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Public Relations vs. Advertising – Battle of the Marketing Heavyweights

The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR By Al Ries and Laura Ries

When I first decided to join the world of Public Relations, all I really knew was that I wanted to get into an industry that was both interactive and would let me be somewhat creative – at that point, both PR and advertising fit the bill. Arguably, client servicing in both arenas is fairly similar – one of my colleagues, who has had the pleasure of working in both industries, summed it up pretty well when he said, “It’s like being a butcher. You’re using the same tools; the difference is the type of meat you’re carving up!” – but I was swayed towards PR, and so far so good.

However, I have always been intrigued by this marketing dichotomy, which is probably what made me gravitate towards ‘The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR’ by Al Ries & Laura Ries when I was looking for an interesting industry read. The book was recommended to me a few months ago and admittedly it took me a while to get round to actually reading it, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.The father-daughter duo explore the weaknesses of the advertising industry while highlighting the ways in which PR can fill the void by referencing a number of marketing strategies deployed by large and small enterprises to illustrate their points. Here are a few key observations which stood out for me:

Advertising is an art form (PR gets the job done)

Using this somewhat back-handed compliment as a starting point for their argument, Reis & Reis position advertising as a support mechanism for fundamentally PR-focused campaigns. The advertising industry is simultaneously lauded and critiqued for its primary focus of developing creative and unique campaigns, which are more focused on winning industry accolades, such as the Gold Lions at the International Advertising Festival and a statue at the Clio Awards, than achieving what should be their primary goal of increasing sales figures for their clients – which, let’s be honest, is all the client really cares about at the end of the day.

Essentially, the main problem identified with this is that ad agencies are so wrapped up in positioning themselves as creative leaders (beneficial for the agency, not so much for the client), that they end up ‘fishing without a hook’. In other words, while slogans in adverts may be catchy and memorable, they don’t tend to keep consumers interested in the product or service for the long-term, nor do they effectively communicate the client’s key messages. You might think a brand has a cool advert, but how often will you actually go out and buy a product based on that?

PR provides the credibility that Advertising lacks

Due to the nature of ‘media buying’, there is a stigma of being “one-sided, biased, selfish and company-oriented rather than consumer-oriented” attached to advertising. Furthermore, you are constantly being bombarded by advertising everywhere you go and as a result, consumers have become wary and have put their guard up against being told what to buy because they know that they are being presented with imperfect information that isn’t necessarily in their best interest. Ries & Ries make an interesting and mildly amusing observation, comparing the credibility of advertising executives to that of highly untrustworthy car salesmen.

PR provides a more credible alternative for communicating with consumers. In a nutshell, people will believe what they read in the newspapers. Safe in the knowledge that editorial space has not been bought (and this is where the difference between editorial and advertorial is key), consumers trust that the media is an unbiased medium solely geared towards reporting the facts, and are therefore more susceptible to retaining the messages put forward.

PR builds the brand, Advertising maintains it

As mentioned above, ad space is paid for whereas editorial space is allotted by journalists based on the newsworthiness of the story. For this reason, most companies have a tendency to allocate a greater chunk of their marketing budget to advertising than PR, as they know that money invested in advertising translates directly into seeing their company name in the media. However, the problem arises when the brand has not yet been established. While there is a temptation to start with a big bang and go all out with an introductory advertising campaign, this is not always the best approach – mainly because people are unlikely to immediately identify with a brand they know nothing about.

PR takes a slightly slower yet more sustainable and cost-effective approach. As Ries & Ries rightfully state, “You don’t launch a PR program. You let it unfold in a series of steps over an extended period of time.” This allows consumers to familiarise themselves with a brand over time, building a more trusting relationship with the company and eventually exercising a fair bit of brand loyalty. Once this stage is complete, advertising is an effective medium to consistently keep the brand and its products at the forefront of the consumers’ mind.

Overall, I would say that this is a definite must-read for any marketing professional, if only to get an interesting insight into global campaigns over the years. My main criticism, however, would be that Ries & Ries are perhaps all too focused on the short-comings of the advertising industry and not enough on the limitations of public relations, resulting in an inherently one-sided analysis.

Kudos must be given to the creative teams in ad agencies who successfully manage to make their campaigns stand out in a highly competitive and saturated market. There are certain benefits in the complete control allowed by advertising, such as giving a company the opportunity to decide which publications they want to appear in, how frequently and for how long. Public Relations, some might argue, is not as flexible and, with no guarantee of having a piece of news published, PR consultants are more inclined to think out of the box to find a newsworthy angle – they don’t call us spin-doctors for nothing!

Advertising, PR or both?