Advertising vs Publicity: Understanding the Difference

I was a college junior sitting in a conference room with the CEO of a major paper distributor when he asked a very simple question of this small group of business majors - "What is marketing?" We thought about it and answered, "Promoting products or services in order to generate sales." Not bad. Pretty textbook response. His next question was, "So what is the difference between publicity and advertising?" And then we were stumped.

Marketing, publicity, advertising, and public relations are all terms that often get used interchangeably. But for communications professionals, advertising and publicity are two very different beasts. While they both support the goal of building brand and product awareness (which ultimately drive sales) they go about it with completely different tactics and strategies.

Advertising: These are paid announcements that convey a controlled, message across various print, broadcast or internet mediums.

Publicity: These are activities designed to draw the attention of third parties (media, investors, analysts) in order to induce them to use their platforms to bring public visibility to a company or product.

Advertising and publicity are essentially two sides of the marketing coin. Both have their purposes in generating business and brand awareness, and are effective in their unique ways. With advertising a company retains control of the message, but they pay for that control through the high costs of buying the media placements. But precisely because it is bought and paid for, the message lacks credibility. Publicity, on the other hand, is free. The trade off for this free exposure comes in the lack of controlling the final message. That rests in the hands of the journalists and analysts who write the stories. And since they ultimately decide what message is shared, the credibility of that message dramatically increases, because it has been researched and vetted by this independent third party.

One of the key misconceptions among business owners is the assumption that publicity strategies and results can be controlled like an advertising buy. They can not. Editorial coverage is rarely, if ever, provided in advance for review or approval. This is what gives it the credibility that is so desirable. The journalists are not beholden to the companies they are writing about.

Advertising and publicity, while different, are complimentary and do support each other. Understanding their differences, though, when designing and implementing these strategies is key to ending up with successful marketing campaigns.

Publicity, or media relations, is just one component in the larger public relations field. In the coming weeks we'll examine the other aspects, including investor and internal communications, community relations, and communications or media training. We'll also break down media relations and all that encompasses a publicity campaign - such as how to draft a press release, creating targeted media lists, how to pitch a news story, interview prep and relationship building.

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Windham, NH