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What is the difference between publicity and public relations?

Dear PR Matters,

In the course of my work, I always come across the terms public relations and publicity. Are these the same thing? If not, what is the difference? Which is more effective for one’s business?


 

Sincerely,

Venus M.

 

Dear Venus,

Your question is really insightful, as the terms publicity and public relations are often used interchangeably. But they are, in fact, two very distinct and separate disciplines. Let’s start with the basics.

Marketing guru Seth Godin describes publicity as “the act of getting ink.” It is the act of attracting the media’s attention and gaining visibility with the public at large.

The focus of publicity is getting as much press coverage or “ink” as possible. Marketing strategist Tristan Loo cites entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose well-known eccentric and outlandish publicity stunts usually call attention to the opening of one of his new business ventures.

Branson famously drove a Sherman tank down New York’s 5th Avenue to promote the launch of his Virgin cola brand in the US. He also bungee-jumped off the top of the Las Vegas Palms Resort to promote his Virgin America airline brand.

These, and other publicity stunts, got him and his business a lot of media mileage. These also show us that whenever we plan events or write media stories, these should also be exciting, never be boring or predictable.

But that is not public relations.

Loo describes public relations as “the strategic crafting of your story. It’s the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you.”

It is said that everything begins with a good story. And public relations is about telling it well and touching the lives of many people.

Regis Mckenna was great at PR. He got Steve Jobs and the Mac on the cover of more than 30 magazines on the year it was launched. That was just publicity. The real insight was the crafting of the story of the Mac; and with that, the story of Steve Jobs.

Public relations is all about maintaining your brand’s reputation. Crisis management is also part of PR, and again it shows the difference between publicity and public relations.

When things go wrong—and we all know nothing is perfect—it is the PR’s job to limit the damage to their client’s reputation and come up with a plan to bring it back to par. This is known as crisis PR or crisis communications. A crisis PR team may work very closely with a legal team to minimize the public opinion damage.

In all, publicity is about getting ink; public relations is about strategically managing your brand’s reputation. Publicity is a tool; public relations is an overall program. Publicity is short term; public relations is long term.

It is important to note that getting “ink” doesn’t mean that your brand’s credibility or reputation would be enhanced. Getting publicity really just means your brand is getting out there.

A publicity firm will brag how much ink they got their client. A PR firm will talk about story telling and being remarkable at spreading the word.

But which is actually better for your business—PR or publicity?

You should be doing both. Getting ink should be part of your overall PR strategy. It is important to remember that having a PR strategy in place is far more valuable for your business than simply getting an occasional mention in the papers or on television. Publicity is one of the many communication channels you can use to shape the way your audience perceives your brand and the credibility associated with the brand.

 

PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the International Public Relations Association, the premier association for senior professionals around the world. Millie Dizon, the current chairman, is SM’s vice president for marketing.

We are devoting a special column each month to answer the reader’s questions about public relations. Please send your comments and questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

 

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