A recent study from 2014 by Nielsen commissioned by inPowered on the role of content in the consumer decision-making process concluded that PR is almost 90% more effective than advertising: “On average, expert content lifted familiarity 88 percent more than branded content…” but I think that’s low.  With advertising, you tell people how great you are.  With publicity, others sing your praises.  Which do you think is more effective?  Here’s a summary of the differences:

Steve Cody of Inc. magazine notes “Countless studies report that, next to word-of-mouth advice from friends and family, editorial commentary (usually generated by your friendly, behind-the-scenes PR practitioner) carries far more weight than advertising.”

“It’s not difficult to understand why,” Cody says. “Advertising continues to embrace an antiquated, top-down, inside-out way of communicating. It reflects senior management’s view on what a consumer or business-to-business buyer should think is important. PR, on the other hand, depends upon listening to the conversation and understanding the who, what, when, where, why and how of engaging in the discussion. Public relations executives excel in storytelling and, typically, present a perceived problem (i.e. childhood obesity) and their client’s unique solution (i.e. a new type of fitness equipment designed by, and for, pre-teens).”

Crosby Noricks, writing for the Independent Fashion Bloggers writes: “Implied third-party endorsement by an editor can carry more credibility among potential customers. For example, let’s imagine a young, professional woman flipping through Lucky Magazine.  A full-page advertisement from Diane von Furstenburg featuring a wine-colored wrap dress may have less impact on her than if a fashion editor lists the dress as her ‘fall must-have, noting the flattering shape. The idea here is that the editor is a fashionable, industry expert, and as such that editor weilds a greater influence on our young professional friend, flipping through the magazine for a dress she to her job interview next week.”table

The best analogy for public relations, Levine says, is gift wrapping, “If I went to visit a woman today and gave her a gift in a Tiffany box, it would have higher perceived value than if I just gave it to her plain.  Because she and you and I live in a culture where we gift wrap everything, our politicians, TV stars and even our toilet paper.

Almost every article you read or see in the media is “gift-wrapped” or originates from a public relations agency.  Think about it:  A new smart phone.  An attack from a Congressman criticizing the President.  The latest report on glaciers melting in Antarctica.   None of these stories appear out of nowhere and end up in front you of and millions of other consumers.  All of these stories were written, tested, practiced and formulated by publicists, staffers, speech writers or corporate experts before being sent to reporters who processed the information, rejected some assertions, accepted others, then decided to produce a news product.

Most reporters work at their desks.  With newspaper and magazine readership plummeting, and cable TV news viewers decreasing due to the Internet, there are a lot less journalists working today than 20 years ago.  So instead of “beating the bushes” by calling sources, visiting government agencies and factories and investigating stories the old-fashioned way, many journalists rely upon sources at tech companies, government agencies, industry spokesman or citizen groups to feed them information.  Reporters need to churn out stories quicker than ever, and many don’t have budgets or time to travel.

All sources have agendas, some good, some bad.  Look at the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Proponents claim it will add 30,000 permanent jobs, restore America’s energy independence, and construction poses no danger to the environment.  Opponents counter that once the pipeline is built, only 34 jobs will be created, most of the benefits go to the supplier, Canada, and the main customer, China, while construction over a critical aquifer could endanger the drinking water of millions of Americans.

Or check out the fawning coverage of every single Apple AAPL +0.63% product the past decade.  It is well-known inside the media that Steve Jobs personally called many important journalists and alternately charmed and bullied them.  The brand remains incredibly valuable today thanks to his PR efforts which continue to add value years after his death.

Public relations is like plutonium.  It can be used for good or evil, depending on your viewpoint.  Take Edward Bernays, a saucy fellow widely believed to be the father of PR. In his obituary, the New York Times reported “Mr. Bernays was one of the first people to expand what had been a narrow concept of press agentry, or working to influence government policy, into a far more ambitious — and controversial — realm of seeking to influence and change public opinion and behavior.”

The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays understood human nature and the psychology of motivation like few people on earth.  A few of his innovations he pioneered that are widely used today include:

  • Using experts and opinion leaders like doctors, scientists and celebrities to bolster the arguments of his clients and promote their products.
  • Creating publicity stunts like women marching in public for the “right” to smoke cigarettes, a ploy he created for the American Tobacco Company.  He called cigarettes “Torches of Freedom.”
  • Hiring focus groups to determine attitudes and prejudices.
  • Political propaganda as a tactic to promote commercial interests.

Another huge difference between the two methods is price.  A former client purchased one full-page ad in a popular weekly newsmagazine that cost him $125,000.  He expected a wave of phone calls, viral media and multiple conversations about the ad.  Instead, he got zero.  In contrast, getting quoted in the New York Times, Forbes and Reuters resulted in national speaking invitations, calls from new and existing clients, and solid credibility.Obviously, not everyone can afford $125,000, but advertising can be expensive when you figure the cost of the space or time plus the creative designs and production costs.  And most advertisements need to be repeated several times before the consumer can be influenced.

With the advent of social media, a great story in a magazine, TV or newspaper can last a long time with emails, posts, re-posts and tweets.  Of course, you can always post something clever about denture cream or the coolest new taco chips on your Facebook, but don’t expect a lot of “likes.”  Or influence.

This story was written by Robert Wynne and published on Forbes.