An important distinction
If you’re a student pursuing a degree in either public relations or journalism, then you might have encountered a very important question during your studies: ‘What is the difference between public relations and journalism?’
At first, it might seem like the differences are clear, and when it comes to many examples of either line of work, this is true.
But with the rise of recent marketing techniques that involve publishing advertising that appears as standard journalism, the line between these two disciplines has become more than a little blurry.
In this article, we will first look at important, distinguishing elements of both public relations materials and standard journalism. Then we will talk about the amorphous space of advertorial and native advertising.
Even if you don’t work in either of these fields, understanding these distinctions is incredibly important if you want to be able to identify PR, journalism, and anything that includes a bit of both.
Hallmarks of public relations materials
In most situations, anything that’s pure PR comes directly from the company or individual in question, or even the public relations agency in charge of their public image.
For example, a press release from a company about a recent mishap would definitely be considered a form of PR.
If, for example, a news outlet then decided to print that press release in its entirety, the text of the press release would itself still be PR while any commentary or information surrounding the press release would be journalism.
If you understand the underlying purpose of PR, then it will be much easier for you to identify PR materials when you encounter them.
The ultimate goal of PR is to influence the public’s perception of a company or individual by providing information that supports the specific image they want to achieve.
This DOES NOT mean that PR should ever be misleading or include false information. These tactics would harm the public’s trust of the PR client and lead to even worse problems in the long-term.
Commercials, radio ads, and ad copy should also be considered PR materials since they’re coming directly from a PR team and don’t involve the work of journalists.
But, if a PR client (most often a public figure or a representative of a company) is a guest commentator on a news show, then they are contributing to journalism.
Hallmarks of journalism
Moving on to the distinguishing features of pure journalism, the large majority of content on news websites and news television programs is journalism. But of course, when reporting focuses on current events, it’s very easy to identify it as journalism.
The situation gets more complicated when a news outlet publishes content on a public figure or a company and its operations.
Let’s say a large company is opening a new branch in a small town, building an impressive complex that will soon be filled with hundreds of employees.
If a journalist reported on this event, it may not include any critique, just information about what’s happening. In this way, a piece of journalism might feel like PR only because the content of the article would be quite similar to an official statement from the company on the subject.
Journalism doesn’t need to be negative or critical to be real journalism. This is very important to remember.
In the end, when you’re trying to determine whether a specific piece of content is journalism or PR, you should ask yourself these questions:
-Where is this information coming from?
-What is the intended purpose of sharing this information?
If what you’re reading is indeed journalism, then it’s coming from a reputable news source and the purpose of the content is to inform the public and nothing more.
If what you’re reading is PR, then it’s coming directly from a company or PR agency and the purpose is to create a certain impression of that company.
The new in-between: advertorial
We’d like to end this discussion with a slightly in-depth look at a new in-between space that uses elements of journalism and quite a few elements of PR.
Advertorial, which has also been called native advertising and branded content, is content that is in fact PR, but it’s designed to look and feel like standard journalism or other common online content.
Advertorial has been a hot button topic for news outlets and the general public for several years now, thanks in part to the fact that it’s still a relatively new technique.
For a quick and easy example of advertorial in practice, try to think of a recent time that you’ve flipped through a magazine.
Most surviving magazines today have had to incorporate advertorial in some form to help cover operating costs.
The most common type of advertorial you’ll see in a magazine is something that looks like a regular article, usually 2-4 pages long.
The subject matter will only be loosely related to the magazine’s focus, and at the top or bottom of every page of this “article” you’ll see in very tiny typeset something along the lines of “paid advertisement.”
The most savvy, and likely successful, iterations of advertorial do in fact include some real information about the subject matter, helping it even further to look just like a normal article.
On the internet, advertorial and branded content can take many different forms.
On YouTube, branded content is very common, especially on music-related and beauty channels.
Outright paid sponsorships are one thing. They usually constitute their own section of a video, and the host or content creator will introduce the section as a paid promotion.
But branded content typically involves creating content that looks completely normal and just happens to feature a brand new product. In just about every case, the content creator will have very few criticisms or none at all about this product.
A personal endorsement of a product from a content creator can take advantage of the parasocial relationship that creator has with their fans, making it immediately more effective than traditional advertising efforts.
Whether branded content and advertorial is ethical or not is completely up to you, but with these tips, you’ll be able to tell exactly what it is you’re reading or watching.