PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Advertising and publicity
© 2002; 2018 Michael Turney Online Readings Table of contents Practicing Public Relations main page About the author

Tools and techniques are sometimes over-identified with a particular discipline, overlooking the fact that the same tools are often used by people in different trades to achieve very different results. Just because public relations and marketing sometimes use the same tools doesn't mean they're trying to achieve the same result.


Advertising and publicity are two very different communication tools, even though both employ the mass media as a vehicle for reaching large audiences.

This does not mean that advertising should be seen only as a marketing tool and that publicity should be seen only as a public relations tool. Thoughtfully used, both tools are valuable for both functions.

Advertising buys its way into the media.

An advertiser purchases air time on a broadcast medium or page space in a print medium and then uses that media time/space to deliver whatever persuasive messages the advertiser chooses to the media's audiences. Presumably, a smart advertiser will purchase ad space in only those media whose audiences are known to be consistent with the target audiences the advertiser wants to reach.

The biggest advantage of advertising is that it gives the organization total control of the message that will be presented to the audience. The advertiser, not the media's editors, control the content, the timing, and the amount of time/space given to the advertising.

The biggest disadvantages are the high price of advertising and the skepticism with which audiences sometimes view advertising that they know is unedited opinion of the advertiser.

Publicity is presented by the media because it's "newsworthy."

A publicity-seeker tries to "make the news" -- i.e., to convince reporters/editors to present news coverage about a particular person, organization, or event -- by saying or doing something that the news media will choose to report of their own volition as part of their usual task of informing the public. The publicity-seeker's intent is to gain free and hopefully favorable editorial coverage.

Other people and organizations who are fearful of receiving negative or harmful publicity will employ public relations practitioners to try to suppress or counteract negative media coverage.

Publicity-seekers are entirely at the mercy of the media's editors and other staff members. The editors, not the individual or organization who wants the publicity, decide whether or not anything will be reported in the media. And, even when something is reported, it's the media staff who decide how it will be reported and how much attention it will be given. It's very possible that information which an organization offers the media in a positive and flattering news release could show up in a news story that casts a negative or critical light on the organization that supplied it.

For years the conventional wisdom was that the biggest advantages of publicity were the lack of direct cost and the apparent "third-party endorsement" effect.

This conventional wisdom was at least partially ratified in a 1994 landmark study conducted by the Wirthlin Group that looked at the relative impact which publicity and advertising have on consumers' buying decisions. According to O'Dwyer's PR Services (Sept. `94), "Those surveyed reported that a news article or feature in a newspaper or magazine would impact their buying decisions more than ads for a product or service." More specifically, 28 percent of the adults over age 18 said a news or feature story would be likely to influence their decision to buy a specific product, while only 8 percent said that an ad for the product would be likely to influence their decision.

Alice Allen, president of the Allen Communications Group in New York which helped fund the study, also pointed out that the relative impact of publicity, particularly newspaper and magazine stories, was further increased among respondents who had completed higher education and had higher income levels.

On the other hand, the biggest disadvantages of publicity are the lack of control over the specific content, the timing, and the amount of coverage.

Used together, ads and publicity can create a powerful synergy.

In the past, most practitioners would select and use either advertising or public relations to get their messages out depending on which seemed most appropriate for the prevailing circumstances. In some instances, they may have even used both, but it wasn't a common practice and there was no evidence that pointed to it being particularly effective. In the last few years, that's started to change.

During the 1990's AT&T studied the relative effectiveness of advertising and media relations in helping to acquire new customers. Some of these findings and others were recently published in a study by the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) at the University of Florida. The general conclusion of that study, as reported by pr reporter (7/16/01), was that news coverage, whether generated through media relations efforts or not, "modulates the impact of advertising." Most of the time, they work synergistically and reinforce one another, but there are exceptions.

The best ways of using advertising and media relations to reinforce one another remain to be determined. But, in the meantime, the IPR study author Bruce Jeffries-Fox suggests, "that partnerships between media relations and advertising would save money and pack a bigger punch. ... Messages from both worlds combine in the minds of consumers."

Online Readings Table of contents Marketing and public relations Integrated marketing communication
Working with the media Changing names of public relations Practicing Public Relations
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4 August 2018