Digital PR: The Advertising vs. PR Model

Ever wonder what the differences are when advertising and public relations are competing against each other? Oral tradition has it that media placement through public relations is anywhere from slightly to greatly more effective compared to advertising.

In a report recently reported and published on the Institute for Public Relations Web site, we conducted an experiment among actual consumers who are regular newspaper readers, randomly selected from six large shopping centers across the United States. The study tested for differences in communications impact between editorial placement and an advertisement on a created product. Our findings concluded that in the restricted domain of new consumer product introduction, there was little difference on most key measures (awareness, relevance of the product and purchase intent) between those exposed to the editorial and those exposed to the advertisement.

Even though this study is limited in its scope in that it only focused on an initial consumer product introduction, several tips can be drawn from the findings.

1. PR is as effective as advertising for new product introductions, particularly at the initial branding stage of a campaign. There were few statistically significant differences separating PR and advertising effectiveness at the stage of initial message exposure. An examination of the mean results and percentages did reveal, however, that PR is slightly more effective in the marketing promotion mix than advertising.

2. Public relations is most effective when the audience identifies with the message and/or message source. Where PR gets its extra "kick" is in the ability to establish a common bond through the story. Rather than focusing on the creative, as advertisements often do, PR needs to concentrate on why we should identify with the product.

Given these findings, there are three other insights that merit consideration and research.

3. As message control in editorial increases, public relations should have an advantage over advertising. It may not be that magic "multiplier" often talked about, but it follows that the more information a promotional message can convey, the more effective it should be. This may not be totally true in a marketing public relations mix, but it surely should be in situations where the messages and counter-messages can be controlled or highly influenced by the public relations practitioner.

4. As channel control increases, public relations should have an effectiveness advantage. Quite simply, as competition over the channels decreases, public relations effectiveness should increase. Again, where this may be advantageous may not be in the branding process, but instead in corporate or public affairs communications.

5. Redundancy between advertising and public relations is probably a good thing. The ability to have it "both ways" should increase the effectiveness of a promotional campaign. This seems to follow common sense, assuming of course that the messages complement each other and are not targeting different audiences (see #4, above). The ability to get both editorial commentary and an advertisement in the same relative space should serve a reinforcing function and perhaps even multiply effectiveness if specific key message elements are assigned to each.

Our key conclusion is that these findings are good for the public relations industry. The first and foremost reason is that based on this study, advertising and public relations should have equal weight where planning is concerned and when used strategically. These findings are still far from complete, and we are planning additional studies to test whether differences in advertising and public relations exist in isolation and then to calculate the relative advantage one may have over the other, depending on message context and channel control.


Dr. David Michaelson,, is the principal of David Michaelson & Company LLC. Dr. Don Stacks,, is a professor in the University of Miami School of Communication.