PR + advertising = ice cream

4 September 2008

Public Relations vs. Advertising: No Contest

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Integrated Marketing Advocate; photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash…

I have a serious weakness for ice cream. GOOD ice cream. As in 200% butter-fat-full-sugar-with-no-artificial-ingredients ice cream that makes me break into R-rated facial expressions and one-man gospel choruses. (Yeah, you don’t want to witness that.)

In college, I’d seek study relief at the late great Steve’s ice cream parlor in Harvard Square. During my year as a Texan, I indulged in the Dulce De Leche from H-E-B, a store brand that delivers the best bang for the buck ever. Now I’m addicted to Trader Joe’s premium ice creams: the Coffee Bean Blast is sinful on multiple levels, and the Mint Chip is as refreshing as a skinny dip in the pre-global-warming Arctic… or so I’m guessing. But what I really bow down to is Trader Joe’s Super Premium French Vanilla. While most vanillas are simply topping-delivery devices (mmm, fudge), this can be eaten straight out of the carton (when my wife isn’t looking) and still provide the ol’ palate with a thoroughly satisfying sensory experience.

And yet…

Throw on a few chocolate chips or some fresh blueberries, and that scrumptious scoop of vanilla becomes such a sensuous sensation that the Religious Right preaches “abstinence! abstinence!” at the sight of it (then sneaks off to the nearest closet to enjoy it themselves). The ice cream serves as the oh-so-pleasing base; the toppings deliver the dazzle.

And that, comrades, is how I feel about public relations and advertising.
(And here you thought I put the wrong headline on this article.)

PR provides the rock solid base while the ads offer the sizzle. They go together like… well, to quote a profound late 20th century ode to togetherness

like rama lama lama
ke ding a de dinga a dong
remembered forever like
shoo bop shoo wadda wadda yipitty boom de boom
chang chang chang-it-ty chang
that’s the way it should be
wha oooh yeah!

Oh, how I love to be silly.

Unfortunately, in all seriousness, not everyone sees it that way. Some think advertising and PR are mutually exclusive or even contradictory. I recently read The Authentic Brand by Christopher Rosica, and while the book definitely has merits — I admire its endorsement of socially conscientious business — I don’t buy the assertion that authentic brands can only be created with public relations. Granted, the author runs a PR agency, but to tout a strict PR-only diet neglects the value of good advertising and the potential hazards of public relations. Consider this: Rosica’s team asked me to review this book — soliciting reviews is a basic PR practice — yet look at what I’m saying about it. PR means not having control over the message or the messenger.

Now, I like to tease my publicist friends —and I confess that I derive thorough amusement from publicists who personally become public relations disasters. (This TechCrunch story on the complete F-up by PR “expert” Lois Whitman is hilarious.)

But I also include public relations in every marketing plan I write. I come from a family of publicists: my uncle taught PR at Cal-State Fullerton, and my father practiced it at the government level. So I agree with Rosica: PR is a powerful weapon, but it shouldn’t be pitted against advertising in some contest. That’s like debating what’s more important in football, offense or defense? (Or, to continue my egregiously contrived metaphor, ice cream or toppings?) A smart marketer combines both parts strategically.

So as yet another Atomic Tango public service, here’s a guide to the pros and cons of public relations and advertising, and how best to use them…

Public Relations: What It’s Good For

  • Building Credibility: A new product or company needs credibility fast. But thanks to the Internet, too many scams and crappy products are stinking up the marketplace, so trust is harder to earn than ever. There’s one fast and effective solution: press coverage. Nothing confers credibility more quickly than a third-party citation. (Especially if that third party goes by the name “Oprah”.) Simply being mentioned in the media gives a product, company or person instant legitimacy. As much as we all love to dis the media, we still trust what a journalist says about a company more than what the company says about itself.
  • Scoring Free Press: A successful PR campaign can generate thousands or even millions of dollars worth of press coverage. Consider the fact that a full-page color ad in Wired magazine goes for about $70,000. How much is a feature article in Wired worth?
  • Cutting Through Clutter: Rosica validly points out that ads have a hard time getting noticed by jaded consumers. Combine that trend with ad skipping and software-based ad-blocking, and it’s amazing that ads get noticed at all. (But some do — see below.) Consequently, consumers are more likely to notice what’s featured right in the TV show or press article. To get that kind of placement without paying for it requires PR.

Public Relations: Where It Falls Short

  • Being Easy Or Efficient: Unless you’re a higher power, like Steve Jobs, you won’t automatically get coverage by simply issuing a press release. You (or your agency) need to actively solicit an editor or producer. Getting buy-in could take a long time — and it might never happen at all. So if urgency is an issue, don’t count on PR. Scoring coverage also usually requires having a relationship with that reporter, editor, or producer, and those relationships take time to forge. That’s why, in public relations, experience is critical. Pick your agency carefully! You could hire the world’s biggest PR agency, but if your account is relatively small compared to, say, Microsoft’s, the agency is likely to hand you off to a junior rep.
  • Providing Guarantees: Editors and producers ultimately decide what goes into their media, so you could spend thousands of dollars on publicity and wind up with absolutely nothing. Some editors and producers want to make sure you’re legit before they devote their precious space to you, so you’re stuck in a Catch-22: you can’t build your credibility until you have credibility. Well, one way editors and producers measure legitimacy is your spending power. For example, a movie is more likely to score a prominent review if it also runs major ads. Now, it’s theoretically unethical for editors and producers to base their content on whether you buy ads to support them, but given the state of media these days, ethics are becoming more theoretical than actual.
  • Offering Control: So your publicist scored you a review or feature? Bravo! — but don’t celebrate yet. In public relations, you have no control over the final message. The editor or producer could even rip you to shreds. Indeed, some critics savor doing so. If your publicist is talented and has a strong relationship with that editor or producer, she might be able to influence them positively or at least get them to soften their criticism. But that’s a huge “might.”
  • Hitting the Target: With PR, you get whatever coverage you can, but it’s not always what will serve you best. I recently attended an indie horror flick that landed a glowing review in the New York Times. The producers celebrated, since they hadn’t budgeted for much advertising. The result? Total box office for this $5 million movie was a mere $67,000. I mentioned this movie to some entertainment industry friends who love horror films, and even they hadn’t heard of it. I guess horror fanatics don’t read a lot of New York Times reviews. Indeed, with young adults reading less and less, and the broadcast networks steadily losing younger viewers, regular media is no longer guaranteed to reach them. So if you have limited resources, make sure your publicist picks outlets strategically. One horror movie blogger could prove to be more influential than reviews in all the major newspapers in the U.S.
  • Serving Creative Needs: If your brand is based on humor, design, sexual imagery, or a killer pop song, forget trying to convey all that in a media review or CEO interview. Nike’s shoes always got good reviews, but it took commercials featuring some guy named Michael Jordan to make them the industry leader. GEICO has always been a solid company, but it took a talking gecko to make them a consumer hit. Now, you could contrive an outlandish publicity stunt to generate a buzz, but such stunts require a PR agency with a creative mentality. Such agencies are rare and expensive, and you could wind up spending as much to create your stunt as you would to create an ad — without guaranteed coverage.

Advertising: What It’s Good For

  • Giving You What You Want: You paid for it, so you get it when you want, where you want, and how often you want. In some deals, you can even stipulate a minimum number of views. And if urgency is an issue, then advertising is the way to go.
  • Providing Control: Yes, there are media standards your ad must abide by. Networks or publications often reject ads — indeed, entire categories (such as cigarettes or offshore gambling). Laws also limit what you can say or show. But there is usually an outlet for anything. And sometimes, getting your ad banned is good for publicity. (See how advertising and PR can work together?) Even with standards and regulations, there’s a lot more you can do in an ad than in a press release, from creative expression to special offers.
  • Buzzing and Branding: Great ads can create a viral sensation and a devoted following. Funny, sexy or cool commercials do cut through the clutter. Even better, they get posted and shared on YouTube and Facebook. A powerful movie trailer can generate anticipation and a massive opening weekend, regardless of what the critics say. A perfectly lit product shot can create instant cravings (particularly with ice cream) and drive a consumer to the nearest store. And though we all claim to hate repetition, seeing a product advertised again and again creates share of mind, so when we’re finally ready to buy — whether it’s an MP3 player or a beer or an auto insurance policy — we’ll think of that heavily advertised product first. (Go ahead, test yourself: what are the first brands that come to mind when I say “beer.” My guess is that most of you didn’t say Stone Brewing or Fat Tire, both of which have received great reviews but do little advertising.)
  • Making the Media Happy: As mentioned, there should be no quid pro quo between ad expenditures and media coverage, but these days, editors and producers can’t help but see you in a positive light if you help keep them in business. While a large ad buy might not guarantee press coverage, it can thwart negative coverage. For example, how many men’s magazines would write an article about the links between the Bacardi family and violent attempts to overthrow Castro? None, if they hope to keep all their rum ads. Rather, you’re more likely to see cocktail recipes.

Advertising: Where It Falls Short

  • Fitting Small Budgets: Space in major media outlets — such as leading magazines, or during hit TV shows — is priced for major corporations. In addition to high media costs, you’ll need to spend an equivalent amount on creativity and production to make sure your ads look good enough for those outlets. If you don’t, you’re just contributing to the clutter.
  • Cutting Through Clutter: As mentioned, ads are being skipped, blocked, or totally ignored. You need smart media buying and killer creative just to get noticed.
  • Gaining Trust: Do consumers automatically trust ads? Uh, no.

So what’s my recommended approach? Integrate both publicity and advertising into your marketing campaign. They complement each others’ strengths and mitigate weaknesses, with the publicity providing the credibility while the advertising creates the buzz.

Let’s look at the case of Jack In The Box, a west-coast fast-food chain. In 1993, Jack In The Box suffered a major e. coli crisis, during which some customers actually died. Since the chain was already struggling before this happened, the crisis could have led to bankruptcy. But a brilliant new campaign by advertising genius Richard Sittig, featuring the return of the Jack mascot with an attitude, signaled a bold renewal of the company and won over legions of new fans who happily stuck tiny Jack heads on their car antennas.

At the same time, Jack In The Box implemented an industry-leading food safety program that it actively promoted through the media. Note the separation of church and state here: Food safety? PR, since safety commercials are rarely entertaining enough to get noticed. Funny mascot? Advertising, since it’s hard to convey humor through the press. Together? A revived brand that’s now expanding nationwide with — I must mention — ice cream shakes.

And on that note, let’s wrap up this really really long post and grab some spoons.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

16 Responses

  1. I came for the ice cream and stayed for the Jack ;-)

    Great post. Long, but flashes past when you get involved. I am particularly investigating viral advertising so this was relevent to me.


  2. Entertaining and educational, as always! So good it makes me want to duck into my nearest Cold Stone :)

  3. Oh I share your fervor for Ice cream. If i was not lactose intolerant, I would have it more often. I enjoyed your article a lot, mainly because I’m a student and am stuck between choosing PR as a major or Advertising.

  4. Nothing like some serious vanilla ice cream over hot fresh peach cobbler =D

    Freddy’s Comment: Ah, ice cream as the topping… Sounds good.

  5. This is spot on, Freddy.

    Advertising has it’s place and is the best tool for some things. Same goes for PR. To call one better than the other is like calling a screwdriver better than a wrench.

    I think I’m gonna have to share your post now.

    Happy marketing,


  6. Freddy,

    I liked your post so much, I had to write a whole new post on the topic myself with a huge quote block from your post and appropriate props.

    It’s here:

    Happy marketing,


  7. Brilliant post. I shall be sharing.

    I think you hit the mark on what PR can’t do although I would put some caveats in there. In ‘hitting the target’ you mention that perhaps a lot of horror fans don’t read the NYT and therefore you should choose your targets carefully. True, but not sure why this implies that PR falls short. You have to choose your targets carefully in advertising too. The difference is that, as you say, PR doesn’t provide guarantees.

    Also, your point about creativity in PR. I would argue that actually there’s a huge amount of creativity required in PR – and that goes beyond flashy stunts. It’s rare that a brilliant news story just lands on your desk. You have to MAKE the story based on timely events, the news agenda, shaping quirky facts and statistics etc. and fit that within your clients’ wider marketing context. Its a different kind of creativity than in advertising, but creativity nevertheless.

    And one last point! PR firms increasingly have viral and social networking strings to their bows too. There’s more than media relations to PR.

  8. I agree with other posters…spot on…however, Patrick, i do prefer the screwdriver to the wrench, less knuckle busting.
    FYI: best ice cream in the world is Graeter’s of Cincinnati

  9. I agreed with them all, it adds the icing on the cake for PR practioners like me.

    Thanks mate.

  10. Useful observations – thanks, the full color ad costing $70,000 is a revelation, I could give much better lomg term value via sponsorship!

  11. This is exactly right! When combined correctly, advertising and PR yield great results and the Jack in the Box example is perfect! I’m a senior in college and I just got an internship at a great marketing firm that uses advertising and PR simultaneously when dealing with their clients and they couldn’t be more pleased. I never really thought about the two that way until I started this internship and now i believe it is a great tool that marketers should take advantage of as often as possible.

  12. The combination of PR and Advertising is absolutely key in today’s market. To break through clutter, PR professionals have to break down the walls between the disciplines and integrate themselves into the entire marketing process. But we also have to evolve beyond media relations and publicity and include direct-to-consumer activities in PR campaigns. We can not solely rely on media to tell our story and reach our target markets.

  13. I feel you have used a bad PR agency as your example here, no PR in their right mind would ask you to review something and then leave evevrything up to you. Good PR is about knowing the journalist you are dealing with and who their readers are and so if your product isn’t relevant or is something the journalist could form a negative opinion about then you target your pitch specifically to them. I don’t agree with the ‘icecream’ idea because again I believe you have based it on a fairly run of the mill ‘tick the boxes’ PR agency. An excellent PR would know you very well and know their product very well and would tell you why you would think the book was good and indirectly they have influenced your opinion before you have read it. It’s all about doing your homework and preparing, also informing the client that perhaps there could be negative coverage off the back of their book launch is essential!! you can’t promise a client 100% positive coverage for a book launch because that is impossible!!

    I think I might be rambling but you see where I’m going with this.

    great blog though.

  14. Great post! I just wrote a blog on integration as well. And like you I enjoy a little Good Humor, ice cream and laughs!

    Amazing how so many create a line in the sand, hindering true effectiveness.

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