The popular misconception is that they are one and the same thing. But it’s important to know the difference. And there is a very stark difference. If you’re opening a restaurant, do you need a publicist or a PR firm to bring diners through the door? If you’ve had an unfortunate case of food poisoning hit the news, who can help you?
Put simply, publicity gets headlines while PR agencies create brands. Publicity concerns presence in the media. It creates public awareness for a brand. It is promotion, used to attract attention. Public relations involves a whole host of strategies to accomplish an organizations goals by sending messages to appropriate audiences.
Publicity may well be one of the many tools used by a public relations practitioner, but it is just one string to their bow. A PR company manages the brand reputation of a client, while at the same time building relationships with those affected by the brand. Public relations creates and manages an image – including in times of crisis.
It’s a PR’s job to limit the damage to their client’s reputation and come up with a crisis plan to bring it back from disgrace when things aren’t running smoothly. This is known as crisis PR or crisis communications. A crisis PR team may work very closely with a legal team to minimize damage, while at the same time avoiding leaking any critical information which can damage their case in court.
In the age of the internet, it’s inevitable that the lines between the two disciplines have blurred. All of a sudden, anyone who writes a blog will claim to be a journalist.
In the same way, when someone claims to do PR, it’s important to check that what they offer isn’t simply publicity. Are they taking steps to establish relationships? Are they finding time to connect to relevant audiences - or simply going for instant gratification from fast headlines?
While publicity - pitching a story, event or the latest development to the media – can be important in public relations, it isn’t the only aspect of the job. In public relations, publicity is viewed as a way to gain the client media coverage. But saying the two are identical ignores the remaining responsibilities of a PR practitioner.
The tools of a PR pro include the aforementioned crisis management as well as media kits, news releases, media monitoring, event organization, social media engagement, reputation management and media training. A PR company may also specialize in areas such as digital marketing, crisis communications, fashion PR, consumer marketing, food and drink PR or any number of different areas.
Coverage of a restaurant opening is publicity. Coverage of a restaurant chain’s expansion, or damage limitation following a random food poisoning incident or fire, is pure PR. The latter affects the standing in the community, continued faith in the products and the company’s ability to recover from a scandal or setback.
Saying publicity is the same as PR is like claiming a dental hygienist is exactly the same as a dentist – simply because the two work in the same area. But you wouldn’t want to make the mistake of asking the former to extract a tooth.