Public Relations vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference?

By Dave Purdy, Public Relations Specialist — Otter PR  

Public relations and advertising are both important aspects of any brand’s marketing strategy. On the surface, they seem to have similar goals, as both can help a brand build awareness, reach target audiences, and generate sales.

However, there are critical distinctions between the two. Here are some of the key differences between public relations and advertising.


Public relations aims to reach a broader target than advertising

Advertising is paid communication focusing on external markets. While customers may laugh or even cry if an ad is creative or entertaining, the main goal of an ad is not to bring value to the customer. Rather, it is to persuade them to buy products or services.

PR initiatives, on the other hand, typically cast a wider net than advertising. Instead of only targeting potential or existing customers, PR specialists manage publicity for a business or organization by cultivating relationships with everyone the brand touches. They communicate with customers, shareholders, employees, and other stakeholders to build trust and loyalty.

Unlike advertising, PR’s focus is both internal and external. Internal PR efforts aim to build relationships within an organization, while external PR efforts build relationships with the customers and stakeholders outside an organization. While advertising is directed toward potential customers, PR aims to reach employees, investors, customers, the media, legislators, and many other external stakeholders.

Such a broad focus requires PR experts to wear a number of hats every day. They nurture media relations to take a story directly to reporters and journalists. They stay ahead of negative events such as product recalls through crisis communications planning. Their efforts ensure everyone in the organization presents a strong message to the community.

PR builds long-term relationships 

Advertising has one primary goal: to generate sales. Because brands generally place ads to promote a product or service, their goals tend to be short-term. Often, advertising campaigns tend to focus on upcoming holiday items, product launches, and special discounts.

While increasing revenue is certainly an objective of effective public relations is focused on the big picture. This involves creating an ongoing plan for building mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the public. It also entails sharing information to build goodwill for the company. There is real long-term value in telling a brand’s story to build awareness and credibility so consumers are more know and trust a business.

PR professionals partner with the media

Brands pay for their advertising, giving them total control over the content they produce and share. They can choose the exact wording for the ad, how it will appear, and where it will be placed. Generally speaking, the more a brand pays, the better coverage it gets when it comes to advertising.

By comparison, PR specialists do not enjoy the same amount of control. Instead of paying for placements, PR specialists primarily earn spots organically by partnering with other professionals in media. They give journalists helpful information in the form of press releases and personalized pitches but the reporters decide whether or not to cover the story. If an outlet picks up the story, it takes control of how and where the story appears.

Despite having less control, using public relations to partner with the media has the upside of making brands appear more credible since consumers have been conditioned to distrust advertising. Consumers know a brand paid money for their message and only say what they want customers to hear.

Unlike paid advertising, public relations does not aim to sell anything — its purpose is to raise awareness by educating and entertaining. Outlets only publish information to benefit their audience. When reporters run strong stories that add value to their publications, the earned media exposure benefits the outlet, audience, and brand.

In short, the main difference between public relations and advertising is the endgame. The goal of advertisements is to generate sales in the moment. While PR boosts sales as well, its purpose is broader and longer term. While effective advertising boosts sales and revenue, public relations focuses on developing relationships to build awareness, trust, and loyalty.

To find out more about what a dedicated PR strategy can bring to a brand, readers can contact the publicists at Otter PR.