Advertising vs. PR

Most of the public is confused about what constitutes marketing, advertising and public relations, often using the terms interchangeably. Many people think of advertising as a generic word that includes all promotional activities.

In fact, marketing is the umbrella discipline that encompasses the other two, plus many other strategies for promoting your business. The overall purpose of marketing is to help you, or any organization, sell products and/or services by building awareness.


This is one type of marketing that is familiar to most people because we are all bombarded with it. It appears in newspapers, on radio or television, online and in many other venues such as billboards and community buses. What makes it advertising is that you must pay for placing it wherever it appears.

That payment, however, gives you almost complete control over what is said (your message), how it looks (design) and where it appears (placement). It can be used as often as your budget will allow and can target very broad or specific audiences.

This control is its greatest benefit. However, the target audience knows there is an agenda, that the purpose is to sell them something. Therefore, they are automatically on guard and suspicious about the truth of the message. Another downside is the number of ads that may be appearing in the same place promoting similar products or services, making it difficult to be seen or heard above the crowd.

Public Relations

Public relations actually has two different roles within an organization. First, PR tactics are often used by the marketing staff to help the organization sell its products or services. In fact, its influence helps all of the other marketing activities work better. This will probably be the main way that you use public relations in your practice.

Secondly, public relations also stands outside of marketing, with functions throughout the organization. Its primary goal, rather than to sell something, is to create understanding between an organization and all the groups that are important to it, both internal and external. For example, you may wish to write an opinion piece—called an op-ed article—for your local newspaper explaining the benefits of proposed legislation that would affect your profession or the users of your services. Your goal would be to educate, to create understanding. This would be public relations with a non-marketing purpose.

PR’s greatest benefit is credibility because it cannot be bought. People believe it because it comes through the voice of a “third party” that the audience perceives to be objective.

PR is free and often takes the form of activities such as news conferences, articles and press releases. There is no control over if, where or when the ‘news’ will be covered, and how the ‘news’ will be presented. The media are under no obligation to cover the ‘story.’ Examples of PR activities include submitting a press release to announce a new product or professional associate, writing an article that educates or persuades on a topic in your profession, or offering yourself to be interviewed by journalists when they are writing stories related to your profession.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The two biggest advantages of advertising are that you have complete control of the content and you can repeat it as frequently as you can afford. For a professional, there are some good reasons not to use advertising, at least as the core of your marketing effort. These include:

  • It is extremely expensive, both in production and placement.
  • Its cost:benefit ratio continues to wane because it is increasingly "tuned out" and discounted by consumers.
  • It can diminish the professional image, especially the type of advertising that is pushed by untrained media sales reps.

There are many good reasons to use public relations prior to, during, after or instead of any advertising. Some of the most important advantages are:

  • Free placement
  • Increases credibility
  • Maintains the image of professionalism
  • Builds reputation
  • Establishes expert status
  • Provides a community service by educating the public
  • Reinforces a professional’s image as a knowledgeable, caring, service-oriented provider

The Right Approach

Intelligent use of public relations is a very cost effective way to gain visibility for yourself and your practice in your community. Research has shown that adding PR to advertising or any other type of marketing activity will strongly increase the effectiveness of everything else by adding the credibility conveyed through media coverage.

However, I recommend you keep it simple, especially if you have a small practice, by focusing on the most effective marketing strategy for professionals--public relations. The exceptions you may wish to consider are:

  • an ad in the yellow pages of your phone book
  • an announcement of the opening of a new office, a new location or the addition of a new professional to the practice

For a private practice, I do not think that any other advertising is effective enough to warrant expenditure of money or time...unless you can convincingly make it look like PR.

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