Decisions, decisions … is advertising or PR a better choice for your business?

- February 14, 2022 4 MIN READ

For many startups and small businesses, deciding whether to invest in public relations (PR) or buy advertising or sponsored content – or do all three – is a key decision in the marketing and sales mix. All three tactics work well depending on your desired objectives, but there are some red flags that indicate when you’re not ready to get the most out of investing in PR, and would be better suited to stick with paid methods, write Kathryn Van Kuyk and Anthony Caruana, cofounders of Media-Wize.

Red flags that your small businesses should invest in advertising and not PR

Some types of advertising can be non-negotiable for many businesses.

Ensuring your customers can find you easily on a Google search and that your business comes up when a person is searching for products and services you offer, means investing in Google ad words is a first priority.

You’ll also want good SEO and a presence on key social media channels such as Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Here are the key differences that let you know whether investment in advertising, marketing or public relations is best for your business.

Public relations diagram explainer

Advertising says ‘Buy me’

Advertising is about promoting a company and its products or services through paid channels. It says ‘buy me’ and you fully control the message. But it can be very expensive, depending on where you want to purchase the advertising.

Studies have shown that people are skeptical about advertising, with many blocking digital advertisements entirely, and those in print often paid scant attention. Billboards, radio and cinema advertising is harder for the consumer to avoid, but purchasing decisions often depend on other factors.

Sponsored content is increasingly popular, with many media outlets enabling businesses to buy stories that look like editorial content, but are branded as sponsored posts. Costs vary from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for a single article, depending on the outlet.

With sponsored content, you control the message and it can be highly promotional. It can be an article that an independent journalist would never write to plug your business. But when a reader sees the words “this is an advertiser paid article”, their radar often turns to cynicism and they start asking: what’s in it for the advertiser?

Marketing says ‘Look at me’

Influencer marketing is also on the rise but unfortunately, many small businesses have been burned by social media ‘influencers’ who take free products but never post about your business.

Before you dispatch any products or pay for any services, be sure to get a formal written agreement signed by all parties, outlining exactly what the deliverables are and the timeframe for them to be executed.

Marketing and advertising scream ‘look at me’ and ‘buy me’. Whereas PR says ‘I’m trustworthy, credible and an authority’.

PR says ‘Trust me’

Seth Godwin famously summed it up when he said, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relationships, stories and magic.”

It is enormously more powerful to have a journalist write a story about you based on merit – because you’re newsworthy, topical, interesting, insightful or doing something different – not just because you asked (or paid) them to.

However, engaging in media relations means that you lose full control of the copy. When a journalist writes a story, they control the story and how it is told.

A public relations specialist can help you work out if you have a story, which journalist to pitch it to, and how to position you in the best way to help achieve success. They cannot buy, control the message or guarantee coverage.

It is the risk vs benefit equation. If you can get it right, it can be a powerful endorsement and help your brand to build more credibility in the market.

One of the key red flags that you’re not ready to engage in PR is if you want to dictate what a journalist writes – and want to check the copy before it goes to print. If this is the case, then media relations isn’t for you.

Nor is it the right activity to invest in if you are hoping for instant sales results. A media story may lead to a demand spike, but it might not. Often you need to maintain the momentum, so your customers hear about you multiple times before they feel confident to make a purchasing decision. Any editorial needs to be complemented with sharing on social media, an easy-to-navigate website, and a positive customer experience.

Engaging in media relations also means you will need a competent spokesperson who is able to deliver an interesting message and is well prepared to handle any media interview. This is rarely an inherent skill. It is gained and developed through learning and practicing in a safe environment before you talk to a journalist.

two businessmen shaking hands with other business people in the background

Public relations is a true partnership

If you want to engage with a PR agency or freelancer, you need to have time available to get the most out of the engagement. If your spokesperson isn’t prepared to drop everything when a journalist wants to speak to them, it is doomed to fail. If a PR succeeds in getting a journalist interested in your story, then you need to be available at short notice and be ready to maximise the opportunity.

PR isn’t for you if you want instant overnight results and to be in the major newspapers, on TV, or the cover of a major magazine and become famous.

Many businesses look for shortcuts, instead of doing the work to find great stories and then learning how to tell them in an engaging way that resonates with journalists and their readers.

It is important to have reasonable expectations and not overlook the importance of having real news, an insightful opinion and interesting stories you can tell.

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