PR vs. Advertising: 7 Critical Differences Explained

PR vs. Advertising: 7 Critical Differences Explained
13th January 20238 min read

PR and advertising are both communications and marketing strategies that aim to raise awareness about products, services, or brands. But advertising involves several steps that PR does not, including purchasing space or time for a message and the need to ensure that the target audience sees it. This article explores seven critical differences between PR and advertising to help you choose one for your business.

Nowadays, people have all kinds of ways to promote themselves and their products, services, and businesses. Whether it’s through ads, press releases, influencer campaigns, or other forms of marketing and communication, there are plenty of options to choose from.

But that's where things get confusing: How do you know where to put your money? And what's the difference between all of these strategies?

The truth is, the ideal digital strategy for your business will include a mix of all of several types of marketing, advertising, and public relations. And this article is here to explain the difference between PR and advertising.

Advertising vs. PR: A Quick Intro

Advertising is the process of creating and paying for promotional messages, with the goal of driving sales or raising brand awareness.

Businesses run advertising campaigns in a few different ways:

  • Print ads in newspapers and magazines
  • TV ads and OTT (over-the-top) advertising
  • Radio spots
  • Online ads, including display and search engine ads
  • Social media ads (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat)
  • Physical ad space, including billboards, buildings, and buses

The advertising process involves planning a campaign, creating or buying the ad space, A/B testing different ad elements, and analyzing the results after launching. It is one of the most commonly-used and effective marketing strategies and just about every business will leverage paid traffic in some way.

Public relations (PR) is all about getting third-party coverage for your business. Instead of paying for ad space and advertising messages, PR works to build strong relationships with media outlets to get your product or service featured in news stories and articles.

Public relations activities include:

  • Press releases sent to media outlets
  • Getting product or company mentions on popular blogs and websites
  • Influencer campaigns
  • Public appearances and events
  • Networking with contacts in your industry

PR campaigns involve a lot more than just launching press releases; you must also identify the right journalists, craft personalized pitches and tailored messages, and make sure you’re following up with reporters in a timely manner.

When comparing PR vs. media relations and PR vs. marketing, media relations is more similar to PR and marketing is more like advertising.

What is the Difference Between PR and Advertising?

PR and advertising are part of the same marketing and communication family. They even share some overlapping goals: raising brand awareness, creating a strong reputation, driving sales. That said, there are key distinctions between the two strategies, and understanding those differences can help you decide which one to use for your business.

Several differences between PR and advertising can be broken down into the following categories:

1. Earned vs. Paid Media Opportunities

The main difference between public relations and advertising is that PR involves earned media placements while advertising is paid.

With PR, you create a story and pitch it to the right people. If they’re interested in your story, they might publish an article or post about you or feature you on their show.

There are numerous ways to earn media features:

  • Generate buzz on social media platforms for something innovative, transgressive, or otherwise newsworthy
  • Write an expert blog post and share it on Twitter, LinkedIn, or sites like Medium
  • Go to conferences and build relationships with reporters who cover your industry
  • Get invited to speak on podcasts or radio shows
  • Have influencers or brands reach out to you for collaborations

That's why PR professionals have such different roles from advertisers. They need to build strong relationships with media outlets to feature their clients.

With advertising, you pay for ad space directly. Whether it’s buying print ads, connected TV placement through a programmatic exchange, or online display ads, advertising gives you a guaranteed spot to promote your product in exchange for money.

That isn't to say that PR is free - while you’re not paying for the ad space directly, you're still investing in PR services to help identify and secure those opportunities.

Plus, publications and media outlets are multimillion-dollar businesses and still operate as such. Countless companies pay for media placements, and most publishers work on a transactional level.

The difference here is that you can still earn media coverage by creating a great product or service and offering a unique story. But nobody in their right mind would advertise your product for free.

2. Control Over the Narrative

When it comes to ads, you choose the media outlet and control the messaging. You buy ad space from a newspaper, rent billboard space, or book TV time.

But a huge element of public relations is the fact that you can't control everything that comes out about your brand. Reporters have their own agendas, and they don't always tell the story you’re hoping for. And in the case of dark PR campaigns (or potential predatory campaigns), competitors might use the media to spin the story in a way that could damage your brand’s reputation.

That's why a PR strategy also has a risk management element built into it - you need to be prepared for questions, anticipate how stories might turn out, and actively manage your reputation.

When you run ad campaigns, you face a lot of the same risks and challenges. Your ad might not be well-received, and you could earn some bad press for running it. So the same risk management strategies apply here, too.

But advertising gives you a certain level of control over the message sent to people.

  • You write the copy for your campaigns.
  • You choose the distribution channels.
  • You decide on the targeting and placement.

Ultimately, that's why PR needs to work hand-in-hand with advertising for a successful marketing strategy. Ads allow you to control the message in a way that PR can't, while PR gives you access to more organic media coverage and press opportunities.

3. Goals and Objectives

Of course, people run PR and ad campaigns to generate buzz, drive more traffic to their websites, and increase brand recognition. But they often have different objectives in mind when launching campaigns.

Ads are a great way to drive conversions. With targeted ads, you can capture the attention of potential customers and lead them directly to your website or product page. This makes it easy to track ROI since you can measure how many people clicked on your link, how many purchased something from you, and how much money you made from it.

Companies create ads for their specific target audience to maximize sales. Usually, these advertisements focus on actively promoting a product or service rather than building an image and trust in the brand.

Through strategic public relations, organizations can boost their brand recognition and credibility. The goals and objectives of a successful PR plan are based on the fact that consumers prefer to work with businesses they trust and respect. An effective public relations strategy helps build this necessary relationship between a company and its consumers.

4. Long-Term vs. Short-Term Potential

You usually look for short-term results when you run ad campaigns (e.g., PPC, paid social). You want to increase sales or website traffic quickly. But as soon as your ad spend stops, the results go away.

When it comes to PR, the effects of your campaigns last far beyond the initial launch. You can write press releases that stay live for years and generate media coverage almost indefinitely.

For example, Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign was first launched in 2004, but the campaign still lives on today. And its timely ability to highlight real women in a space where photoshopped and edited images were commonplace inspired similar campaigns from other brands.

That isn't to say that PR isn't completely a long-term play. Writing a byline or getting feature coverage for a new product launch would only last as long as the story does. But overall, PR campaigns tend to have a longer shelf-life than your run-of-the-mill advert.

5. Audience Targeting

Since PR is mostly focused on earned media coverage, you don't have the same level of audience targeting that you do with advertising.

Sure, when it comes to PR campaigns, you can focus on certain demographics or industries - but once you pitch a story to a publication, there's no guarantee they'll run it. And there's no guarantee that the exact members of your ideal customer base will see it.

Since tons of people consume media from the same outlets, you get a broad reach with PR. But you can't be sure that it'll be seen by the people you want to reach most.

Some advertising methods give you broader reach as well. Print ads, billboards, and other forms of direct advertising get your message out to the masses. 

But the massive amount of data that comes with digital advertising gives you precise targeting options. You can narrow down your reach to the exact people who are most likely to buy from you and continuously iterate your strategy in real-time.

Let's use connected TV (CTV) as an example:

Connected TV (CTV) platforms allow viewers to stream the media of their choice on demand. Netflix, Hulu, and Roku are all CTV platforms.

If you want to run a CTV ad, you'll first create the ad content. Then, you will use a programmatic ad exchange to target and distribute the ad to viewers.

Since these platforms collect user data, you can also narrow down your reach by targeting people based on their age, gender, income level, geographic location, and more. And you'll ensure that more of your target buyers will see it.

Social media and search engine marketing offer the same level of data and targeting. Because billions of people use social media and 83% of internet users use search engines, their ad platforms are so robust that they enable advertisers to target people in almost any way imaginable.

That's why many brands combine PR with targeted advertising for the best of both worlds: earned media coverage from influential outlets combined with the precision of digital advertising.

It's a winning combination that allows you to get your message out to the right people at the right time.

6. Trust From the Audience

Gone are the days when we relied completely upon salespeople and case studies to decide which companies, software and jobs to pursue.

Nowadays, we look beyond them, trusting our friends, family members and colleagues more than anything. Third-party review sites such as Yelp, G2Crowd and Glassdoor have also become indispensable sources of information for us in making decisions about businesses that merit patronage or employment opportunities worth considering.

According to a HubSpot study, 65% of consumers don’t trust advertisements, and 71% don’t trust social media ads in particular.
The majority (65%) of consumers don't trust company press releases, either. But many types of press releases come from third parties:

  • News outlets cover new product launches, and influencers review products they love.
  • A broadcast network might cover a new research study that you conducted.
  • Industry experts will discuss your product in an opinion piece, case study, or speculative outlook article.
  • Influencers will use your product and talk about its benefits and use cases.

For these reasons, more and more brands are beginning to prioritize earned media coverage over paid advertisements. The importance of PR is that earned media comes from a trusted third party, it's more likely to build trust with the audience than if the brand was promoting itself directly.

7. KPI Measurements

PR effectiveness is typically measured with qualitative metrics, while advertisers measure campaigns against quantitative KPIs.

For PR, success is largely measured in the following ways:

  • Earned Media Impressions: the total number of people who see stories about your brand that a third-party source has mentioned.
  • Net Promoter Score: the percentage of individuals who would recommend your product or service to their friends, family, and colleagues.
  • Share of Voice: the percentage of total conversation volume across all media channels that involves mentions of your brand.
  • Sentiment Score: the percentage of individuals who have a favorable opinion of your brand.

When you combine these qualitative metrics with quantitative KPIs such as click-through rate, impressions, and cost per acquisition, you get a more comprehensive view of how well your PR efforts are performing.

Meanwhile, advertisers measure campaigns against quantitative KPIs like impressions, clicks, and conversion rates. They also track cost per click (CPC), cost per thousand impressions (CPM), and return on ad spend (ROAS).

In short: PR focuses on qualitative metrics such as trust, awareness, sentiment score, and share of voice, which must be analyzed and interpreted as percentages and ratios. Advertising focuses on quantitative metrics such as impressions, clicks, and conversions, measured in terms of cost and revenue.

What are the main advantages of PR over advertising?

There's a time and a place for advertising (we know that!). But PR has many advantages over advertising.

PR gives your brand more visibility

If you want a broad reach and higher visibility, PR is the way to go. Earned media is king when it comes to building trust and credibility, generating word-of-mouth, and getting the word out about you, your company, or its products.

Sure, you can hyperscale an ad campaign, but it would cost a lot of money. The PR cost is relatively low when you consider how widely your message can be spread, and it's much more natural-looking than an ad.

PR can be more reliable

Advertising is mostly data-driven and based on consumer behavior and demographics. But with PR, you can sometimes get more reliable and accurate feedback - especially when it's coming from user-generated content (UGC).

For example, a Yelp review about a restaurant combines personal preferences and opinions of the individual reviewer. That kind of information is invaluable for any brand looking to improve its product or services.

PR has an easier approach to grabbing your target market

Paid ads are often where people first look to find something they need. But getting people to click on your ads is harder than you think.

If you create a solid press release, you can find a few target publications and hire a press release distribution service to get your message out and in front of the right people.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can PR replace advertising?

PR will not replace advertising. Instead, PR and advertising campaigns will see increasing amounts of overlap, and marketers need to develop a strategy that utilizes both. PR can help increase brand visibility and trust, while advertising campaigns focus on generating sales and revenue through data-driven practices.

Is advertising or PR more credible?

The average consumer does not trust company advertisements or press releases. Earned media coverage from a third-party source is generally seen as the most reliable and credible.

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