Advertising & Publicity

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

Traditionally, most marketers placed heavy reliance on advertising and only occasionally used publicity.

On the other hand, public relations practitioners have primarily relied on publicity–or, as they sometimes prefer to call it, media relations–and only rarely used advertising.

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.

Most often, advertising messages are inducements to purchase a product.

However, advertising space can be used for non-product oriented messages.

“Adver-torials,” for instance, are advertising messages which take sides and present a specific view or opinion about public issues.

“Image ads” are those which provide favorable information about an organization and its policies that would not normally be considered “newsworthy” enough for the media to report it of their own volition.

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.

It’s not necessary to buy media space/time, but publicity is not totally free. There are salary and production costs involved in having someone prepare news releases or perform other publicity work.

Media audiences often give information presented as publicity more credibility than if the same information were presented in an ad. That’s because they know that presumably objective editors decide what’s included in the news whereas self-serving organizations decide what to put in their ads.

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.