How is PR Different from Advertising?

As I was finishing up a bootcamp class at the gym the other day, the instructor went around the room asking what everyone had planned for the rest of their day. When it was my turn to respond, I mentioned that I was going to be working on a writing project for one of my clients. She asked me what I did for a living, and I explained to her that I was a public relations professional. She gave me a blank look, thought for a second, and then said, “So, is that like advertising?” I smiled at her and did my best to explain what I do.

I have this conversation a lot actually. Unless you’re in the marketing biz, chances are that you don’t fully understand what public relations is and/or how it is different from advertising.

Public relations, or PR (as it is affectionately known), is the practice of managing communications (written and verbal) between an organization and its “publics” (or target audiences) to create goodwill or a favorable image. In my case, my clients’ target audiences are buyers and renters of construction equipment, and the goal of their public relations’ effort is to get their news, their products and their customers published in trade magazines, on websites, in online newsletters and blog postings and on social media platforms, like Twitter or Facebook, without paying for the coverage. 

In the marketing world, we call these “non-paid” placements. In the media world, they call it “editorial coverage.”

So, how is PR different from advertising? Plain and simple: Advertising is paid for. With advertising, my clients develop their message through ad copy, images and design, and then pay to have the advertisements appear exactly how they have designed them in the exact places they choose to publish them. The creation and distribution of the message is very controlled.

Advertising is an excellent way for my clients to generate sales leads and build brand awareness, but that’s not what I do.

With PR, my clients build their brand by weaving their marketing messages into press releases, articles, customer success stories and Q&A with editors (to name a few). It is a softer, less direct approach than advertising because once I submit these pieces to editors for publication, I am no longer fully in control of my clients’ content. Ultimately, the editor has final say on what is published. He/she may publish everything I provide, pick-and-choose a few nuggets from what I’ve submitted or do absolutely nothing with what I’ve given. 

Because it is not paid for, PR poses my clients as experts in their fields and being an expert gains them credibility with their “publics.” In my opinion, this is what makes PR so powerful ─ because being credible can lead to sales, which is of course my clients’ end goal with both their PR and advertising efforts.

Although this explanation was longer than my workout buddy was expecting, it was a good exercise (pun intended) for me to show off my marketing know-how.