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Advertising vs. Public Relations: What's the Difference?

written by: Saoirse OMara•edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 12/25/2010

Both are marketing instruments, but what exactly is the difference between public relations and advertising? Read on to find out.

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    You have heard of both advertising and public relations before and you know that both refer to marketing instruments. However, what is the difference between public relations and advertising?

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    Definitions

    Advertising

    Advertising covers all the various means of acquiring new clients. The most common forms of advertising are television spots and newspaper ads. Other forms are radio spots, fliers, posters or word-of-mouth advertising which is especially important for smaller businesses.

    Public Relations

    The term “public relations” (PR) includes all means which present your company to the public in order to create your brand. They can be either positive, which of course should be the goal of every company, or negative, which is the case with the oil catastrophe for BP, for example.

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    Advertising

    Picture by wrw / pixelio.de
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    Their Use as Marketing Instruments

    When speaking about marketing instruments, most people will name advertising first and some might even be unaware of the difference between public relations and advertising. Advertising is the most apparent marketing instrument as it is directly designed to sell certain products. It is controlled by the company and they normally spend quite a huge sum on producing TV and radio spots or buy advertising space in print media. Smaller companies looking for free advertising ideas should also take into account the impact word-of-mouth advertising can have.

    Public relations on the other hand are often not distinguished as marketing by the public and are not always controlled by the company itself. When we stay with the negative example of BP and the oil catastrophe, the reports all over the media are evidently not controlled by BP but rather a result of their failure. Public relations can be company-controlled, though. If a company sponsors a public school, for example, it can be sure that local newspapers will write about it. They might even call the local news office themselves to tell the reporters all about it.

    As a rule, it can be said that most positive public relations are company-controlled and most, maybe all, negative public relations are not.

    In short, advertising changes the public opinion about a certain product or service while public relations change the public opinion about the whole company.

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    Advertising vs. Public Relations: Which One Is Better?

    There is no “better.” Both marketing instruments have their purpose. They aim at different results and therefore cannot be compared. A good marketing strategy should include both instruments. While advertising aims at immediate results, public relations can be seen as a long-term means to improve one's brand. Most media reports about a company stay in mind much longer than a single TV spot or a print advertisement. On the other hand, an article about company X sponsoring the local school will have little impact on immediate sales.

    Advertisement can be directly controlled and therefore is a safe bet most of the times. However, if a company suffers from bad reporting, advertising cannot reduce the damage in public opinions. Positive PR will be necessary to make up for the damage before advertising will have the desired impact on sales again.

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    Best Marketing Mix for Small Businesses

    Especially for small businesses, it is invaluable to have a good PR concept. Advertising is often too expensive to be used all the time so creating and maintaining a brand is important. Ask your local newspapers if there are any contests or quizzes and if they still need prizes for these, for example. Another idea would be to sponsor a local sports team, maybe a youth football team in need of new footballs and tricots.

    In addition, you can advertise in local newspapers or radio channels from time to time. Depending on your products or services, fliers can be a good marketing instrument for you too if you have good places where you can put them.