Mitch’s Public Relations & Media Spotlight Podcast What’s the Difference Between Public Relations and Advertising? June 30, 2008

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Mitch’s Public Relations & Media Spotlight Podcast

What’s the Difference Between Public Relations and Advertising?
June 30, 2008

By Mitch Leff

Mitch Leff is president of Leff & Associates ( an Atlanta-based public relations agency. In addition to public relations services and media training, Leff also offers two public relations focused web sites:

  • Mitch’s Media Match ( is an online service for Atlanta and Georgia-based media that matches their story assignments and story concepts with local sources and experts. FREE for journalists.

  • Leff's Atlanta Media ( is an online resource featuring a comprehensive directory of Atlanta media, plus media relations guidelines and prepared templates for commonly used press materials.

What’s the Difference Between Public Relations and Advertising?
Welcome to Mitch’s PR and Media Spotlight podcast … where we talk a little about public relations and a little about Atlanta media twice a month.
This month we’re going to answer a question that I’m sure many have asked, or been asked, at least once in your careers. “What’s the difference between public relations and advertising?”

I’m talking as someone who’s focused a 20 year career on the public relations side of the street rather than the advertising side, so some of my friends in the advertising biz may have their own opinions on this topic. Bear with me if I lean a little toward the PR side in this podcast, but I’ll try not to make any judgments about how much more effective PR is than advertising (oops.)

In my experience, if you’re in the advertising field people have a pretty good idea of what you do. People know what an “ad” is, whether they see it on television, hear it on the radio, or see it in a magazine.
If on the other hand you’re on the PR side, the understanding is probably a bit more tenuous. It probably took me ten years before my parents really understood what I did for a living. (Honestly, I’m still not sure my mother really understands it!)
The dictionary defines advertising as “the action of calling something to the attention of the public, especially by paid announcements.”
I think Wikipedia defines it a little better: “Advertising is a form of communication that typically attempts to persuade potential customers to purchase or to consume more of a particular brand of product or service.”
The best definition of public relations that I’ve ever heard came from Harold Burson, who founded Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest PR agencies. Burson said PR is simply “the practice of influencing opinion and behavior.” That influence may mean causing someone to purchase a product, use a service, vote for a candidate, invest in a certain company, etc.
Now if you’re listening to this you may be saying to yourself “those definitions for PR and advertising sound very similar.” And you’d be correct. I think the real difference is how these two disciplines go about “influencing” their target audiences. Each has advantages and disadvantages and each has its place in the marketing mix. I think there are some products and services that are well suited for advertising and some that are better suited for public relations.

By the same token, there are times in a product’s life cycle when advertising is more effective than PR and vice versa. It’s a mistake for most companies to choose only one and not the other – although there are times when budget constraints make a choice necessary.

So when you’re reading the paper, do you know the difference between advertising and editorial material? Sure you do. The editorial material consists of the stories written by reporters. The ad telling you how much bananas are costing at Kroger this week.
Now I’m sure I’ll hear from an advertising person that it’s not quite that simple, but I’m giving an overview here … so get a little bit of wiggle room.
Let’s talk about advertising in a little detail first. Advertising is often viewed as “purchased media.” A company or advertising agency works directly with a newspaper for example and pays them for an agreed upon amount of space. The position in the paper is known as it the specific timing of when the ad will appear. The “copy,” what the ad says is written by the company or agency and will appear exactly as submitted. There are few surprises in this model.
When you purchase advertising, the cost will vary based on a multitude of factors. Let’s look for example at Atlanta Woman magazine. If you’re talking about a full page ad, it’ll cost $4,375 for one placement. Now if you purchase in volume, say if you buy 10 full page ads, your cost drops to $2,550. There are different rates if you purchase the back cover, the inside front cover, or the inside back cover. Different rates for color vs. black and white too of course.
If you’re buying radio or television advertising, your cost are going to vary by the “daypart” you’re purchasing. An ad in “morning drive time” on the radio, generally between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., will cost more than an ad at 10 a.m. You’ll probably also see differences in cost if you purchase in the first quarter of the hour versus the third quarter.

So in advertising there’s a lot of certainty, about what your ad will say, where it will appear, when it will appear.

Public relations lacks much of that “certainty.” PR people work with reporters, editors, and producers to have their product, service, event or issue included in that “editorial” copy. Sometimes that means the story is just about that product, but often it’s just having your company included in a larger story.
We provide information, research, expert interviews, etc. and the reporter decides how to incorporate it into their story. This is where the control ends for the most part:

  • The company/PR professional has no control over whether the story will ever run. Sometimes stories just don’t pan out, or get cut for lack of space.

  • They have no control over whether the reporter includes the information in the story at all.

  • They have no control over where in the newspaper the story will appear.

  • They have no control over when the story runs, could be the next day, the next week, or a year later.

  • They have no control over the tone of the story.

  • They have no control over whether competitors are mentioned.

  • They have no control over how much of the CEO’s quote and interview gets include in the story.

Public relations and advertising campaigns, when done correctly, are well-focused on getting specific audiences to change their behavior. That may often mean targeting specific industry publications rather than consumer magazines. It makes no sense buying advertising or placing editorial stories in a magazine that none of a company’s potential customers every read.

The media has become much more fragmented in recent decades, and the growth of online media options means both advertising and public relations are continuously learning new ways to reach people. Companies like LBi Atlanta (one of my clients) are developing new and innovative ways to reach people online, using video and other interactive elements in ways that weren’t even conceived five years ago.

Smart companies are using both public relations and advertising as part of their marketing mix. As I mentioned earlier, the trick is knowing which to use when … and where.
If you’d like to learn more about media in Atlanta, subscribe to my Leff’s Atlanta Media web site. You’ll get the most up to date database of Atlanta media contacts, plus templates for commonly used press materials. You can sign up online at
See you in two weeks for the next edition of Mitch’s PR and Media podcast.

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