The Difference Between Publicity and Advertising

A recent conversation with a fellow business mum about recognising the difference between free publicity and paid advertising made me wonder how easy it really is to tell.

I have worked in writing, public relations and marketing for more than 10 years, so recognising material – particularly in print – which has been paid for has become second nature. However my friend said she found it difficult to spot the difference sometimes.

Here is a guide to media space and time that has been paid for, and that which is free and generated through public relations.

I think I can safely say it is easy to spot most advertising – it comes in breaks in your favourite TV programs, between music on the radio, down the side of a web page or sometimes pops up from the page, and surrounds articles in newspapers and magazines.

Where it becomes hazy is when the information is included in an article or advertorial (an advertisement made to look more legitimate as an editorial piece – these should carry the word “advertorial” and “advertisement” at the top), in a news or current affairs item or when the presenter speaks about a product as they would discuss the news, similar to John Laws’ Cash for Comment affair.

The job of a PR consultant is to generate publicity for their client. Their client isn’t paying for the time or space and the information considered more credible by the public. Examples include an article, news broadcast or TV segment. This media coverage is achieved through many avenues such media liaison, media releases, article marketing, public speaking, case studies and blogging.

Many of the articles you read in the paper, magazines or online and items you heard on the news or radio today would have been generated through public relations. For example after the federal government’s recent increase in the first home buyers’ grant a host a organisations, from real estate agents to banks, sent out press releases commenting on the grant and what it meant for the economy. They were positioning themselves as experts, or contacts the media could use when covering the story.

Whether the information came to the journalist via a media release or they chased it up through contacts, it is still from PR. The biggest difference between getting something published once because the media outlet liked your story, and getting regular coverage, comes from maintaining a good relationship with journalists, producers and editors. Good PR, whether done by you or a consultant you hired, leads to you being the contact the media calls on when they want to know something about your topic.

Advertising is about guaranteeing your message gets out there when you want through payment. It is seen as less credible because the organisation has paid for the space or time. However public relations is about communicating your message to your public, usually via the media. A company or issue receiving media coverage is seen as more credible because the journalist or presenter has endorsed the message.