Advertising and PR: What's the difference?

Advertising and PR: What's the difference?
Jessica Morgan
Jessica MorganCarnsight Communications

Posted: Tue 20th Apr 2021

"But isn't PR just advertising?" We've been asked this question quite a bit over the years, and we can understand why.

Advertising and PR share a number of common goals and work excellently together, but they are different disciplines that can produce different outcomes, and often, at a different cost bracket.

Understanding these differences is key to making the right decisions for your small business. Advertising and PR are methods of promotion that can fall under the 'marketing' umbrella term. Both can be fantastic tools for business growth and development if used effectively.

Some of their common goals:

  • Brand awareness – getting your brand better known

  • Attracting new audiences and engaging your current audience

  • Selling your products or services

While these objectives are shared, their means of achieving them and the way in which success is measured is different. This is key.

What's involved in advertising and PR?

In the simplest terms, advertising centres around creating an advert (or advertorial) to place online or in a publication. With PR, key messages around your business, services or products are agreed and then it's the job of the PR (or you, if you're doing it yourself) to get those featured in the right publications – be that as news, product or commentary.

You can be prescriptive with copy and images in an advert, whereas content is more open for interpretation in editorial, as it's the job of the journalist to use what will work in their piece. However, there's also arguably more authority in appearing in an article rather than an advert or advertorial.

How much does each approach cost?

There are lots of factors at play, but there's often a misconception that PR is expensive. It doesn't have to be - with PR you're paying for someone's time (and you might potentially be paying for product samples to be shared), but that could be the extent of the costs. If you have a limited budget, it's best to define that at the start and understand what can be achieved.

Advertising rates vary depending on the publication. But you should factor in creating the advert and paying for placement, as well as tracking results.

Measuring success

Advertising is built around paid-for opportunities and is often more closely tied to direct sales, which means it often draws on financial data to determine the success of a campaign. Some success criteria might include:

  • How many people interacted with our campaign (e.g. an online advert)? What was the conversion rate?

  • Did the service (or product) being marketed meet or exceed sales goals?

  • What was the return on investment (ROI) of the campaign?

PR does not focus on paid-for placements, but instead works to achieve coverage in the media through working with editorial teams. The tools a PR would use are good knowledge of the media, good contacts, news about your business, your products and/or commentary from the business owner. We talk about PR as earned activity. Success criteria for PR might include:

  • Have we built or expanded upon the company's media profile?

  • Have we achieved press coverage in target publications?

  • Have we hit targets for coverage views?

Do you need advertising or PR?

As your business grows, advertising and PR are strategies that complement each other well, and one can really help boost the success of the other. For example, PR can generate coverage that can then be used to market your business.

In our experience, small businesses can really benefit from working with a PR expert as well as a marketing or advertising expert. Getting yourself known in your industry from the get-go establishes you as a contender and allows you and your business to build a good reputation. Launching a product is an angle in itself and publications don't always discriminate - they are often happy to hear from small businesses, even the nationals.

Guaranteed coverage?

Because PR is not advertorial (paid-for placement) but editorial, a good PR won't 100% guarantee any one piece of coverage, whereas if you have paid for an ad in a publication, you will definitely appear. However, it's the perception and authority of the content that's different, as mentioned. Do you flick through a magazine to look at the adverts, or read the articles?

Equally, through PR you may be featured in multiple publications with the same piece of content; you may not be able to pay to run the same ad in multiple places.

There's an old saying: "Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for." We like to think there's a bit more to it than prayer, including experience and good contacts, but it definitely gets the point across!

In summary

Advertising and PR: often common of goals, different means and measurements.


  • To increase awareness of a business and its offerings

  • Your business or products appearing in media


  • Different output - adverts versus editorial

  • Different means of measurement

  • PR is mainly based on time - other elements come in with advertising

Hopefully this has helped clear up some advertising vs PR confusion. PR is often seen as too complex or expensive for a small business in comparison to advertising, but in reality, this really isn't the case. PR can be extremely effective, even on a tight budget, and so it's incredibly important to make use of it early on in your business journey. You'll thank yourself later.

Relevant resources

Jessica Morgan
Jessica MorganCarnsight Communications
In 2016, after 15 years of working with high-profile clients at TEQUILA, Craik Jones and Proximity and then as Director of PR agency Pumpkin, where she worked with M&C Saatchi among other global brands, Jess founded PR consultancy, Carnsight Communications. Passionate about the benefits well-executed PR brings to businesses big and small, Jess loves working directly with Carnsight clients and the media to create campaigns that resonate and deliver beyond expectation. Jess hails from St Agnes and stays true to her Cornwallian roots. ‘Carnsight’ means ‘sight of the hill’ and the logo is inspired by stones stacked on top of Carn Brea, near Redruth. Since setting up Carnsight, Jess and her family moved from London to the West Country where she is the proud owner of a lively cockapoo (Clifford) and a burgeoning vegetable plot.

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