October 10, 2017 Michaela Sokol

Telling The Same Story Different Ways: The Differences Between PR and Advertising

With every family reunion comes the inevitable stream of interrogative questioning (you know what I’m talking about). After the rib crushing hug, the questions begin: “When did you get so big? What are you doing now? Why don’t you call?” Before my recent college graduation, family members would always ask how school was going, and without fail follow up with, “remind me what you’re studying again?”

I was an advertising major with a focus in public relations. To most people, it almost sounds redundant- my family members certainly thought so. Truth is, when I started my studies I really didn’t think they were very dissimilar. Now that I have graduated, and have a year of professional experience under my belt, I can confidently answer that question.

While the two often go hand in hand, there are key differences between the two fields that are worth noting.

Paid vs Earned Media

Helen Woodward, the first female advertising executive in the US, famously said in 1938, “advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for.” Pretty self explanatory. Put simply, advertising is paid media while PR is earned media. We use the term “earned media” as an attempt to measure monetary value for positive media coverage, whereas paid is face value. You know exactly what you’re getting with paid media, which is not as exciting in my opinion!

Controlled vs Uncontrolled media

When it comes to advertisements, you control the message and the placement. Everything is controlled by the agency/client. You pay for what you want and expect exactly that in return, even if that means you don’t necessarily receive that. When it comes to PR, you can pitch a story as many times as you want but at the end of the day, the publications are the ones in control of when, and if, the story runs. PR coverage is earned solely on the merits of the story, pitch and quality of the information.

Audience Perception

Think about when you’re reading a magazine or watching TV and up pops an ad, there is a certain degree of skepticism (and annoyance) that comes along with it. PR takes a less in-your-face approach, and focuses more on building a mutually beneficial relationship between an organization and the public. Companies rely on PR professionals to listen to the current conversations and determine the best way to add their voice to the conversation, often with the goal of positioning the CEO or other executives at the company as thought leaders or authorities in their given industries.

While both public relations and advertising are grounded in working with media to tell a certain story, there are distinct differences between the two that are important to acknowledge. I look forward to my next family reunion when I can refer my family members to this blog post…