“What is public relations?” What do you say when asked?

by | Mar 2, 2018 | Analysis, Public Relations

“So, what do you do?”

I hear the question nearly every day. I recite scripted answers such as “I get your name in the paper” or “I create and destroy reputations for a living” before elaborating, if invited.

I miss an opportunity nearly every time because I lack a concise follow-up. It’s a travesty because everyone asking that question is a potential new customer. After consulting numerous public relations pros, it turns out that I stand in good company.

Many of them best describe PR in association to its two sisters, advertising and marketing.

“Mostly everyone knows what advertising is and most people have a basic understanding of marketing, but PR seems to fall short of general knowledge,” Alex Belanger with seoplus+ says. “They might know it relates to marketing, but that’s about it. I even get asked more often than you’d imagine if it’s the same as HR.”


Advertising ranges from the massive digital screens in New York City’s Times Square and the Super Bowl to the classifieds for lawn care service in the weekly Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork, Miss.

The advantage with advertising lies in the control factor, for which businesses pay dearly depending upon the placement. It enables them to choose the forum, the design and when it appears.

The advantage with public relations is that sharing a company’s message with reporters, producers and social media influencers builds credibility under an impartial third-party banner. The other major difference is that such exposure is not for sale—legally or ethically—at any price, although that is starting to change with social.

Or more succinctly, as the old bromide goes, “Advertising is what you pay for, public relations is what you pray for.”


Marketing shares with advertising the primary process of exchanging money to place a product or service before a targeted audience to generate immediate revenue.

The contrast between marketing and public relations is that instead of forking over money, PRs engage a disinterested medium to share a narrative that sticks in the minds of consumers.

“The classic definition that we use at Lion & Orb is that marketing is telling your story, PR is getting someone else to tell your story,” Deidre Woollard says. “You can publish your story on your blog and people will read it, but if you want people to remember it, it needs to be in the news.”

Freelance marketer Hillary Hafke adds that the potential yield from public relations—as opposed to marketing—is much greater. However, it is a gamble with a longer timeframe. She compares it to an episode of the hit show Storage Wars on A&E.

“Would you rather pay $5,000 for a unit with a guaranteed $5,000 worth of scrap metal or pay $5,000 for a 1-in-3 shot at a unit with an antique worth $25,000 (which will accrue value over time)?” Hafke asks hypothetically. “Note also that the odds of winning big increase with the skill of your PR pro.”

Public Relations

If advertising tells consumers why a company’s products are good, and marketing is placing the right products in front of the right people—for a price and immediate dividend—then PR is the art and science of giftwrapping that content for consumers.

It’s sort of like buying a car. A polished Mercedes featured in a reputable dealership showroom looks much more valuable than the precise same make, model and year sitting at the side of a dirt road in front of an abandoned house.

Which one would you buy?

True PR builds upon a solid foundation of relationships with editors, producers and social influencers, Zlata Faerman of ZlataPR observes. Such a structure becomes the showroom in which the message appears.

“In advertising, be it print or digital, you are paying for the eyes that see your product(s)/service(s),” Faerman says. “PR creates a story for the product(s)/service(s) and tries to find a home for that story in media outlets. Being smart, timely and creative in how you pitch is key, but the most important differentiating factor a PR professional has is their relationships with the media. You can’t buy that.”

Author Sylvia H. Simmons summarizes the differences between all three this way:

“If a young man tells his date how handsome, smart and successful he is—that’s advertising. If the young man tells his date she’s intelligent, looks lovely, and is a great conversationalist, he’s saying the right things to the right person and that’s marketing. If someone else tells the young woman how handsome, smart and successful her date is—that’s PR.”

Dave Yonkman
David Yonkman is a former Washington Correspondent for Newsmax, Capitol Hill Communications Director and the founding principal of DYS Media, LLC, a specialized public relations business with offices in Washington, D.C. and Holland, Mich.


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