Advertising and PR: Not the same thing!

Jeff Morosoff, Asst. Professor of Public Relations, Hofstra University

For many college students, Summer Session I has begun. Whenever I start a new semester teaching Fundamentals of Public Relations, I ask my students to try to define PR before I even ask their names. Inevitably, several students will include the word “advertising” within their definition. I quickly admonish their answer.

When you advertise, you control everything. You decide the venues where your ads will run. You write the copy and choose the images. You determine how much time or space you buy, and where and when you buy them. You pretty much know who will see them. There is very little left to chance. The ads run as you wanted, where you wanted, and when you wanted.

Public relations, on the other hand, is about hope. You control nothing. You write the press releases, send them to your targeted media outlets and hope they’ll be printed. You pitch stories and hope reporters care enough to respond. When your stories do get media attention, you hope the outcome is positive, hope they get good placement, and hope they effectively communicate your message. That press conference you’re staging? You hope reporters will show up. Those blogs and social media posts you’ve created? You hope that readers respond.

It’s also about credibility vs. control. People understand that ads exist to sell them something, and audiences are hip and cynical. When people see informative messages in reliable media, they tend to believe them.

Of course, your success in PR actually depends less on hope and more on the relationships you develop with reporters, the audience you build in social media, and your ability to communicate effectively for all your targeted media venues. When you’re able to work these relationships and tools well, PR becomes less of a crapshoot and more about your skills.

So please don’t think that PR and advertising are the same thing. They’re most certainly not. Your thoughts?


8 thoughts on “Advertising and PR: Not the same thing!

  1. Svayambhut Ghosh

    I do not know if it’s just me or if everyone else experiencing issues with your site. It seems like some of the written text on your posts are running off the screen. Can someone else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them as well? This might be a issue with my browser because I’ve had this happen previously.


  2. jmorosoff Post author

    Thanks for your interesting comments and references, Bert and Amanda. No question that the two are tied together; I find it very important to reinforce why they’re different animals, and then introduce how they work together to create integrated messages that support a product, service or idea.

  3. Bert Cunningham

    PR students & pros should take a look at today’s editions of the NY Times, Daily News & Post to see how advertising is used to support a PR effort. Mayor Bloomberg’s call to super downsize sugary soft drinks in NYC received tons of ink in all three papers. The News & Post provided editorial suport for the mayor’s idea while the Times opposed. In all three pubs, the American Beverage Association placed full-page ads headlined: “Are soda and sugar sweetened beverages driving obesity? Not according to the facts.” The ads then lay out three basic facts the association uses to counter the mayor’s reason for the downsize effort. Here’s the lesson for PR students: Sometimes the way to get your PR message across during a high-volumn public debate – to break through the clutter and standout – is to structure your argument in a paid ad that reporters, commentators, and editorial writers can’t alter. Some may not read a long news article after scanning the graphics and call outs on the downsize arguments and perhaps a burried quote from an industry rep, but many will read an eye catching ad that presents sound bite-type counter points.

  4. Irene Taub

    To quote one of my favorite NYIT professors, Dr. Adrienne O’Brien – “Advertising is what you pay for; public relations is what you pray for.” Great post, Jeff!

  5. Amanda Smith

    I like to think of “earned coverage” as a part of public relations practices. Rather than strategic (paid) advertising, public relations focuses on media coverage that is generated from something the company, its employees or its products have done that is newsworthy and relevant to their target audience.

    I think “hope” is the wrong word to use when describing public relations practices. After all, when done correctly, public relations campaigns involve research, action, communication, evaluation. This is not blind “hope” that a message or campaign will resonate with key publics, but rather a strategic communication plan designed with specific goals and objectives in mind.

    Interesting post! Thank you for your thoughtful insight.

  6. Bert Cunningham

    As a follow up to my previous comment, it’s interesting to watch GM use PR as a way to drive advertising outlets to provide better ROI. GM’s very public pronouncements that it will not advertise on Facebook or next year’s Super Bowl have gotten a lot of attention. According to some business writers, GM is pushing back against questionable ad costs as it seeks to reduce marketing expenses and increase profits. In the meantime, GM’s getting a lot of PR as a result. Only time will tell if it produces bottom line profits.

  7. Bert Cunningham

    PR and advertising are different communication strategies. Working together in an integrated, comprehensive campaign the strengths of both can help launch a new product, reposition a corporation after a crisis, or elect a president. Used smartly they are powerful and effective tools in the storytelling kit.


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