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When we meet someone in a networking setting and tell them we’re in public relations, they often ask these types of questions:

"So, you can design a website for me?"

…or…

"So, how many superstars do you have on speed dial?"

When we say that we don’t design websites or have Lady Gaga’s unlisted number, the response is, "Well, then, what exactly is public relations?"

It’s surprising how few people understand public relations, and how it differs from advertising, graphic design, and other areas of marketing. While the lines of distinction are blurring more and more, there still are key differences. Too many business owners don’t know how powerful PR can be as part of their marketing mix.

So, here are “Cliffs Notes” on how advertising and public relations differ:


Advertising allows you to control the exact words you want to use. You can choose the exact date and size of the ad, the media outlet and the message and image you want to use.

One aspect of public relations involves reaching out to an objective reporter, editor, or producer with facts and figures about an organization and its products or services. PR practitioners hope the journalist finds the information of interest to his or her readers, viewers, or listeners. It’s up to the journalist to decide what to write and when it appears.

PR builds credibility through third-party endorsement, often by editorial placement in the news media rather than paid self-promotion known as advertising. It’s a powerful tool for shaping public opinion because consumers perceive it as more credible than advertising.

Through articles, interviews and more, PR builds awareness of your product or service, which is essential for startups and entrepreneurs. Once the product or services becomes known, advertising supports the brand.

Citizen journalism, social media and email give companies an additional delivery option. They can now get their message directly to their target audience, bypassing the gatekeeper known as traditional media.

Advertising often reflects the business owner’s view of what a consumer or business-to-business buyer should think is important.

On the other hand, PR depends upon listening to the target audience to understand how to engage in a discussion with the customer. Public relations practitioners use the art of storytelling to get the message across. This often means presenting a perceived problem (i.e. scams in the remodeling industry) and their client's unique solution (i.e. a remodeling company that is highly rated by the BBB and its customers).

There is a misconception that PR is only for big companies and is very expensive. Actually, PR can be cost effective for all sizes of companies and organizations. You can do your own PR if you understand it and have the time. If you decide to “delegate” it, seek a PR practitioner who will quote either a flat fee per project or a monthly retainer accompanied by clearly defined goals and tasks. This avoids the “sticker shock” that can occur when hourly billing gets out of hand.

Recognizing and taking advantage of public relations opportunities can add enormous leverage to your other marketing efforts. Whether your business/organization is large or small, whether you take on the task yourself or consult a professional, public relations is an essential component of sound advertising and branding strategy.

About the authors: Gain-Stovall, Inc., owned by Rosanne Gain and Bob Stovall, is a public relations planning and implementation company that helps clients with media strategies including traditional and social media. GSI helps clients solve PR mysteries and tell their stories.