10 Ways Advertising Is Different From Public Relations

PR is not advertising, and vice versa

Times Square, New York

Zsolt Hlinka / Getty Images 

Advertising and public relations are two very different industries, even though they're commonly confused for one another. To understand the differences, consider 10 different situations and how you might approach them differently through advertising or public relations.

1. Paid Space or Free Coverage

  • Advertising: The company pays for the ad space or airtime and knows exactly when the ad will air or be published.
  • Public relations: Your job is to get free publicity for the company. From news conferences to press releases, you're focused on getting free media exposure for the company and its products or services.

2. Creative Control Vs. No Control

  • Advertising: Because you're paying for space, you have control over what goes into that ad and how it looks or sounds.
  • Public relations: You have no control over how the news media presents your information—if they decide to use your information at all. The news media is not obligated to cover your event or publish your press release just because you want them to do so.

3. Shelf Life

  • Advertising: Because you pay for space or airtime, you can run your ads over and over for as long as your budget allows. An ad generally has a longer shelf life than a single press release.
  • Public relations: You submit a press release about a new product, a newsworthy event, a news conference, or a trend story only once, and the PR exposure you receive is circulated only once. A journalist won't publish the same information three or four times.

4. Wise Consumers

  • Advertising: Consumers know when they're reading an advertisement that someone is trying to sell them something. 
  • Public relations: When someone reads a news article written about your product or views coverage of your event on TV, they're seeing something you didn't pay for with ad dollars. The public views it differently than it would a paid advertisement because your information has third-party endorsement—its viewed by the news media to be of some value.

5. Creativity or a Nose for News

  • Advertising: You get to exercise your creativity in creating new ad campaigns and materials.
  • Public relations: In public relations, you have to have a nose for news and be able to generate buzz through various news outlets. You also exercise your creativity, but you do so by coming up with ideas and producing written materials the news media finds intriguing.

6. In-House or Out on the Town

  • Advertising: If you're working at an ad agency, your main contacts are your co-workers and the agency's clients. If you buy and plan ad space on behalf of the client, then you'll also interact with media salespeople.
  • Public relations: You interact with the news media and develop relationships with editors, news directors, and reporters. You're in constant touch with your contacts at print publications, broadcast media, and digital outlets.

7. Target Audience or Hooked Editor

  • Advertising: You're looking for your target audience and advertising accordingly. You wouldn't advertise a women's health product in a men's sports magazine.
  • Public relations: You must have an angle and hook to get editors or news directors to use your information for inclusion in an article, or to cover your event. It has to be relevant and of the moment.

8. Limited or Unlimited Contact

  • Advertising: Some industry pros have contact with the clients. Others, like copywriters or graphic designers, may never meet with a client.
  • Public relations: In public relations, you are visible to the media. Also, PR pros aren't always called on for the good news. If there was an accident at your company or impending litigation, you may have to give a statement or on-camera interview to journalists, because you are the spokesperson for the company.

9. Special Events

  • Advertising: If your company sponsors an event, you wouldn't want to take out an ad giving yourself a pat on the back for being such a great company. This is where your PR department steps in.
  • Public relations: If you're sponsoring an event, you can send out a press release and the news media might pick it up and give you positive press exposure.

10. Writing Style

  • Advertising: Buy this product! Act now! Call today! These are all things you can say in an advertisement. You want to use those action words to motivate people to buy your product.
  • Public relations: You're strictly writing in a no-nonsense news format—who, what, where, when, and why. Any blatant commercial messages in your communications will be edited out by the media—or its presence may dissuade them from wanting to deal with it.