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Many paradigm cases of public relations, advertising, and marketing activities exist to provide a basis for believing there are few differences between them. Advertising and public relations are individual instruments of marketing. Both have strengths and weaknesses, and each has a specific purpose. However, the gap between advertising and public relations is closing. Eventually, there will be more similarities than differences—and as a result, public relations tactics will take the place of traditional advertising methods.

Social Media is a Marketing Conduit

The popularity of social media is largely responsible for the convergence of public relations and advertising. Social media communication channels are accelerating the inevitable overlap in definition between public relations and advertising. Public relations activities are a form of marketing. Public relations communicates information about a company and its products and services—but from a neutral, broad, human-interest perspective. Whereas, advertising is more focused on a persuasive, non-personal marketing communication (Arens, et. al., 2009, p. 4). Both methods of marketing, however, require viable and effective communication channels.

Social media is quickly becoming the desired conduit for social marketing. Companies selling ideas, attitudes, and behaviors as opposed to products and services first realized social marketing in the 1970s. Social marketing and public relations are both designed to influence a target audience or general society. Social media—not available in the 1970s—has given public relations professionals a conduit to their publics. Social networking has extended the principles of marketing and redefined the marketing mix.

The four ‘P’s of marketing—product, price, place, and promotion—are joined by four additional ‘P’s. Marketing communications across social media channels require and understanding of the expanded marketing mix. The social marketing ‘P’s include publics, partnership, policy, and purse strings (Weinreich, 2010). A social marketing or public relations ‘public’ is the target market, special audience, or segment of the general public identified by an organization. Market research is often used to isolate and group individuals for the purpose of targeted marketing communications.

Social media channels, as with most Internet-based communication conduits, are easy to penetrate but difficult to control. While it is simple for public relations professionals to participate in social media activities—such as forums, blogs, and moblogs—it is impossible to control access to the content. Moreover, the Internet encourages content sharing and site linking making it difficult to know exactly who is ultimately at the receiving end of a social media communication.

Public relations strategies include providing honest, objective information to various publics through effective communication channels (Shauib, 2011). Social media has evolved from a communication channel to a marketing conduit. Press releases, one of the most effective tools for a public relations agent, provides one-way communication to a company’s publics. Social media, however, includes mechanisms that will allow the publics to communicate back to the company. Similarly, brands are using social networking to create goodwill with its consumers and prospects by encouraging an open dialog between the company and the consumer.

Social media bolsters partnerships between businesses with complementing products or services. Partnerships and strategic alliances can amplify brands, enforce messages, and influence public opinion.  Kellogg Company, for example, partnered with the National Cancer Institute to raise awareness by showing the relationship between eating habits and the likelihood of contracting cancer (Caywood, 1997, p. 439). Social media is an excellent communication channel for cause-related marketing.

Policy, one of the social media specific ‘P’s in the marketing mix, takes place when a public relations message motivates individual behavior or influences change. The use of public relations in education and Government organizations is primarily for public persuasion. A public relations professional can leverage social media channels to communicate information about the current policies of government agencies (Cameron, et. al., 2008, p. 408). If successful, promoting policies through social media communication channels will encourage support from the people.

When social media is used to raise awareness for non-profit and cause-related organizations, there is usually a strong message that pulls on the heartstrings. At the same time, a compelling call-to-action pulls on the purse strings. Social service organizations rely on public relations marketing to not only develop public awareness and recruit new members, but also raise and replenish operating funds. Fund-raising events are critical to the longevity of a non-profit organization.

Not all press releases are the same

While social media channels deliver public relations marketing messages to target audiences in real-time, the approach and composition of a message for social media is different than traditional press releases (Dubois, 2010). Public relations is quickly becoming the marketing approach of choice for businesses of all sizes. A public relations professional relies heavily on the traditional press release to compliment other public relations activities.

The use of social media to deliver press releases moves public relations ahead of traditional advertising as an effective marketing communication option. Any communication—press release or otherwise—requires a different strategy when delivered using an online method. Every online communication should be designed for two-way communication. Dean Guadagni (2009) identifies the three common non-interactive as: broadcasting, announcements, and crowdsourcing. However, crowdsourcing offers a feedback loop between consumers and businesses.

A press release or other marketing communication deployed across Internet channels should always be positioned as an interactive communication. Not only should the message engage the audience, but also all interaction should be acknowledged and an open dialog created. A company can glean information about their publics by offering surveys and polls as part of the message strategy. Additionally, feedback from the target audience presents a company with insight into the psyche of their customers. Social media—when used for marketing communication—should not be exempt from targeted communication strategies.

Target audiences, market segments, and defined publics are unique groups that can impact the company’s goals. The process of identifying a target audience for public relations and advertising is similar. A public relations professional defines his or her ‘publics’ by using traditional methods of gathering data through primary research. This approach can be expensive, but the results are specific to the business needs. In other words, primary research approaches—such as focus groups, surveys, interviews, and observation—allow companies to identify and learn more about their target market.

Secondary research is less costly and easier to obtain. The results, however, may not be as accurate as information gleaned from primary research. Secondary research is typically a great way to quickly identify a target audience. Basic demographic, psychographic, and geographic information is important for understanding the ‘anatomy’ of the members in a target audience. This information alone is enough to develop communication strategies across social media channels, but a physical address, email address, or phone number is necessary for a direct marketing communication.

Both advertising and public relations use a mass marketing or broadcast approach to deliver messages to their respective target audience. A public relations professional will cast a wider net than an advertising professional when identifying their publics. A segmented public encompasses the target audience, but also includes secondary audiences, policymakers, and gatekeepers (Weinreich, 2010). A public relations campaign is intended to create goodwill for a product, company, or cause. One common goal of both advertising and public relations is to communicate with the target audience or segmented public in a language best understood.

Advertising is Becoming Less Effective

Every successful message strategy begins with an effective use of language. Whether the marketing campaign uses advertising methods or public relations tactics, the message must be written specifically for the intended audience. The clarity and simplicity of a message has a direct impact on the success of the communication. Jargon and clichés should always be avoided. A public relations message can lose credibility if euphemisms or discriminatory language is used (Cameron, et. al., 2008, p. 150).

Advertising messages do not carry the same credibility as pubic relations messages. Consumers know that advertisements are designed to sell a product or service. Most consumers have become callused against catchy slogans and gimmicks, leaving the door wide open for public relations style communications to replace traditional advertising. The writing styles between an advertising copywriter and a public relations writer is vastly different. Advertisements typically concentrate on a single benefit of a product or service. Public relations materials are written in a journalistic style, while offering more in-depth information about a company, product, or services (Mathlesen, 2010).

While advertising continues to have its place in the marketing toolbox, public relations is proving to be a more versatile solution. Toyota Motor Corporation experienced first hand the issues surrounding the use of advertising in a situation better suited for public relations. In March 2010—in the wake of public concern over safety issues—Toyota spawned an advertising campaign designed to promote brand loyalty and build retention. The problem, however, was that Toyota failed to address specific concerns surrounding congressional inquiries and safety investigations. Moreover, Toyota did not seem humbled by the problems and made no effort to apologize to their customers (Fredrix, 2010).

Toyota’s advertising arrogance had a negative impact on their loyal following. A public relations campaign would have provided the goodwill needed at a time when the public was unsure about the company. Additionally, public relations becomes the credibility conduit between the consumer and the company. The public trusts anything written in a press release or other public relations communication. Ford Motor Company was faced with similar challenges in 2000 when many Bridgestone tire clad Ford Explorers were responsible for over 250 traffic deaths. Ford chose to reduce their advertising efforts until the public trust was regained.

The general public is skeptical of advertising. Advertising is considered self-serving and ineffective. Branding is an important part of marketing. Public relations tactics continue to be more effective than advertising for building brands. The top five brands according to The Economist magazine are Google, Apple, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Ikea. In contrast, the top five advertisers are, General Motors, Proctor & Gamble, Ford, PepsiCo, and Pfizer (Elliott, 2010).

Public relations offers credibility, clarity, and cost advantages over advertising. The public has weathered advertising promises for many years. No matter how cleverly disguised, an advertisement is still designed to sell. The journalistic approach of public relations messages creates a newsworthy credibility that will never exist in advertising. Claims and comparisons sometimes cloud the underlying intention of an advertisement. A public relations message is always clear, concise, and directly to the point.

One of the greatest advantages of public relations over advertising is the cost. Marketing publicity is a form of public relations that involves getting stories published about a company’s products and services. Each product inherits the credibility of the publication. Consumer Reports, for example, is known for unbiased reviews and comparisons of thousands of consumer products. Several magazines and websites specialize in restaurant and travel reviews. All of this publicity is impartial and free.

Public relations is viral. A public relations campaign can be spread across many communication channels simultaneously. Social media offers additional advantages to public relations over advertising. Word of mouth communication is commonplace on the Internet. With a single click of the mouse, a consumer can easily share information and opinion about a product or service to thousands of individuals.

For years, the words advertising and marketing were synonymous. The recent economic challenges have forced consumers to make cutbacks on products and services. Advertisers are creating more aggressive campaigns in hopes of creating a spending frenzy. In the aftermath of government bailouts and mass media coverage of mismanaged corporations, the public is desensitized to advertising. Companies need to bring themselves into the public spotlight and win the trust of their target audience. Public relations produce goodwill in the company’s various publics (Turney, 2001).

Public relations activities blaze the trail so that advertising is more effective. Moreover, advertising is more effective if following a public relations campaign. While advertising cannot perform the same function as public relations, marketing campaigns using public relations tactics can accomplish the goals of traditional advertising—increase sales and raise company or product awareness. Advertising will always be an important instrument of marketing. Public relations is proving to be a viable alternative to traditional advertising, and the lines between the two are fading. Public relations has supplanted advertising and quickly become the new marketing ethos.


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Weinreich, N. (2011). What is social marketing? Retrieved January 28, 2011, from http://www.social-marketing.com/Whatis.html