Public relations vs marketing: what’s the difference?

The lines between advertising and public relations are often blurred, and while they do have some crossover they also have distinct characteristics. Both have tactical and strategic differences with varying timelines as well. As a PR guy myself, here’s how I explain it: the difference between public relations and advertising is about who’s talking about your company.

What’s the difference between public relations and advertising?

Advertising is the skill of talking about your company whereas public relations (PR) is the skill of inspiring others to talk about your company. Advertising almost always involves interrupting others’ daily habits via pop-ups, ads, billboards, commercials, etc. Public relations involves the willing exchange of value for attention via interviews, events, written content, newsletters, and podcasts—check out my complete guide on how to start a company podcast.

As a general rule, most consumers are aware and resistant to advertisements and their inherent bias, but public relations efforts are often unseen, naturally occurring, and considered to be unbiased. This means consumers are often more receptive to public relations efforts than advertisements.

The top search result is an ad. The bottom is an organic result, likely the result of hard work from a PR and SEO person.

For example, you may skip over a search engine listing that says “AD” favoring the organic listing instead. You may skip that YouTube ad for a product, but trust a TikTok creator who uses a competing product. You may believe the naturally occurring information you saught out, was entirely in your control, but it’s likely a PR person like me was involved.

Public Relations vs Advertising timelines

Time is also a big difference between public relations and advertising. Whereas an ad can be created, bought, and placed in search engines within minutes, an organic result could take 3 to 6 months or more.

The timeline for public relations can often be frustrating. A great strategy may not see any real results in 6 months, a year, or even longer. Leadership can become impatient and see public relations as a waste of money for this reason. This is a primary reason however, my clients see great results—because we know their competition doesn’t have the same level of patience.

Public relations is evergreen. Advertising expires.

The biggest difference between public relations and advertising I appreciate is longevity. PR may take more time, but it lasts longer, even years. My first Wall Street Journal article is still online after 8 years and my website still benefits from the inbound link, helping my domain authority.

Interviews I’ve arranged for clients are still online and appear in their target customer’s searches. Podcast ads are removed after the agreed impressions are reached, but guest interviews exist forever. Search engines ads disappear when the money stops, but organic content stays. One huge difference between public relations and advertising is longevity.

Public Relations builds credibility. Advertising annoys

Public relations efforts can build the credibility of a company or executive as well. A client of mine, who was struggling to get people to take his meetings, suddenly had an easier time after he was interviewed on Bloomberg Radio. Consumers know media brands vet individuals, so if you or an executive at your company has been interviewed, there’s an element of credibility that comes with the exposure. People are more willing to trust an individual that has been heavily scrutinized under the media microscope.

Advertising doesn’t generally have any impact on credibility. In fact, advertising often relies on the credibility of celebrities to be effective. Brands have to pay for a celebrity endorsement. Another major difference between public relations and advertising is credibility.

Advertising isn’t bad though

Advertising isn’t bad or better than public relations, it’s just different and requires a different strategy. There are many cases where advertising is preferable to public relations, such as when you don’t have any value to exchange for exposure, or when your timeline is extremely short and you need to reach a difficult audience.

Advertising also allows for brands to run the same ads over and over, and that repetition is valuable. The difference between public relations and advertising is significant and the best brands use both to great effect. If you’d like to learn the tactics that are working for my clients, I’ll send them to you. Just enter your name and email address into the form. (I’ll even throw in my free PDF guide to get your more media attention in as little as 10 days.)

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