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May 5, 2010
Social Media: The Link Between Advertising and Public Relations

In 1996, I was at a crossroads in my early career. I had been working as an editor with a small, family run, semi-weekly newspaper in Auburn, Ala., and given the structure of the paper, I had hit the glass ceiling. As such, my editor-in-chief encouraged me to pursue other career aspirations. I did and looked to relocate to my hometown in Atlanta to “do public relations.”

I have to be honest: I’m not sure I knew what public relations was. The age-old mantra was that you had to be a “people person” and you had to know the intricacies of how the media worked. I wasn’t totally convinced about the people-person part, but I definitely knew how journalists thought, plus I had another much more desired skill set: I could write.

I remember my journalism professors adoringly (at least I hope it was adoringly) telling me I was going to “the other side.” Some were harsher and called me a traitor, but I certainly wasn’t the first journalist to make this move.

I landed a job with Pringle Dixon Pringle, a boutique advertising/public relations firm in Atlanta and worked with Xerox during the 1996 Olympic Games. While I will save my experience during the Games (not to mention the time I dressed like one of the Crash Test Dummies for AAA South) for another column, what was even more interesting was the division between advertising and public relations. Black and white. Night and day. Church and state. Even at the agency, the physical layout of the office celebrated that distinction: The advertising department was on the left side of the office; the public relations department was on the right.

Clearly a line of demarcation existed between the two disciplines, one that was sacred, defined, and clearly understood. It was as black and white as black and white could be.

Today, I find myself questioning that line and whether the two disciplines remain as separate as they always were. Back in my days at Pringle Dixon Pringle, I dealt with clients that saw public relations as the “free” alternative. At the agency, we spent hours developing media lists, combing over editorial calendars, writing press releases (and mailing them -- this was before e-mail), and we considered editorial relationships the most valuable part of the job. About the only time you saw public relations step its toe over that clearly defined line was when you had to calculate the value of a print article (back then, it was an equation that involved column inches, ad space, and black and white versus color publications).

The theory was that public relations was more “credible” than advertising as with public relations, you weren’t paying for space, but really had to go the effort to convince an editor/journalist to write/profile/feature your product or service. In theory, it was a sell but a more difficult one.

Times have certainly changed.

With the advent of social media and the blossoming of digital public relations, the line between advertising and public relations is not as clear as it once was. If you’re someone who doesn’t handle chaos very well, the marketing environment today -- with its barrage of new methods of connections and trends that seem to become obsolete overnight -- is a scary place.

In preparation for this article, I actually consulted Dictionary.com for the exact definitions of the words “advertise” and “public relations.” Dictionary.com defines “advertise” as: “to announce or praise (a product, service, etc.) in some public medium of communication in order to induce people to buy or use it.” It defines the word “public relations” as “the art or science of establishing and promoting a favorable relationship with the public.”

Could it be that public relations and advertising are not so different after all? Think about a brand’s Facebook page. Could it be that Facebook really taught us that? Think about it. Brands create an advertising page to acquire fans, to communicate with those fans, and to eventually “induce people to buy or use” their services. In the same respect, brands are using Facebook pages to “establish and promote favorable relationships” with those same fans.

Perhaps what we’re seeing now -- particularly with the advent and evolution of social media -- is that advertising and public relations (once deemed complete separate by agencies, journalists, and marketers) are now building blocks that work hand in hand. While both are changing (years ago, the chances of a company representative writing a bylined column were slim-to-none), both disciplines are critical components of a brand’s survival.

I don’t know about you, but it’s exciting to see the merger of disciplines (and the introduction of some new ones like social, mobile, gaming, etc.) so previously divided. What was once a black-and-white world has become gray, with no one knowing where the wormhole will go.

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Nancy Bistritz is the Director of Marketing/Communications for Montreal-based interactive agency Nurun, She works closely with teams in Nurun’s U.S. offices on public relations outreach, and marketing and business development strategies. She is also an integral part of Nurun’s worldwide communications team.

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