I’ve worked in the public relations field for more than 20 years. 

Despite helping clients in crisis, hosting more press conferences than I can count, and planning communications for the rollout of major statewide initiatives, I still meet people who refer to me as a “publicist.” I don’t take offense because few people outside the industry know the difference between publicity and public relations. 

The first thing to understand is major differences exist between the two. And the differences are as large as the gulf between people who like pineapple on their pizza and those who do not. 

Publicity versus PR: what’s the difference? 

If you are opening a new health care clinic, you likely want publicity. So, you organize a ribbon cutting, invite VIPs to the launch party, and try to secure media coverage. This work falls within the wheelhouse of a publicist. 

If that same clinic accidentally mixes up medications and inadvertently makes a patient seriously ill, making headlines, can the publicist help you? Maybe. But to be clear, you likely need a seasoned public relations professional to help guide you through this crisis. 

You can boil it down to this: publicity is meant to attract attention, while public relations is designed to forge and foster relationships and trust with specific stakeholders. PR takes the long view of what all parties involved with a company, organization or cause need in order to be successful. 

In PR, the real work never sees the light of day

Public relations involves strategies and tactics to achieve long-term goals. An industry that wants to build a facility in an area in which it’s never had a presence, needs to involve the local community. This is not achieved solely by blasting out the news in a press conference. To be sure, announcing the news in a press conference is appropriate, and a well-established tactic for earning media coverage. But failing to involve or work with the community before, during, and after the announcement is a mistake. 

Public relations: All about relationships 

A competent PR practitioner will ask, who needs to know this information? Whose support do we want to earn, and how is that best achieved? A publicist’s job is essentially finished once headlines are made, and photos published. A competent PR person often works behind the scenes, connecting clients with stakeholders and facilitating two-way communications that move an idea forward. 

Public relations professionals manage a client’s reputation while building relationships with those affected by the brand. Public relations also helps establish an image or reputation for a person, company, or organization, especially during times of crisis. 

Publicity is just one tool in the public relations toolbox

Publicity is important. The owner of an ice cream shop rightfully seeks out attention and interest in her products. To do that, she may hire a publicist to pitch the story to a local journalist, schedule her client on local radio shows, and hire a photographer to take professional photos of the new scoop shop. All of this is legitimate, but it’s just one tool PR practitioners use.

Other tools used by a public relations professional include crisis communications, copywriting, community relations, public affairs, influencer marketing, social media management, reputation management, and media training, among others. All are important. 

Make sure you get what you need

Claiming PR and publicity are one and the same is inaccurate. It’s akin to saying a phlebotomist and surgeon are the same because they both work in health care. But you wouldn’t let the former remove your spleen.