousins? While both industries are grounded in communication, advertising appeals to people’s wants and needs while public relations focuses on building relationships.

Fundamental Differences
That may sound a bit harsh, but when you view an advertisement on TV, you are promised your wildest dreams – flawless beauty, unending youth, or immeasurable riches – if, and only if, you buy their product. On the other hand, public relations is seeking to build goodwill and mutual respect between an organization and its public. Observe the following examples:

Advertising: A local bakery purchases an ad in the elementary school’s newsletter.

Public Relations: A local bakery offers baking lessons to the students of the elementary school, which is followed by a story in the school’s newsletter.

Advertising: A large financial institution takes out a full-page ad in Newsweek about sending its employees to help rebuild New Orleans.

Public Relations: A large financial institution gets Newsweek to write a six-page story about how they are funding trips for their employees to help rebuild New Orleans.

Advertising: A domestic car manufacturer buys airtime on a popular syndicated television show.

Public Relations: A domestic car manufacturer underwrites a popular educational program on public television.

Another fundamental difference between the two industries is the audience. Advertising is targeted to potential and existing customers only. Anything else would be an advertising budget wasted.

However, public relations communications can have a variety of audiences: customers, employees, investors and the general public. Where the goal of an advertisement is to persuade people to buy what an organization is offering, the intent of a public relations activity is to influence the public’s perception resulting in increased sales or another such goal.

A third and critical difference between advertising and public relations is an organization’s decision-making process. An advertising agency is given the message their client wishes to convey, then develops the process for delivering that message. In contrast, the PR professional serves as an advisor to the organization’s management team in the creation of the message.

On the surface, it may appear that public relations and advertising are members of the same immediate family. But once you take a closer look at the different functions and goals of the two industries, you find that they are most akin to distant cousins.

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  • Great examples on the differences between the two. I think a healthy combination of the two is really what we are should be going after here. Thanks for the article.

    Sean C.

  • Sean,

    Thanks and glad you enjoyed the article. You’re right, it really is about the mix. Like all good marketing the most effective results usually come from mixing media – as long as one builds off the other.

    While this article put advertising down a bit – a lot of advertising, especially skilled direct-response, can generate stellar results.