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Unlike Advertising, PR is about Trust

by Frank Strong

Unlike Advertising PR is about Trust

Eric Clemons has set off a firestorm of controversy with his TechCrunch post, “Why Advertising is Failing on the Internet.” In summary, Clemons argues, “The problem is not the medium, the problem is the message, and the fact that it is not trusted, not wanted, and not needed.”

Clemons is not the first to propose this idea, as several respected marketers have written similarly for some time now. Most notable is perhaps Al Ries, a particular favorite of mine, who published a book in 2002 called “The Fall of Advertising and Rise of PR.”

Central to all of these arguments is the concept that advertising is not a reliable source for information on which to make informed purchasing decision. Advertising statements are not vetted closely, and is one of the key reasons why good journalistic practices go to lengths to clearly distinguish between media content and advertising.

In response to those to disagree, Clemons redirects critics to four underlying constructs, which are central to the theme of credibility. He writes:

  • People don’t trust ads. There is a vast literature to support this. Is it all wrong?
  • People don’t want ads. Again, there is a vast literature to support this. Think about your own behavior, you own channel surfing and fast forwarding and the timing of when you leave the TV to get a snack. Is it during the content or the commercials?
  • People don’t need ads.  There is a vast amount of trusted content on the net. Again, there is literature on this. But think about how you form your opinion of a product, from online ads or online reviews?
  • There is no shortage of places to put ads.  Nearly everyone is willing to put a little space up for sale.

By contrast, public relations, specifically media relations, aims to be part of a news story and therefore is inherently credible. PR is about trust. PR provides commentary, a contrarian view, or evidence of best practices, often with the validation of a customer’s case study. PR succeeds on the Internet for the near exactly opposite reasons Clemons says advertising fails:

  • People want news content. News is by definition what’s new. It’s a question we casually ask every day in greeting (perhaps Twitter should take note). By news content, I mean any source of credible information be it from hard news, opinions, a blog, or even the water cooler. I have previously argued this is true for blogs, so long as their authors decline payment for their posts.
  • People need news content. It’s their source of information that helps form their views of people, products and ideas. True people may tend to gravitate towards sources that more closely align with their world view (think Keith Olbermann versus Bill O’Reilly), but political partiality aside, the information presented has, to some degree, been vetted.
  • People trust news content. After personal recommendations, news content is still the leading source of information for consumers.
  • There is a shortage of opportunities. The number of news stories any media outlet can produce is finite and inherently, more often than not, only the more credible or interesting sources will make ink.

Got a different take? I’d very much like to hear it here!

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