Ask Alex @ Orndee: Publicity vs Public Relations

Jade send, “My agent suggests that I find a publicist and a pr firm. Aren’t those all the same things? Doesn’t the pr firm get me publicity?”

Alexandrea Merrell Publicity

That’s a great question Jade. Lots of people use the term PR (public relations) interchangeably with publicity, but the two are actually quite different.

Publicity is Attention

Publicity is essentially media attention that affects your reputation and the public’s view of you as a person, brand, or business. That means that publicity can be positive or negative and the reputation of a brand can change in an instant.


Think of Anthony Wiener, the now disgraced politician from New York. Once considered a popular contender for higher offices, when the media picked up a story that he had sent inappropriate, sexually explicit, text photos of himself to women and girls, he quickly became a laughing stock, the focus of comedians, and political opponents. Headlines around the country rang out “Wiener’s Wiener Derails His Career.”


That is publicity. Negative publicity, but publicity all the same.


How a business, brand, or personality handles that publicity is in part, public relations.

In the case of Anthony Wiener, the publicity was not handled well. He continued to go to the press directly (mistake), lie to them, (bigger mistake) and eventually had to resign in disgrace after the FBI got involved and he was forced to admit that he had sent the texts. Over the course of a few days, a decades long career was ended.


Perhaps had Wiener utilized the services of a public relations firm (I have to assume on the basis of so many incredible PR blunders that he did not) he might have better weathered the storm. Of course, not committing the crimes would have been better still.


While a lot of the publicity that makes the headlines is bad (sex scandals, business failures, bad behavior), publicity can also be great for the brand’s reputation.


When a starlet wears an unknown designer’s dress on the red carpet and the fashionistas deem it a hit, that designer can be “made” over night. People around the world see the dress and the reviews and they want to wear the dress, stock the dress in their shops, etc. So someone who might otherwise never be a success, thanks to positive publicity, becomes a hit.


A great PR firm can also turn indirect publicity into success. A small local boutique that gets the rights to exclusively carry the starlet’s red carpet dress can use the designer’s positive publicity to their advantage. By letting the local media know that their shop is the only place in town to exclusively carry THE red carpet dress, the boutique generates their own positive publicity. The same can be done by the makeup artist, stylist, and anyone else associated, even peripherally to “the” dress and it’s positive publicity.


Turning that publicity into success, managing, channeling, and if possible controlling that publicity and using it to increase a brand’s positive reputation and sphere of influence is the job of a public relations specialist or firm.

This takes a great deal of creativity, understanding of the market place, and strategic thinking. But, managing publicity is only one aspect of public relations. Someone in PR essentially is tasked with managing the public’s perception and relationship with a person, business or brand. It can involve crafting that initial introduction, monitoring the changing tastes and desires of the public in order to position the client favorably, guiding a client through a crisis.


When singer George Michael was arrested after being propositioned for sex in a public bathroom by an undercover cop, his reputation and career could have been destroyed as news outlets around the globe headlined the incident. Instead, he quickly shot a music video parodying the situation, volunteered at an AIDS crisis charity, and went on talk shows to both “come out” publicly but also to talk about how one sided the attitude towards the situation. I am paraphrasing, but he essentially said that men’s mags are filled with fantasy scenarios where some random hot woman corners a man and offers commitment free sex and that that in a nutshell was what happened to him. The only difference being that it was a seemingly random hot guy, who turned out to be an undercover cop.


Had he responded in anger or denial or snuck away from the press, they would have destroyed him. But because of a talented PR firm and his own savvy, the incident propelled him into one of the most successful periods of his career, a huge hit song, and garnered tons of positive press.


Part of effective public relations, is identifying the right “public.”

The “Public” isn’t one body that encompasses everyone. In fact, there are almost unlimited publics. The public is essentially the audience (or many different types of audience) to with whom a particular personality, business, or brand wants to connect.


So if you are a rap artist, your public isn’t everyone in the world. Your public will be people who already enjoy rap. Your public might also be potential cross-over listeners. Your public will be industry people. Your public will be the media focused on music, pop culture, etc.


If you are running for office in Albany, your public would be your potential constituents, voters in your area, members of your political party, media, etc.


An author’s public would be people that enjoy the genre in which they write, plus any cross-over readers, book wholesalers, book retailers, reviewers, media, potential licensors (producers who might want to turn the book into a tv show or film), etc.


The point is, while people tend to think of “the public” as a group that includes everyone, the public for a rapper may be very different then the public for a country music singer, or a crooner. The public for a democrat in Albany running for a city office will be different than the public of a Republican running for President. The public for a “how-to-garden” author will be different then the public for a contemporary, romance author.


People involved in public relations figure out who their client’s publics are and craft ways to promote and manage the relationship between the client and that audience. The methods of promoting and managing that relationship will depend on the needs and desires of that particular public.


Many public relations firms either include or work with publicists. A publicist is a person who writes publicity pieces

Alexandrea Merrell