Publicity versus Advertising

Public relations and advertising enjoy an increasingly symbiotic relationship.

The largest public relations firms have been purchased by advertising conglomerates – WPP, Cordiant, Havas, Omnicom, Interpublic and the like. And there are many who believe the two fields are essentially one and the same. They are not.

Advertising’s purpose is to sell a product or service. The purpose of public relations is to sell an organization. There is a large difference.

The closest link to advertising in the practice of public relations is the function of “publicity.”

Publicity, like advertising, is often used to promote the benefits of a particular product. But while advertising can be “guaranteed,” there are no such assurances with publicity.

Indeed, the fact is that the vast majority of public relations attempts to secure publicity don’t succeed.

Newspapers or radio and television programs simply aren’t interested in publicity most of the time. So an organization must ask when assessing whether it should attempt to secure publicity is: Is it worth it? The answer is “Absolutely.”

While, it is true that advertising can “control” five key variables that publicity cannot, publicity has its own inherent strong points.


Advertising’s good points

First, content.
How can we read in The New York Times tell us that “Verizon Wireless offers the most extensive national network?” Verizon Wireless pays it to say so, that’s how.

Advertising costs money – lots of it. But by virtue of having paid for the space or time, an organization gets to dictate what is said and how it is portrayed and illustrated. In other words, the content comes out precisely as the organization requested, every time. Publicity offers no such guarantees.

Often, the content in a publicity release not only doesn’t appear as written – it doesn’t appear at all.

Second, size.

Verizon Wireless tells its story over the course of an entire page of the Times. Why?

Because, it was willing to ante up the $100,000 or so paid for that full page.

Advertising page rates vary, of course, according to the publication.

But at $100,000 a pop for pages in prestigious publications and lots more than that for television time – advertising is expensive.

Size-wise, also, publicity can offer no such similar guarantees. Forget a full page for your story. You get what you can get. A quarter of a loaf – or page – is better than nothing.

Third, location.

Verizon runs its ad on the back page of the first section of The New York Times, a prime location.

That’s what it requested and paid for. Advertisers can request exactly where and when they would like their ads to appear. Publications and stations try to comply, especially for a price. Publicity not only can’t guarantee location, it also can’t guarantee use.

Fourth, reach.
This refers to the audience that will be exposed to the ad. In order to reach the masses, advertisers must run ads in a great many venues.

Verizon, for example, may advertise in the Times the same day it advertises in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and other major dailies around the country. The more people exposed to the message – its “reach” – the greater the product recognition and the more likely people may purchase.

Publicity, of course, is most often confined in terms of reach. Often, a news outlet will request an “exclusive,” so that it alone is the source of the story.

Such exclusives suggest enterprise on the part of a journalist and boost his or her credit – and ultimately, pay check.

Some publications, the Journal being among the most prominent, virtually demand that if they don’t receive an “exclusive,” they simply won’t do your story.

Fifth, frequency.

This refers to how many times the ad is run. Advertising is a medium that only works with repetition.

That’s why Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and, in the pre-bubble days, firms like Schwab and ETrade, advertise incessantly. Repetition breeds familiarity, name recognition, and ultimately, hopefully, sales. So ads are repeated.

Publicity not only doesn’t normally get repeated, if the story runs once, it is considered a great victory. In fact, as opposed to advertising, publicity can’t control anything. So why, then, do smart corporations consider it more valuable then advertising? Two reasons.

Publicity’s good points

First, it’s not free but it is nominal.

Public relations talent obviously costs something. So do computers and paper and supplies and an occasional luncheon meeting with a reporter. But publicity doesn’t cost $100,000 a pop. So it’s a lot cheaper than advertising.

Second, most importantly, publicity appears as “news.”
That means it is eminently more credible, believable and therefore, meaningful, than advertising. Publicity appears in news columns, not as paid advertising.

Therefore, it carries with it, the implicit third-party endorsement of the news medium that reports it. In other words, it isn’t based on you telling us how great your company is; rather, it is the objective, unbiased, impartial, passionately neutral New York Times saying how great your company is.

For years, when Americans were asked to name their “most trusted American,” they chose Walter Cronkite, a CBS reporter, whose job essentially was to “read” the news.

Publicity, by virtue of the fact it carries the imprimatur of such a straight-down-the-middle news source, must be true. Or at least, that’s what many consider it to be.

This, in essence, is the true benefit of publicity over advertising and why smart organizations consider the attainment of the former eminently more valuable than the latter.