Public relations and advertising seem to have similar aims. As a result, there is a perception in the market that they compete with or replace one another — that one is better than the other or, worse, that they are somehow the same — that PR is advertising in sheep’s clothing or a cheap form of promotion. This misperception persists, particularly in underdeveloped markets. In the developed world the practice of public relations was given a place at the adults’ table some time ago, to a large extent on the strength of its evolution into a diverse and sophisticated set of practices – public policy communications, social impact campaigns, lobbying, government relations, crisis and issues management and now social media.
In the Middle East and much of the developing world these misperceptions are entrenched because PR emerged from advertising. One of the early pioneers of the Middle East PR industry confessed to a colleague, “When we started up in the 1970s we honestly didn’t know the difference between public relations and advertising. We thought advertising was the same as PR. It took us a while to understand the difference.” Twenty years ago, advertising companies would leverage ad spending to get free editorial placement to please existing clients, with editorials written by advertising copywriters. The first PR agencies in the region were corridor companies of advertising groups.
As late as the 1990s obsequious articles celebrating a CEO’s latest trip to Europe or America or “press releases” extolling the wonders of some product or other, garnished with ad copy hyperbole, passed for PR editorial in much of the Middle Eastern media. Thankfully, those days are fading but the image of PR as a poor relation of advertising has persisted with both clients and the media and is reinforced by advertising and PR agencies and clients.
The benefits of PR
Advertising groups try bundling PR services into “integrated communications” packages, and it is no surprise they tend to be skewed toward advertising where the big bucks are. Back in the ‘90s one of our managing directors served as COO in one of these Middle East advertising-cum-PR groups and would sit by helplessly at a pitch for PR and watch the CEO spend the whole presentation trying to convince the client to advertise. Even today there are still one or two advertising groups that win business by providing free or heavily discounted “PR services” as part of the overall advertising and media placement offering. Needless to say, the “PR services” they offer are inherently limited. This situation exists because many clients remain clueless as to what the practice of public relations actually is and to a very great extent this is the fault of the PR industry.
Too many PR agencies become reactive press release factories with event management on the side, living up to the old stereotypes. Instead of educating clients as to what public relations is actually about and what the practice can do best (if they even know), these companies fall right into the reactive trap of churning out a stream of product placement and promotional releases on demand without any kind of sustainable strategy or coherent planning. Many clients insist their agencies distribute stories that have absolutely no news value. This has led to the idea that a good agency is one that can get anything into the media through personal relations. This is bad practice, which alienates media already inundated with press releases.
Clients, ad men and PR agencies all need to understand what PR can do. PR can build a brand by telling a story — we are storytellers. We develop key messages that define an organization and drive awareness. We can address complex issues and handle crises. We invest communications with credibility through genuine business news and can cover multiple aspects of an organization cost-effectively. We can influence public policy and advocate social change.
Public relations and advertising are both essential elements in the communications mix but they are entirely distinct disciplines that need to be separated at the hip in order to function effectively. Once separated, the two disciplines at their best can build and sustain brand awareness for the organizations they serve.