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Public Relations vs Advertising: What’s the Difference?

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As a brand looking to grow and share your message with a wider audience, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the many options to promote one’s image. In fact, many business leaders often confuse advertising and public relations (PR). While there are certainly similarities in how these strategies can help your brand grow, you should remember some important differences when deciding which is best for you.

The goal of both advertising and public relations is to build brands and reach target audiences. However, the difference between the two methods is how they achieve these goals. Advertising tends to be much more direct, selling the brand’s product or service, whereas a PR campaign aims to “sell” the brand’s message and story, rather than the product or service itself.

Understanding the Difference Between Advertising and PR

A fundamental difference between advertising and PR is that advertising tends to be more explicitly promotional, while content generated through public relations often has an educational quality. Although PR-based content is still made to promote the company or its leader(s), it can also provide something of value to the target audience. For example, as part of a brand’s PR campaign, they may create blog posts on topics they can speak to, suggesting their product or service as the solution to a problem people want to know about.

It is also worth noting that, for the most part, PR is earned, whereas advertising tends to be paid. However, it is important to distinguish between “earned” and “free.” Brands will still need to make a financial investment to run a successful publicity campaign. After all, it costs money to hire a skilled publicist, and after they successfully get your name in the news, you’ll likely want to spend money to promote it. There are also some “pay-to-play” opportunities — also known as “sponsored content” — where you can pay to have your brand featured in a major outlet, although these are far less common than organic opportunities.

On the other hand, the entire purpose of advertising is to pay to be featured. You pay for the advertisement and copy to be created, and you pay for the space where it is shown — be it a billboard, airtime on television or radio, digital marketing spots, or space for print ads. You are literally paying to get your brand in front of people’s eyes.

There are also differences between who is targeted by a PR campaign. Advertising always targets the general public because the goal is to convince potential customers to buy. Although the public can be sectionalized into specific target audiences, advertising wouldn’t be targeted internally. On the other hand, PR can be either internal or external. Yes, many PR campaigns are designed to appeal to the public, but there are also some for employees designed to showcase employee initiatives or similar internal brand messages.

How Advertising and PR Help Your Brand Differently

Ultimately, the primary goal of a PR campaign is to help build brand awareness and reputation. Essentially, publicists are trying to get you and your brand talked about positively, both in the media and by the public. The goal is less about influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions, and more to keep your brand in consumers’ minds when it is time to make that decision.

One opportunity unique to public relations is thought leadership. Thought leadership is the idea of positioning someone — such as a company leader — as an expert in their field by having them comment on and write about relevant issues. This strategy can be enormously useful for building a feeling of trust with the brand’s target audience. If a potential consumer sees the brand is headed by someone who is an expert in the field, they are much more likely to trust that product or service.

In contrast, the goal of advertising is explicitly to generate sales. While public relations campaigns might generate indirect sales by increasing goodwill towards the brand and its representatives, selling is not the primary purpose of these efforts. With advertising, your materials might promote a specific product or discount, while content for public relations generally focuses on the brand as a whole, rather than more specific aspects of it.

Another difference that is important to remember between advertising and PR is that they are used at different times. PR can be used in times of calm or crisis, while advertising is generally only suitable for times of calm. If your brand is looking to manage and respond to a crisis, a public relations campaign is the way to go, because it will allow you to repair your reputation before it is too late. Attempting to sell through advertising when your reputation has taken a hit will not only be ineffective, but could also come across as tacky.

Although there are similarities between public relations and advertising, and both can be extremely effective in boosting public awareness of a brand, brands must understand the difference between the two and the methods they use for promotion. Although one is not necessarily better than the other, a brand’s needs will dictate which is the better option for them.

About the author


David Purdy

Dave Purdy is a publicist at Otter PR. He was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Tampa Bay area. Purdy is a proud veteran of the U.S. Navy and a graduate of the University of South Florida. He spent many years in radio broadcasting as a DJ, traffic reporter, news anchor, show host, and producer, and sold radio and digital advertising for a couple of years. Purdy made the transition to public relations in 2018 and specializes in getting great radio and podcast interviews for his clients. His clients have been featured on ABC Radio, Westwood One, Bloomberg Radio, and many more. Purdy calls Tampa Bay home and in his free time, he enjoys bike riding, kayaking, camping, stand-up comedy, and enjoying the great outdoors.