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Which is better, public relations or advertising?

18 January 2018 | Pic PR

In the broader spectrum of marketing, a common question that often arises is which is better; public relations or advertising?

As a communications agency, focusing on PR the answer is clear: PR.

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OK, while that’s the obvious answer for us to give, why do we believe this?

It’s not necessarily clear cut. Advertising certainly has its merits and indeed its advantages over PR, but we firmly believe that PR provides the better value.

A common statement to help differentiate the two is “Advertising is what you pay for, PR is what you pray for”. The main benefit of advertising is that you know exactly what you’re getting. You have agreed to pay for an advert to appear in a particular place, so, consequently, it will appear as per the agreement. This means it’s guaranteed.

With PR, it isn’t guaranteed. PR professionals are reliant on several things to secure coverage, the first of which is an interesting story. Journalists are only going to publish something that’s genuinely relevant to their readership. This obviously depends hugely on who the audience is. National newspapers are unlikely to publish a story of an SME packaging firm investing in new equipment for example, but packaging trade press on the other hand are. A national newspaper, however, might be interested to hear about this in the context of a wider picture – for example a packaging firm that exports to Europe investing in expensive equipment in the wake of Brexit. This could be something a business journalist working for the nationals could use in a broader post-Brexit economy feature.

The good thing about PR is that you can approach stories/news in a variety of ways, targeting it for a specific audience, with the above being a good example. PR is adaptable and flexible in its approach. Of course, the same can be said for advertising – adverts for the same company may differ per publication. But again, you’ll be paying for this and it also won’t have the same impact as a well-angled PR story.

The same PR story can be re-worked a number of times to suit each audience, focusing on what we refer to as ‘the angle’. And while the approach/wording may be different per publication, it still boils down to the same thing and the same message/initial idea, but filtered and adapted by the PR team.

One of the big differences between PR and advertising is cost. Depending on the PR company you work with, the majority of the time it will be paid on a project by project basis or, preferably, an ongoing retainer. Some businesses, particularly lower end SMEs, may balk at some PR agency proposal costs. Taken at face value it may seem a lot when held up against the cost of a single advert in a smaller trade publication. But in reality, PR costs are far cheaper than advertising. Adverts in national newspapers can be astronomical in cost and far and above that of employing a PR agency on an ongoing retainer. Of course, the high cost of adverts is factored by the fact it’s guaranteed to be put in front of your target audience. But does that high cost actually provide value?

We’re all familiar with adverts. Some of them are excellent and really serve to put a brand at the forefront of your mind. The majority of adverts though – if we’re being honest – are mediocre at best. Advertising is a cut-throat world and it’s tough to standout. Just look at your local newspaper – it’s jam-packed full of adverts for small scale services, and you really do have to scour the column inches to find something of interest. And of course, most of us recognise an advert for exactly what it is: a paid for attempt to but a brand in front of our faces. On a regional newspaper level, this might be beneficial if you, as a reader, are looking for a particular service. But on a national level, more often than not (again as a reader) you’re actively avoiding adverts.

PR on the other hand offers a subtler approach. A positive mention, or an industry comment dropped in the context of an informative feature article, or even your product/brand being the central focus of this feature holds far more weight with the readership of a publication. How many of us, flicking through newspapers or magazines, pass over adverts paying no attention, looking for an interesting article to read? It’s the article that we read, not the adverts. Adverts might catch the corner of our eye if a brand is lucky, but being the focus of an article carries much more weight. Of course, some of the big brands go all guns blazing with double page spreads in the national newspapers, but the costs involved in that are off the scale and even then, only might generate a brief flicker (or perhaps page flick) of interest in the reader.

Another benefit of PR in this scenario is the fact that one story/idea can generate huge amounts of coverage, whereas one advert is exactly that; one advert. If we take a recent campaign that we’ve undertaken as an example, it’s possible to generate widespread national media coverage at a fraction of the costs of advertising.

We work with a firm called Home Leisure Direct, which supplies leisure equipment (think pool tables, pinball machines, table tennis, jukeboxes etc.) for the home environment. Its product range is fantastic, but the firm is merely a re-seller so isn’t able to offer specialist skills to pique interest and generate press coverage. Focusing on its unique offering though, we developed the concept of a ‘Games Room of the Year’ competition, where people would enter their own games room in an attempt to be crowned the winner and claim the prize.

As a PR agency, we were able to tell the story of the competition, while using great visuals of excellent games rooms provided by the entrants, tapping into reader’s escapism. The campaign was a spectacular success, generating national coverage for Home Leisure Direct via the Mail Online, the Telegraph, The Sun, The Daily Express, the Daily Star, Metro, the Mirror, Yahoo News, the Daily Record, Lad Bible and ITV.com, as well as with dozens of regional outlets.

Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) is a term rightly discredited in our industry, and is where PR firms attempt to measure their success against the equivalent costs of paying for an advert. This is an inaccurate and misleading model, which is why it is no longer used, but in regards to the HLD competition and for the purpose of this comparison, the simple fact is that an advertising campaign featuring all of the aforementioned titles would have been far, far more expensive than our agency fees.

PR in the digital age offers its own benefits too and it's partly here as to why AVE has been so disregarded. Organically built links – those that are dropped naturally into a news story – provide genuine value with Google. Paid for links don’t. If anything, they’re detrimental to a brand’s page rankings, so any brand looking to pay for links from national newspaper brands would run the risk of being penalised by Google and dropping down the rankings.

Referring to our Home Leisure Direct campaign once more, we generated a large number of ‘high value’ links (which serve to demonstrate the authenticity of a brand in the algorithmic eyes of Google), meaning HLD really saw the benefits of our PR campaign. National media outlets are seen as reliable sources of information by Google (hence their high value), which is why links to them are so valuable to businesses. With HLD being an ecommerce focused business, the links generated work wonders in legitimising its offering and keeping it above its competitors in the online search rankings.

PR is also a marvellous ideas generator, which can feed into wider uses. An advertisement isn’t going to be much use for social media (it can – but it’s obvious and often a one-trick pony) whereas a well-orchestrated PR campaign can generate excellent social media fodder and audience engagement, as well as providing content for blogs, newsletters, eblasts and so on. Another big part of search rank success is regular, fresh and unique content being uploaded to the website. PR provides this in abundance.

To summarise then, PR is better. Its impact is more hard-hitting and potentially more far-reaching. When done right, it’s also considerably cheaper than advertising. While advertising does indeed have its merits, PR takes many of those merits and improves upon them. If you’re looking to pick between the two, PR, for us, wins every time.