The Difference Between PR and Publicity

No matter what industry you’re in, it’s important to understand the difference between public relations and publicity. They are two separate things.

Public relations is often defined as the function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends. This definition is from one of the standard textbooks for the public relations profession, Cutlip/Center/Broom.

In short, it is a long-term process and its goal is to create and nurture relationships between an entity and its publics so that both benefit.

Publicity is a short-term activity, typically used to promote an event. It is not establishing a relationship. It is one-way communications, not two-way. In this regard, it is similar to London’s famous Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner, a free air podium on which anyone can get up at any time to speak on any topic he or she chooses.

One of the best explanations I have seen was in an article written by Barry Kluger, currently managing director of Knoodle PR in Phoenix, Arizona.  His column appeared in the Phoenix Business Journal in October 2004, and you can read it in its entirety here.

Press is much different from PR. Press gets headlines, [while] PR creates brands, images and industry leadership positions. Anyone can tell you, a brand is the most valuable thing a company has. Coverage of a restaurant opening is not PR. It’s publicity. Coverage of a restaurant chain’s expansion, its long-term goal to capture category and yes, a random food poisoning incident or fire, is pure PR. The latter affects the standing in the community, continued faith in the products and the company’s ability to recover from a scandal or setback.

What does this mean to you? If you are focusing solely on publicity for your product or service, you’re not doing PR, yet PR is what you will need when a crisis occurs. It’s about building relationships, not assuming that pushing out a series of tweets, Facebook posts or press releases is what you need for the long term. The textbooks will tell you that both PR practitioners and their clients confuse publicity with public relations. The latter is often viewed mistakenly as a sales lead generator, or a marketing transaction-based function. For more information about the definition, value and ethics of PR, visit PRSA.

I asked Barry where he thought the problem lies. It is in the training of some PR people, he said. “They are taught to go for the sizzle, not the substance, and it often reduces the value of the craft. Much of the responsibility lies with PR practitioners and training people to understanding mission and vision and to be well-rounded instead of singularly focused.”

He was referring in this case to the PR industry as a whole, but it applies as well to  authors, sole proprietors, anyone owning a business, anyone putting their message out there.

These days anyone and everyone can do PR. But are they really doing PR, or is it just publicity? Are they taking the steps needed to establish strategic, mutually beneficial relationships, or are they just doing the old “spray and pray” approach? Are they taking time to connect, or valuing volume over quality?

It’s inevitable that the lines between the two disciplines have blurred. The Internet has leveled the playing field. This is the era of the citizen journalist. If you want to be competitive, however, know the difference.

Photo credit: (c) iStock.com/Chris Steer

  • http://rockthestatusquo.com Carrie Morgan

    Nice post, Linda!

    • Linda

      Thank you, Carrie. Have you encountered similiar confusion about the terms?

      • http://rockthestatusquo.com Carrie Morgan

        I avoid using the term “publicity” because it has a negative connotation.

        • Linda

          Good strategy! I used to include a definition of “public relations” in my client contracts to make sure they understood they were signing up for PR, not sales leads.