An industry outsider might be forgiven for thinking that public relations and publicity are interchangeable functions.
However, PR practitioners have been arguing about just what a public relations professional does—or doesn’t do—for as long as many can remember. Some PR pros argue that the term “publicist” oversimplifies a job that includes reputation management, content creation, public advocacy and now, in 2019, digital marketing.
Others find the nitpicking over the differences between PR and publicity to be the work of self-important hucksters.
A changing industry
For Brian Hart, founder and president of Flackable, a full-service PR agency in Philadelphia, the debate hinges on the changing nature of the PR industry.
“The publicity-centered public relations practitioner is a dying breed,” he says, “and that’s probably for the best.”
Hart argues that modern PR clients aren’t looking for just greater visibility in the marketplace.
“I’ve never had a single client come to me looking for publicity,” he says. “What they want is credibility, authority, relevance and influence—that’s what I sell them on, and that’s what we deliver. We do that by helping them integrate media relations success into their greater marketing efforts, in turn translating press into real business results. For a publicist, the press itself is the end goal. For a public relations professional, the press will more often be a means to other end goals.”
So, is the problem with the word “publicist” due to the change in how PR pros perceive their job and what clients want from a PR agency?
According to Lauren Compton, senior director at APCO Worldwide in Washington, D.C., they should be viewed as two distinct roles. “’Publicity’ is an overly simplistic word that diminishes the role of the public relations professionals,” she says.
She argues that the word “conveys a lack of substance and, importantly, engagement.” For Compton, PR is much more than increasing the reach of your client’s message. “Communications today is a two-way street, requiring meaningful content and action,” Compton says.
Jason Myers, senior account executive with The Content Factory, is less sanguine about the difference.
“I entered the public relations field professionally 26 years ago as an executive assistant for a major Florida concert promoter and soon after became a publicist for a record label in Los Angeles,” Myers explains. “In my experience the terms PR and publicity have often been used interchangeably and any strong desire to divide these tasks into separate roles is splitting hairs unless you’re working for a massive company where teams are naturally subdivided on a more granular level.”
“Having been in the biz for a few generations I can say the basic principles of the job are the same, gaining exposure for your client and building their public image. In 2000 it was done largely via telephone and Rolodex and was called “getting publicity for your client” with print magazines and radio spots being the goal. In 2020 the same basic work will be done digitally via email and social media and called “branding” or “thought leadership development” with measurable top tier blogs and popular podcasts being the primary objective.
Today I’m a PR Coordinator, in 2000 I was a publicist, I still do the same thing two decades later, what’s changed are the tools and the nomenclature.”
Defining the problem
Perhaps the debate can be settled with a trip to the dictionary.
Publicity’s definition in Merriam-Webster suggests a series of actions that could apply to a relevant campaign. The dictionary says “publicity” is “an act or device designed to attract public interest” or “the dissemination of informational or promotional material” or “paid advertising.”
That sounds like PR, but the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) adds more to its definition of “public relations.”
The earliest definitions emphasized press agentry and publicity, while more modern definitions incorporate the concepts of “engagement” and “relationship building.” The PRSA National Assembly adopted the following definition in 1982: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”
As the disciplines of marketing, technology and public relations continue to evolve, so do the definition and role of public relations professionals. Today’s communicators are responsible for developing strategies and implementing integrated tactics across a wide variety of platforms to create differentiated positioning and align business objectives to further amplify the organization’s message.
PRSA’s latest definition of PR came in 2012: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
Joshua Kail, director of PR for Los Angeles firm PPLA, doesn’t find PRSA’s definition particularly convincing. “It’s rather open-ended and vague,” he says. “It is what allows for agencies to branch out to marketing and even advertising services and still call it PR.”
For Kail, publicity and PR aren’t that far apart. “Publicity, unlike marketing and advertising, is not a far stretch from the core competencies of public relations,” he says, “but we really need to dissect the term.”
“Publicity, whether caused by PR or not, is the result of an action,” he argues. “Calling a PR campaign a ‘publicity’ campaign is shift in semantics, but fundamentally, unless an act of how a firm or professional markets themselves, is not very different at all.”
What’s the difference?
Are publicity and public relations the same? Not according to the definitions, but they certainly feel adjacent to many communicators, and plenty of PR pros argue that publicity is part of the PR function.
Tammy Blythe Goodman, director of communications for SpotX, says: “A comprehensive public relations strategy may involve everything from nurturing key relationships with journalists to developing thought leadership content, securing earned speakerships, executing an effective awards program, overall reputation management, and beyond. I view publicity as just one part of the public relations umbrella.”
Some PR pros do see publicity as a key part of any campaign they launch.
Malcom Petrook, partner with DJD/Golden, says: “Publicity in the print, digital or broadcast media is only one element of the PR universe. However, when a company retains PR counsel it typically expects publicity to showcase its image.”
However, he also argues for a broader interpretation of what PR can achieve. “PR encompasses many other types of ‘persuasion’ that are not visible though the effects of which may be felt in politics, industry or society over a period of time, in order to build support for or against a cause or position,” he says. “Surveys, speaking opportunities and one-on-one meetings with influencers and editorial board meetings are examples of the more subtle, though tough to get, PR opportunities that may not result in publicity.”
He does maintain that “publicity” has value for any organization. He adds: “Publicity, unlike advertising, cannot be purchased in legitimate media.”
Is publicity just another word for “media relations”? Not for some communicators.
Dan Sondhelm, CEO of Sondhelm Partners, says: “Publicity has to do with making sure the speaker’s name and company name is spelled correctly.”
He adds that for many campaigns, publicity is all you get. “Public relations, though, is more strategic,” he says.
“What’s the story? What are you doing to make sure the right message is getting to the right journalists at the right time? How do you ensure coverage? How do you repurpose/integrate the news coverage in other sales and marketing efforts?”
Rodger Roeser, CEO of the Eisen Agency and national chairman of PRSA’s Agency Owner’s association, sees PR and publicity as part of a Venn diagram where publicity fits snugly under PR’s umbrella.
“All publicity is PR, but not all PR is publicity,” he says. “Public relations is exactly what it says, that is the ongoing actions of relating to a given public. Those publics vary wildly depending upon the type of business or organization you are and with whom you wish to relate.”
“The manner with how you relate to these varied publics then dictates which tactic, i.e., publicity, social media, event management, and so on,” he explains. “So, for example, if you are launching a massive career drive to increase both retention and new hires, you may wish to engage in a publicity campaign that showcases how wonderful and fulfilling it is to work at that given entity.”
Roeser argues that publicity efforts should coordinate with other PR methods to achieve their goals. “Publicity is a tactic,” he says.