As a reader of PM360, you’re familiar with marketing and, chances are, you know an ad when you see one. Similarly, you can identify a brochure or a sales aid from across a room.

Public relations, however, is a different animal. Although it’s part of the marketing mix— the fifth “P” for those in the know (behind product, place, price, and promotion)—public relations is often the elephant in the room. Marketers, unless they have been trained in this discipline, are like the three blind men asked to touch the elephant and say what it is. “The trunk of a tree,” says the first blind man, feeling the elephant’s leg. “A snake,” says the second, touching the trunk. “No,” says the third, most decisively. Holding the elephant’s tail, he announces that it’s a vine.

Like the elephant, public relations can appear to be many things, some so unlikely that those on the receiving end—marketing professionals, healthcare providers, policy makers, regulators, hospital or insurance administrators, consumers, patients or caregivers—often have no idea of its original source. That’s because PR, by definition, is concerned with relationships, not promotion. While advertising generates brand recognition, PR focuses on issues, trends, and new approaches to treatment or complications of disease. If advertising is designed to promote action—motivate people to prescribe or consume—then PR is best at setting the stage. Used effectively, PR can alter perceptions, influence reputations and help to create a receptive environment.

PR can assume many forms. The most common is media relations, where skilled PR professionals—many of them former journalists—serve as a link between clients and the media, developing newsworthy material that will be of interest to the industry or its publics. Techniques include the placement of op-eds and bylined articles, news releases, radio or television interviews, blog posts, case studies, and features on medical conditions. Other, less-obvious, forms of PR include industry roundtables, speeches at conferences, advocacy or government relations. In all of these areas, credibility is key.


Marketers often lump PR and advertising together, thinking they are the same. In fact, the two disciplines could not be more different. Advertisers pay for the placement of their ads. Not only do they pay the copywriters and artists who produce the ad but also, more significantly, they buy the media space. Because of that buy, advertisers own the space. They control everything about it, from when and where the ad will appear to what exactly it will say. Apart from legal or regulatory issues, there are no restrictions on the extent of “hard sell” or blatant promotion.

PR, on the other hand, offers no control. Since there is no purchase involved, the fate of publicity material rests entirely with the media. A PR executive can produce a good story, but it’s the media who will decide when, where, whether, and how it will run. Similarly, a PR professional can set up an interview or send written answers to a reporter’s questions, but has no guarantee that any of it will be used. Reporters can select whatever they want, omitting any comments that are too promotional or that don’t reinforce an article’s theme or provide anything new to the story.

This lack of control makes some marketers dubious about PR. Yet the benefits are real. An article written by a reporter—whether for the traditional media or a blog—carries the “third person editorial endorsement of the press.” That means the message comes from a reporter, not the advertiser, and is assumed to be accurate. The reporter serves as a filter, straining out any hint of a sales pitch.

An article about your company’s marketing insights or strategy may not spell out your corporate or product benefits the way an ad does, but it will carry more weight than a paid announcement. The reader or viewer will approach the material with credibility and a sense of trust. For example, when a regional healthcare agency wanted to expand its reputation nationally, it turned to PR and the power of the press. In an interview published in a leading trade journal, the co-founder of the agency discussed the marketing of medical devices. A manufacturer who read the article contacted the agency, requesting a presentation. Successful completion of a trial assignment resulted in the agency—no longer pigeonholed as “regional”—being named AOR for the launch of a stent.

A different scenario unfolded when a small agency posted a series of comments on a blog read by pharmaceutical executives in the U.S. and U.K. As a result of its online credibility, the head of the agency was invited to speak at the annual Economist Conferences’ Pharma Summit. Demonstrating the ripple effect of PR, the blog posts generated exposure to an international audience representing the giants of the industry.


Credibility is just one of many benefits of PR. It also offers more flexibility because there is no production involved. Messages can be tweaked and delivered within moments of an event. Two-way communication is an- other major advantage of PR. Digital media allows manufacturers to zero in on a particular audience, uncover their perceptions of its name and products, and then respond with messages tailored to these perceptions. Finally, social media—as demonstrated in many recent events worldwide—can be used to mobilize public opinion and build support for policy change.

However, there are—as noted above—no guarantees. A boring or promotional first paragraph, filled with corporate jargon, will instantly turn off editors and stop them from reading on. Other factors, such as what else is going on in the world, can also influence results. An ad, on the other hand, is immune to these fluctuations.

Another drawback is the inability to provide the frequency that a marketing campaign needs. A good PR story can be told only once; a good ad, on the other hand, can run as often as the budget permits. Smart marketers will balance the strengths and weaknesses of these techniques and integrate them into a single, seamless campaign, building both approaches into the budget.


Although PR is the “elephant in the room”— assuming various forms to fill a marketing need—it is not the same thing as advertising. But good PR can add a significant dimension to the marketing effort. It can reinforce the advertising, adding examples and quotes that buttress the marketing strategy. By reinforcing key messages, PR can help your various publics—the readers, listeners or viewers whose support you need—relate to your argument. It can position your senior staff as thought leaders in your field. And it can enhance your company’s reputation and your brand as a repository of trust.

SIDEBAR: Making Good PR Sense

Here are some tips on what makes good PR, and how to start doing it right:
Find the news: Few executives see their companies objectively. Many think that anything they do is newsworthy. A good PR pro will search for the real news about your company or brand, crafting it so it gets editors’ attention.
Select the right media or venue: PR experts are familiar with the kind of articles each media outlet runs and various editors’ requirements. They also understand the differences between reporting and opinion.

Develop a strategy: Positioning is just as important in PR as it is in advertising, but there are subtle differences. PR always begins with a public, not a product.
Training: You may need to be coached for media interviews so you can speak knowledgeably, avoid jargon and demonstrate awareness of trends. PR specialists can help prepare you to speak effectively, so your key messages make their way into the media—and don’t end on the cutting room floor.
Plan to put in time and effort: Good PR doesn’t happen overnight, and PR experts aren’t magicians. You will need to put in some time giving your PR pros the information they need— and providing feed- back quickly. Once they pitch a story or interview to the editor, you must be prepared to respond to reporters’ questions. That means being available on very short notice, even if you are out of town.

DISCLAIMER: The Guest Commentary page allows contributors to voice their opinions on important issues that affect the industry. The views of the authors are their own and are not necessarily those of PM360 and its staff.


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