Gini Dietrich

Publicity Is Not PR. PR Is Not Publicity.

By: Gini Dietrich | September 13, 2010 | 

If you don’t know Sasha Muradali, go on over to her blog, Little Pink Book PR. That is where this post first was published and it came to life because we are both huge Mad Men fans. If you already read it there, by all means, ignore me today.

If you didn’t read it on Sasha’s blog, welcome to my obsession of Mad Men. I love the storyline, the characters, the old days of advertising, the three martini lunches, and the clothes…oh the clothes!

While, I love the series, the first episode of this season really rubbed me the wrong way.

{Spoiler alert: If you’re not yet watching season four, stop reading now!}

If you are, however, caught up and saw the first show of this season, you’ll remember Pete fretting to Peggy about losing the Sugarberry Ham account.

Peggy suggests they hire actresses to fight over a ham in the grocery store, in order to create a sense of urgency to buy one.

Pete, liking the idea of generating news coverage from the “event,” dismally proclaims that publicity stunts aren’t billable.

However, he reluctantly agrees to go ahead with the stunt only to be pleasantly surprised when Sugarberry Ham sales are up…though not even the client knows the reason.

… And so was born public relations – in which clients begin to pay for publicity stunts.

Publicity is not PR.

PR is not publicity.

I remember when “Wag the Dog” came out.

I was only a year or so into my career and not even I could explain what I did.

But that movie helped so many people “understand” what we do. A friend said,

“OH! So that’s what you do.”

Umm, no.

Shows such as Sex & the CityPoweR Girls, and SPINdustry (as Sasha blogged about here) do nothing more than sensationalize what we do for a living…and in a fairly harmful and untruthful way.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never created a fake fight over a ham, a fake war to distract from indiscretions, created hype over a celebrity who was coming to an opening only to “back out” at the last minute, or allowed a client to spin the truth, just to make headlines.

I’m so much against this idea of our profession, in fact, that this blog is named Spin Sucks for that very reason.

The idea that no PR is bad PR is ridiculous, as evidenced by the most recent news with BPTiger WoodsLeBron James…need I go on?

There is such a thing as bad PR.

There is such a thing as spin.

There is a difference between nightclub openings, the paparazzi, and pairing celebrities with brands. This is publicity.

And it’s not what most of us in the public relations profession do for a living.

The problem is so much of what we do is invisible to the ‘outside’ (and even those within close proximity.)

People can confuse public relations with its end product.

While, I am positive a lot is wrong with the way Mad Men portrays the advertising agencies, let’s get real here.

Public relations and publicity are not synonymous. However, many PR campaigns include means for publicity.

Publicity spreads information to gain public awareness, typically via an advertising campaign (or stunt), for a product, person, service, cause or organization.

It is the child of effective public relations planning. Not the other way around.

‘Spin,’ on the other hand, that’s propaganda:-

“The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.”

– (Edward L. Bernays, “The Engineering of Consent”, 1947)

Public relations is about two-way communication and engagement. It is a social science that manages communication between an organization and its publics, not to mention that it provides an organization, or individual, exposure to their target audiences.

Encompassing social media, it bridges the gap between advertising, marketing and journalism.

Public relations was created by Edward Bernays, not by a bunch of girls in mini-skirts and too-tight shirts, not by celebrity-seeing junkies, not by a girl who is famous for a sex tape, and certainly not by an advertising agency in the 1960s.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • Thank you for writing this – it amazes me how often this misconception is repeated and persists. There comes a moment, in a new business conversation when a client prospect may talk about how they hope we’ll get some publicity for them. How they want us to “make it go viral.” That’s the moment in which we decide whether this client can learn what it is we do, or whether there’s someone else they need to hire; that’s just not what we do.

  • Agreed.

    One of my favorite definitions of PR is “Truth well told.”

  • Gini:

    I like the Mad Men parallel to your story. I never subscribed to the any PR is good PR school of thought. Publicity for publicity sake does not a strategy make. A well thought out and PR plan has measurable goals.


  • Gini thanks for posting this. I’ve spoken or written this same message so many, many times but it can’t be said enough. Perhaps one of the greatest hurdles for our industry is that we, collectively, are yet to offer a simple and clear definition.

    Another Bernays quotation: Public Relations is a management function which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interest of an organization followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.

    Accurate, yes. But…huh? One has to think too hard to gain “understanding and acceptance” of this message. It also conveys what I call old school PR thinking -defines the policies, procedures and interest of an organization – rather than the more modern approach to define the interests of an organization’s audience, thereby being relevant, impactful and engaging.

    We, as an industry, need to simplify, to be as accurate and CLEAR as we coach our clients to be.

    I admit that I have turned to defining by tactics (I write, I develop messages, etc.) because people who don’t think like PR folk just don’t seem to otherwise get it.

  • Marijean – My favorite is “make this go viral,” too! It’s a great education we have to provide…you can’t “make” anything go viral.

    John – LOVE that! I’m totally quoting you in something else. Fun to see you here, too. 🙂

    Rob – EXACTLY! It makes me crazy when someone says, “Well, there’s no such thing as bad PR, right?” WRONG!

    • Glad you like it. 🙂 Quote away! As far as II know, it’s original.

  • Great post.

    I get this a lot when I tell people I work in public relations: “Oh, you mean advertising, right?”


  • I tend to take the far too long view. So forgive me if this gets a bit esoteric.

    Media is about delivering us entertainment and news. The news part was cleverly divided up by the pioneers of modern newspapers (some 150 years ago!) into content that readers really want to know (news) and content that businesses will pay to deliver (advertising). One pays the bills, the other gets the eyeballs that make the bill payers excited.

    This separation is a fiction created by the nature of the media that first defined it into a business model. Different kinds of media will naturally treat the separation differently. Sometimes, there is no separation at all as people rip apart the Sunday newspaper to go straight for the big packet o’ glossy ads.

    The ancient model that made Hearst and Pulitzer rich has broken down after an amazingly long run. How and why is an interesting topic – but it’s best to start with what advertising really is outside of the model that separated it. It really is a kind of news, and that’s all.

  • Great stuff. Publicity is PR, but PR isn’t necessary publicity. I have the same thing in my industry. Social media is Word-of-Mouth, but Word-of-Mouth isn’t always social media.

  • I have always loved the quote, “PR is the truth well told.” I used it often as a defense when execs would say, “see how you can spin this.” I can’t tell you how much this post resonated with me. I spent 20 years in PR, with much energy spent on selling the strategic importance of folding it into an overall marketing and communication plan. (Yikes, it’s making my blood pressure rise thinking of some of those meetings.) My favorite moment was when one of the marketing execs was defining PR and said, “Well…marketing talks to the audience and PR delivers gift baskets.” I’m not sure it is understood any better today than it was then, but posts like this certainly help.

  • “PR is truth, well told” is a phrase I learned long ago. Does anyone know who originally said it? It is uplifting to see it reflected in the comments above.

    I don’t know any of you who have commented on this post, nor do I know you, Gini. I’m not in the PR world (I own a theatre consulting firm) and recently found your blog through Twitter.

    Spin Sucks is refreshing and concrete – thank you for it!

    • Bart Butler

      Ann: “Truth, well told” is actually the slogan of the McCann-Erickson ad agency. First introduced in 1912.

      • Thanks, Bart – isn’t that nifty? 1912!

  • The good news is, you’ve taken your passion and moved forward into the world of entrepreneurship!
    Hard work? yes! Frustrating? yes! Rewarding? absolutely!
    The first step of tackling each new growth opportunity both personally and professionally is taking the first step.
    This is where support, encouragement, brainstorming, and allowing yourself and your staff to grow and learn comes into play. So here’s your encouraging words for today…..Keep moving forward, be consistent, and be passionate! Remember, “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat!”

  • Shenetta Johnson

    Great post. My friends keep asking me if I watch that SPINdustry show and if any of my projects are like that. Um no – I don’t go get lip injections at the urging of my boss or dress like I’m going out to a nightclub (the first episode). The most disturbing thing about the series and the MadMen episode is that the younger generation is looking at those things as their definition of PR and thinking that’s what they want to do when they grow up. So it’s a never-ending, vicious cycle of the inaccuracies in our field! Ugh.

  • Well, it appears I’ve either reinvented an existing quote or absorbed it from somewhere without realizing it. Would love to know its origins if anyone knows them. Regradless I do genuinely believe PR is truth well told!

  • Mike Koehler

    Great post. I’m obsessed with Christina Hendricks (never actually watched Mad Men even though it is on the list to catch on). And yes, the clothes back then were so much better and I would like to start a campaign to reinstate the 3 martini lunch!

    I have never understood the concept of “there is no such thing as bad PR.” Really? As an “average” person not in the PR biz, yeah there is. The 3 examples you used are perfect. Tiger looks worse and has fallen in the general public eye and may never come out from it, Lebron came across as a spoiled brat, and well yeah BP looks good don’t they. I am of the opinion, if the situation makes you look horrible, it’s bad PR no matter what and you are going to take a serious hit from it. Another good example is the massive pet food recall from a couple years ago. Every company that was effected is still trying to gain back trust that was lost with the public and try to improve our general image. Companies that weren’t even effected are having to do the same as it was such a black eye to the industry. Nothing good PR wise came from that. Except from the additional grey hair I got from all of the extra work it generated for me.

  • Starr: You mean that definition doesn’t tell you what we do?!? LOL!

    Brad: You don’t work in advertising?! 🙂 Isn’t that annoying??

    Erik: Totally agree! Perhaps you can call my friends and family and tell them what I do for a living?

    Jay: Dang. And here I thought I’d finally figured out what you do for a living. BTW, how’s the limestone?

    Mimi: PR delivers gift baskets?! ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?!? That makes MY blood pressure rise! What did you do? Perhaps we should discuss this on a train ride from Chicago to Washington?

    Ann: Welcome to Spin Sucks! Thanks for the visit and the comment.

    Jan: Don’t I already walk on water?!? Bwa ha ha!!

    Shenetta: I don’t know how you can stand to watch SPINdustry. I’d be furious through the entire show. Though, now that I think about it, it would provide great Spin Sucks fodder! See you in Chicago SOON!

    MK: How are we friends? You’ve never seen Mad Men?! Change that. Now.

    • Michael Koehler

      I know. Get in line as you are about the 10th person to say that. It’s on our list to watch here shortly as we are “out” of things to watch.

  • Amen Gini! I always stress that public relations is about relationships…two-way communication breeds relationships and long-term relationships at that. The proof is in the two-way. If you’re doing all the talking and no listening, you’re not really learning about the people you’re talking to and you don’t know much about how to talk to them and when and where or what to say.

    P.S. Big Mad Men fan here as well!

    • Sandra: I can’t tell you’re a Mad Men fan! 🙂 A friend just tweeted me that he has a friend who is a publicist who says, “As long as the check clears, I don’t care what people say about me.” I guess as long as there are people like that associated with our industry, it’s going to be hard to change the perception that spin, does indeed, suck.

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  • Hello: Well, it’s not surprising that genius minds think alike. I incorporated the season opener of “Mad Men” into this post from my alter ego, The PRDude:

  • Awesome. I want to reprint and give it out to all those who insinuate that I “spin” for a living! Thanks for the post.

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  • H18

    I’m sorry… PR is 10% about getting publicity? Can you list the other 90% for me? You just say:

    “Public relations is about two-way communication and engagement. It is a social science that manages communication between an organization and its publics, not to mention that it provides an organization, or individual, exposure to their target audiences.”

    Can you help me out with this? I’m missing what comprises the other 90%.

  • robbyslaughter

    @H18 I’ve been struggling with this question for a long time. It’s easy to demonize the media relations/publicity part of the job, but it’s just a “small part of PR.”

    Yet if you take a look a a typical <a href=””>job description</a>, pretty much everything is related to publicity or developing a strategy for publicity.

    Even the <a href=””.Official Statement on Public Relations</a> from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) seems to include six pullet points, which are all basically about publicity. You know: analyzing public opinion (publicity research), advising management on public opinion (publicity advice), executing program actions to affect public understanding (publicity), managing people and resources (coordinating to achieve publicity) and various academic study related to public interactions.

    Ultimately, the Wikipedia definition of publicity is “the deliberate attempt to manage the public’s perception of a subject.” That seems like the general definition of public relations, which leads us back to the fundamental question.

  • ginidietrich

    @H18 Sure! Publicity really encompasses working with the media in some form: Getting your client on TV, on the cover of People, or in the newspaper. Now it’s been extended to bloggers. But that’s only part of what communication pros do.

    They also do internal communication, employee engagement, policies and procedures (with HR), events/conferences/trade shows, speaking, ghost writing, corporate social responsibility, reputation management, and more.

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