It seems whenever I explain to someone I've just met socially that I'm a public relations executive, I'm typically asked one of two questions:

"So, what did you think of the Super Bowl commercials?"


"So, how many politicians do you have in your pocket?"

When I respond by saying I have no more knowledge of advertising than the average Joe or that I detest politics and politicians, the interrogator always responds with a blank stare and asks, "Well, then, what's public relations?"

Trying to explain, I get about a sentence or two into my definition before I see the other person's eyes scan the horizon in hopes of an emergency rescue. Reading the non-verbals, I'll quickly change the subject and bring up the weather, a mutual friend's cancer diagnosis or Demi Moore's addiction to nitrous oxide.

In truth, though, the pervasive lack of knowledge about public relations, and how it differs from advertising, lobbying, and other "marketing disciplines" is troubling. In fact, I believe far too many chief executives officers of the country's fastest-growing companies have no real clue how truly multi-faceted and more powerful public relations is than its marketing counterparts.

So, here's a quick primer on the fundamental differences between advertising and public relations:

  • When advertising, an organization selects the precise words it wants to communicate. It also determines the exact page, size and date of the advertisement, the specific media property in which the ad will appear and, critically, the words and visuals that will accompany the corporation's value proposition.
  • Public relations, which is sometimes referred to as unearned media, is more of a dog's breakfast. It involves reaching out to an objective reporter, editor, or producer with the facts and figures about an organization, its products or services and hoping the journalist finds the information of interest to her readers, viewers, or listeners. But, and this is a huge but, it is entirely up to the journalist what is written and when it appears.

As a result of these two fundamental differences, advertising is used to create awareness, while PR is used to enhance credibility. In fact, with the advent of the citizen journalism and the simultaneous decline in trust in all of our major institutions, PR now far surpasses advertising as the most-trusted source of information for most consumer or business purchases. Countless studies report that, next to word-of-mouth advice from friends and family, editorial commentary (usually generated by your friendly, behind-the-scenes PR practitioner) carries far more weight than advertising.

It's not difficult to understand why. Advertising continues to embrace an antiquated, top-down, inside-out way of communicating. It reflects senior management's view on what a consumer or business-to-business buyer should think is important. PR, on the other hand, depends upon listening to the conversation and understanding the who, what, when, where, why and how of engaging in the discussion. Public relations executives excel in storytelling and, typically, present a perceived problem (i.e. childhood obesity) and their client's unique solution (i.e. a new type of fitness equipment designed by, and for, pre-teens).

There's a reason why the monolithic advertising agencies are withering on the vine while public relations, as an industry, grows annually at a double-digit clip. The latter concentrates on the conversation and depends upon a responsible journalist to convey a client's message. The former represents the thinking of an out-of-touch C-suite executive who believes the world should beat a path to her door.

So, do yourself a favor the next time you tune in a football game or candidates' debate: don't ask the PR guy standing next to you what he thinks of either. He won't necessarily have an informed, professional opinion. But, if you are interested in understanding the smartest, fastest-evolving and most effective ways in which to engage your target audience in credible conversations, buy the poor PR dude a drink. He deserves one after all these years of being misunderstood.