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Public Relations vs. Advertising


Do You Know the Difference Between the Two? It is an Important Distinction.

By Thomas J. Roach

The main difference between public relations and advertising is that advertising tells customer publics about your product, and public relations tells all of your publics about your organization. It is an important distinction. Everyone knows that advertising messages are controlled by the company that pays for them, so while they convey information, they do little to create trust. Public-relations messages, because they appear usually in the form of news stories, are conveyed by a third party.

The value of third-party communication is that it isn’t controlled and self-serving. Newspapers and news magazines in particular, if they have a reputation for independence and objectivity, bestow credibility on every organization they write about. Intuitively, we trust messages more when they aren’t so apparently self-serving.

Working Together
Advertising and public relations, then, work well together. Stories about charitable work or the achievements of members of the organization make the advertising more effective because they make the message more trustworthy. If every one of your competitors in the aggregate industry is advertising a similar product, buyers are likely to pay most attention to and contact the advertiser they trust or at least the one with whom they are most familiar.

Public relations departments can create publicity in many ways. Most importantly, they can covey information about innovations and achievements. These stories are newsworthy and are likely to be picked up by news organizations, and they make the best possible statement about credibility. Another very effective public relations tactic is sending representatives of the organization out to be interviewed as experts on radio and television shows, or just to speak to local service organizations. The accumulative effect of years of public relations work should be a reputation for knowledge and expertise, dedication and trust.

Every public relations message doesn’t have to endorse your organization. It is still very effective if it just mentions the company. The fact that other people are talking about something makes it interesting and familiar. So, as long as the reference isn’t negative, any mention of the company name in a story in a newspaper or a trade journal builds credibility with potential customers.

Community Resistance
Organizations like quarries that sometimes run into resistance from members of the community are dealing with the same credibility dynamic, only with less potential for a positive outcome.

When homeowners and local public office holders have bad things to say about a quarry, and the quarry puts its side of the story in an advertisement or public statement, the ad copy and statement might be better argued, but the arguments of the homeowners and local officials are more likely to be believed. The reason is that the company argument is more obviously self-serving, the members of the community seemingly more objective.

If this is difficult to accept, think about your own reaction when you had to balance statements from BP against news stories that quoted government officials and citizens affected by the oil crisis in the Gulf. Whom did you trust?

This is why it is advisable for quarry management to integrate themselves and their organization into the community social structure before they have a problem. If the public relations staff has established a positive reputation for the company with years of published news copy from press releases, and if executives have ongoing contact with other business leaders, then there will be public resistance to charges from angry neighbors. If the community is more familiar with the company than with the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) group, then they are more inclined to take the company’s side.

This is why it is unwise to invest in public relations only if there is a problem. Once a negative publicity problem arises, both advertising and public relations messages are relatively ineffective.

Ongoing public relations programs, on the other hand, enhance the effectiveness of advertising, and at the same time immunize the organization from negative publicity.


Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..