PR Vs. Advertising: Who Should Win the Social Media Tug of War?

By Cheryl Gale, Managing Partner and Co-Founder, March Communications

Cheryl Gale

Social media ownership has been a tug-of-war between advertising and PR since the words “web 2.0” popped into the lexicon in 2005. Even then, most PR professionals recognized how fundamentally social media would transform communications. Fast forward to 2011, with traditional ad revenues still decreasing and news outlets closing every day, both advertising and PR agencies are naturally positioning for a piece of the social media pie.

While I think there’s room for both marketing disciplines in the social media arena, PR will – and should – take the lead. Here’s why:

Social media has given customers a public platform to engage directly with companies. This is what public relations is in the truest, most literal, sense of the word. Social media sits on the very pillars that PR is built upon: an uncontrolled medium, conversations, and engagement. PR professionals are trained in the art of two-way conversation, unlike advertisers, who are accustomed to buying time and audiences. This approach doesn’t work in social media, there are too many competing forces and you’re rarely guaranteed an audience.

Even before social media, communicating with stakeholders – whether that is journalists, customers, or distractors – has been at the heart of what PR professionals do. Now social media adds more channels and avenues for these conversations. Because PR professionals are trained in crafting a message for a particular audience, they can handle communicating with the multiple stakeholders that emerge on a platform like Twitter. For instance, if a journalist tweets about an issue relevant to our client, we can jump in and make an informal pitch for our client in 140 characters or less.

According to a recent Business Insider article, a vast majority of emails that reporters receive end up in Outlook’s ‘Deleted Items,’ largely because journalists have inboxes teeming with pitches, some relevant and others not so much. This is where savvy PR professionals can help their message stand out by showing they understand their pitch (they have to in only 140 characters) and that they are selectively targeting a relevant journalist (using Twitter and not an email blast).

With only 140 characters to use, the pitch has to be precise and to the point. Smart PR folks constantly monitor Twitter for both proactive and reactive opportunities to get their clients’ message into the game. A professional trained in advertising typically isn’t in the mindset to do this.

So how do advertising professionals fit in with the evolving state of the media? Ad shops know their realm is in developing visual content and branding stunts. Do they see potential with social media outlets like Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter?

According to a blog post by PR executive, Josh Morgan, ad agencies treat social media differently than PR agencies, evident through AMC’s hit TV series, Mad Men. In this post, Morgan references Episode 401 entitled “Public Relations” where two characters have a heated discussion about a PR stunt. “Ad agencies then, and largely now, make their money off of ad buys.  They don’t make very much money off of account service or tactics.  This is a problem I’ve run into with several ad agencies when they work in social media,” said Morgan.

It wouldn’t be wise for an advertising agency to go strictly “social” with a client campaign because they wouldn’t be as profitable without the revenue-generating media buys, such as print ads, commercials and billboards. Intelligent advertisers must strike a balance between traditional and social media, using Facebook ads to compliment full-page print spreads.

As more marketing agencies across all disciplines embrace the social and digital world, how all agencies are structured will probably change. According to a recent Media Bistro article, titles like VP are slowly fading out, being replaced with titles like community manager and social media specialist. Job functions will remain the same, for the most part, but will start to encompass more strategic social media tactics.

But as long as the strongest tenant of social media remains conversational and community building, PR professionals are positioned to take the lead, with advertising also playing a role for building web properties or SEO.

That being said, both industries are slowly taking on each other’s expertise, meshing and blurring the lines. This is a good for clients because it means marketing professionals are not thinking inside of a silo, but instead building expertise and knowledge on how to apply a marketing campaign across all disciplines. And ultimately, that’s what all marketing professionals – in PR or advertising – should be doing in a world with social media.




  1. Richard Cole on July 11, 2011 at 9:05 am

    This is a wonderful article — worth sharing with students, young practitioners, agency heads and clients struggling to reconcile where social media fits on a spectrum that has persuasion (marketing) on one side and dialogue (public relationship building) on the other. I tend to share Ms. Gale’s obvious bias that the greatest power of social media resides in its inherent ability to start and continue the conversation between organizations and the audiences upon which the organization’s survival depends — fitting a classic description of public relations. My only objection to the article is Ms. Gales’s closing observations that PR and advertising ‘professionals’ should be stepping outside traditional silos — and “ultimately, that’s what all marketing professionals — in PR or advertising — should be doing in a world with social media. It seems to me that to the degree one considers a PR practitioner as a “marketing professional” Ms. Gale may be walking back into the same silo as those who feel there is some benefit in fanning a social media fire between the marketing practice of advertising and the management function of PR.

  2. Samra Bufkins, MJ, APR on July 11, 2011 at 11:06 am

    I believe it is a mistake to assume all public relations is related to marketing and branding. The practices of issues management, public affairs, community relations, crisis communications and internal corporate communications, as well as investor relations all have little to do with marketing and branding. Nevertheless, social media applications can be integral to success in these types of public relations programs, but should not be limited to “marketing” tactics.

  3. Rob Doughty on July 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    This is such a silly debate to me. Just as both PR and advertising play in other mediums such as television, radio, print, etc., both can play in the social media space. Each just needs to find its role and then live happily ever after.

  4. Telmar on July 12, 2011 at 8:46 am

    We loved your blog post! One thing for real is that SMM is here, and will stay here. How you use it right now will determine what position you will be a year from now in comparison with your competitors. Successful advertising media planning can be more fruitful, but also more challenging for everyone involved as roles are defined to answer the current pertinent question – “Who is doing your social media?” Some PR firms are handling it, but others realize a diligent effort is much more than just some nice tweets everyday along with a Facebook post – and that it is best to work in coordination with a SMM expert – a professional who specializes in that endeavor and lives and breathes the vast internet territory daily.

  5. […] or advertising — should be doing in a world with social media.Article originally appeared on Advertising, PR, social media blog Spread the word…Leave a Reply Click here to cancel […]

  6. Jason Winocour on July 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Very well written piece, Cheryl. I agree that PR should lead the way in social media marketing for three reasons — all of which closely align with your article:

    1. PR practitioners are trained in the principles of dialogue, rather than monologue
    2. Social media is media, which means content is king
    3. PR is all about the soft sell, and so is social media

    Check out

    Jason Winocour
    Social and Digital Media Practice Leader
    Hunter Public Relations

  7. Jeff Bradford on July 15, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Excellent question. I’d say the answer is undoubtedly PR since social media is all about convincing someone to pass on your message versus paying them to do it.

  8. Danielle on January 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Nice article. I think it defintely depends on the business, too. Depending on your social media goals, you need expertise from the marketing team, sales team, IT, customer service, and of course PR. If you’ve got one person or dept handling it, they have to have a well-rounded knowledge of the business/industry. It’s a good idea to build a ‘social media team’ from all these depts, even if all their doing is advising.

    Danielle @ Atomicdust