What’s the difference between advertising and PR?

Although many may not believe it, public relations plays a part in almost every product, service or event that we hear about. But so does advertising. Many people have asked me, “What’s the difference between advertising and public relations?” It’s a fair question and one that many have difficulty responding to.

There’s a saying in business, “Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for”; in other words, PR influences whereas advertising sells product. With advertising, you pay to have a specific message distributed over a selected channel, such as TV or banners on the side of buses. It is a controlled form of marketing. Public relations is not nearly as cut and dry. The objective with PR is to garner the optimal exposure for your brand. It could be through TV interviews, editorial features on products, speaking opportunities at major industry events, or industry awards. Nothing is guaranteed, but brand exposure is virtually unlimited. PR changes the nature of the debate, while advertising generates awareness and sales. But of course, the two professions overlap at the edges.

The consumer goods industry provides a solid example of both approaches. Global brands like Nike and Adidas advertise virtually everywhere and often use celebrities to endorse their product to reinforce customer brand loyalty. The PR goal is usually to garner as much exposure as possible among different media, providing consumers with a brief sneak peak. PR can provide more detailed and credible messaging around a consumer product launch.

In the financial industry, advertising is generally targeted at top-tier business and trade media. Regulations stipulate how, where and when many financial firms can advertise. But PR for financial firms can have an incredible impact.

Earlier this year, a heated debate took place on CNBC between BATS Global Markets President William O’Brien and IEX’s Brad Katsuyama in the wake of Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys expose on high-frequency trading. The argument became so heated that trading on the New York Stock Exchange stopped for a few minutes, as traders were transfixed by what was unfolding between the two executives. Even Twitter, which typically would “blow up” during a scenario like this, actually halted momentarily. The moral of the story: it was fantastic PR for IEX and horrible exposure for BATS. Katsuyama positioned IEX as a direct competitor to HFT firms, and O’Brien, who berated Michael Lewis during the session, came off as defensive and made BATS look like the bad guy.

The bottom line: both advertising and public relations will garner exposure for your brand. It just depends on what type of exposure your company is looking for. Those that still believe that “even bad publicity is good publicity,” should head back to the drawing board. Just ask William O’Brien.

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