Public relations differs from advertising in several respects.
The purpose of advertising is to sell products or services. Manufacturers advertise to try to persuade people to buy their products.
The purpose of public relations is to “sell” an organization. PR promotes the company rather than its products. It seeks to give a favorable image of the company, thereby creating an environment in which the company can flourish.
Advertisers buy space in newspapers and magazines and on websites to publish their ads. They buy time on television and radio to broadcast their commercials.
It is often said that advertising is paid while public relations is free. When you run an advertisement for your product, you pay for the space; when your PR efforts prompt a newspaper to write an article about your company, you don’t pay for that coverage.
Of course, PR is not absolutely free. It is time-consuming, and time costs money. And it requires talent, and that also costs money. Your in-house public relations staff or your outside PR consultancy have to be paid. But compared to the huge sums spent on advertising campaigns, PR is quite a bargain. Many small and medium-sized businesses that can afford only limited advertising, with modest results, can achieve better results with PR on a fraction of the budget they would spend on advertising.
Public relations is not free, but it is a lot cheaper than advertising.
When you advertise, you control the content, design, size, and timing of your message. You write the content, design the layout, specify how big your ad is, and when it runs. Your material appears exactly as you have decided.
With public relations, however, you have almost no control over the content, visual appearance, timing, and size of your message as it will appear in the media. You may write anything you want in your press release, but you cannot dictate to the newspaper how this information is to be used. Nor can you review or approve any changes made. You provide the press with written material that they can use as they see fit—or even ignore. Your press release may appear word for word in one publication, but may be extensively rewritten in another. One journal may write a cover story based on your material; another may overlook it completely.
Advertising is repeatable; PR is not. The same advertisement can be repeated as many times as you want in a given publication; the same TV commercial can be broadcast several times a day.
A media source, on the other hand, is going to write a story based on your press release, or cover your event, only once. To get coverage again, you have to provide the media with material for a new story, or come up with a different angle.
Advertising is identified as a paid promotion. It appears in paid-for space in the media. Such space is clearly distinguished from editorial space where PR seeks to gain coverage.
In contrast, public relations is not seen as a paid promotion. Even though a story about a product or an organization may have resulted from a PR effort, the article never acknowledges that fact. You never see an article in a newspaper or a magazine say: “According to a press release sent by the PR department of so-and-so…”
Consumers are skeptical about advertising. They tend not to believe the claims made in advertising.
People, on the other hand, tend to take at face value what they see on TV, hear on radio, or read in the newspaper. They believe that if the newspaper printed it, it must be true.
PR is therefore more credible because it is seen as third-party endorsement. Media coverage of your event, a story about your organization, or a good review of your product in a specialized publication or website appear to the public as media endorsement of your organization or product. Moreover, comments or claims that would sound conceited and not credible if you said them about yourself in an ad seem laudatory, glowing, and quite believable when the media say them about you.
Because PR is promotion in the guise of news, people do not identify it as promotion, and are, therefore, not skeptical about it; indeed, they believe it.
This is a key advantage of PR that makes up for all of its shortcomings.