Public Relations Executives Vs. Publicists: What's the Difference?

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If you watch one episode of the Amazon Prime series Flack, you might think PR is a cut-throat, unforgiving business full of compromised publicists. While great for entertainment value, it blurs the line between PR and publicists. There’s an entire realm of positive PR practices that can take a company or individual from grassroots to serious player, and if you’re looking to leverage this power, it’s important to understand the difference between how a PR team operates versus publicists.

It’s not like one is good or bad. Most people approach PR professionals and publicists with various expectations. Sometimes a client has the wrong expectations because they didn’t know what they need.

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Exposure Vs. Strategy

Some executives come to the table saying, “Just get me media. I want hits.” The other camp says, “I need a strategy to get consistent exposure.” Understanding the difference is vital.

Most publicists get media hits based on relationships: picking up the phone, calling a friend or contact and, boom, a hit. It’s a scrappy, quick-fix approach. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t encapsulate everything that all-encompassing PR strategy provides. You’ll usually find publicists orbiting celebrities. A publicist may be better suited for a musician or an up-and-coming actor. Typically, these folks have a limited budget and hiring a well-connected publicist is more affordable.

In contrast, a PR team looks at the long-term vision for your business, so they don’t usually represent individuals unless they have a book, creative project or business attached to them. They develop storylines and craft press releases that hit hard on key messaging. However, these strategists still need to be able to garner hits. They will still contact the media and get you coverage. Their goal should be to develop long-term relationships between you and the media outlets for ongoing coverage for years to come.

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Think Like a PR Executive, Close Like a Publicist

Being in PR for 21-plus years, I strongly believe the winning execution here is to close like a publicist but think like a strategic PR executive. In essence, a hybrid approach can be enormously beneficial.

A PR team develops a strategic timeline, focused messaging and an actionable plan for a company. They apply for awards, find speaking opportunities and think ahead on the company’s larger initiatives to map out a long-term vision. This is why you typically don’t take a consumer product to market with just a publicist. You’ll bank a couple hits, but the public will know you’re trying to sell a product. You need to develop a marketing plan that builds credibility in your name and trust in your brand. However, it may be that PR professionals operate as publicists for individual CEOs of these companies, which is why I’m emphasizing a hybrid-model approach.

However, if you’re a celebrity or someone who wants to be known as an expert and want some quick hits, getting a solid, well-connected publicist may be just what you need — especially if you can’t commit to a retainer.

But how would a hybrid approach work with a personality connected with a business?

To illustrate what a hybrid approach might look like, here’s an example. My firm recently worked with an entertainment lawyer who traditionally might have gone to a publicist, but what she wanted was a team to look at her brand and outline what she needed for true visibility. We updated her website, revamped her social media and developed her messaging. This led to an increase in interviews, podcast appearances and contributed articles — all of which allowed us to secure TV slots to speak on current issues.

What I meant to say is that it’s vital to look at the brand as a whole in order to solidify its standing. A hybrid approach to public outreach applies the very best of both worlds.

Alignment and Synergy

A PR executive aligns messaging from jump street. When taking on a new client, PR teams usually talk to them about who they are, what they bring to the table, what makes them great and different, and so on. The importance of this is for narrative building. Clients are bound to make mistakes, but having the right strategist in your corner can be the difference between becoming a public ally or becoming public enemy No. 1.

Having a solid PR strategy can also increase the chance of going viral, because everything starts with having your social media in order. To ignite your announcement, a smart company knows how to couple its PR efforts with a digital campaign. If you’re a startup bringing a new product to market, you must ensure that the PR, digital marketing and advertising teams are all in sync. I learned the importance of this during my time in Silicon Valley, working with some of the most innovative companies. I learned you couldn’t be at a startup without thinking ahead strategically. How do you cut through the noise and make something as boring as email infrastructure sound exciting and sexy? The PR strategist thrives when it comes to this kind of storytelling.

That’s the power of PR: storytelling, human understanding and real relationships. It’s not that publicists are antithetical to PR — they’re an essential piece to what a fully strategized PR plan can do for you.

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