Advertising cupcakes is different than seeking good PR about cupcakes.

The Difference Between PR and Advertising: How Not to Sell Cupcakes

After awhile, I began to dread getting emails from Bob’s Cupcakes.

That’s not their real name. As far as I can tell from a quick Google search, there’s no business named Bob’s Cupcakes. But this particular business failed to draw a key distinction between advertising and public relations.

A few years ago when I was working at a TV news station in Manhattan, one of my jobs was to produce interview segments for our weekend morning show. Weekend mornings are generally the second most-watched daypart in news – right behind weekday mornings – so I received a lot of pitches from PR folks looking to snag some airtime.

One of those pitches came from a Gmail address containing a string of random letters and numbers, with no company branding of any kind. (A huge red flag, by the way. Aspiring PR practitioners, take note.)

The email was from a guy I’ll call Dave. He identified himself as the head of PR for Bob’s Cupcakes. “We’ve just opened up in your neighborhood,” he said, giving an address a few blocks from the station. “We’d like to send a free batch of cupcakes over for you and your crew.”

Now, I should point out that he had me so far. Journalists sometimes hesitate to admit this, but if you offer us free food, we will at least listen to what you have to say. (Aspiring PR practitioners, take note.)

So Dave was doing great up until this point. It was his next sentence that torpedoed him.

“Would you consider,” he asked, “having your anchor eat one of our cupcakes on camera, and mention the name of Bob’s Cupcakes?”

I didn’t hesitate. I replied, “I’m sorry. If you’d like to advertise on our station, here’s a link to our ad sales department. Thank you.”

Get the Hook

Don't forget the hook.

So where did Dave go wrong? He forgot to include the news hook.

His email, in effect, told me: “We’ve opened up in your neighborhood, and we make good cupcakes.” It didn’t tell me why I, as a journalist, should care. What’s special about this particular cupcake shop? Is it a family-owned business? Is it a symbol of the neighborhood’s economic revitalization? Are the cupcakes made with locally-sourced ingredients? Are they vegan? Gluten-free?

Let’s say it was the latter. And let’s say Dave had bothered to hire an actual PR practitioner instead of trying the DIY approach. The pitch I’d have received might have sounded something like:

“Hey Matt – are you planning any back-to-school segments? Because one of the big issues facing parents these days is what snacks to send to school for kids with food challenges, like gluten sensitivity. And there’s this one cupcake shop that’s just opened – right in your station’s neighborhood, as a matter of fact – that’s doing a lot to address this issue …”

That’s the difference between paid and earned media – and it’s a difference every business needs to learn in order to make the most out of both.

The Difference Between Advertising, Marketing and PR

The new-and-improved pitch above might have gotten me to interview the owner of Bob’s Cupcakes about the importance of gluten-free baking and why the company makes it a point to have those options. That interview might have appeared in the context of a larger piece – a health story aimed at parents, for example.

But it would never have resulted in my anchor eating a Bob’s Cupcake on TV. When you’re talking about something like that, you’re in the realm of advertising and marketing, not PR.

As S.H. Simmons is credited with saying, “If a young man tells his date how handsome, smart and successful he is – that’s advertising. If the young man tells his date she’s intelligent, looks lovely, and is a great conversationalist, he’s saying the right things to the right person and that’s marketing. If someone else tells the young woman how handsome, smart and successful her date is – that’s PR.”

A yummy cupcake, but not one that would appear on TV.

Unfortunately, Dave never learned. Over the next few months, he deluged me with emails and phone calls, all with the same “pitch” – let me send you some free cupcakes so your anchor can eat one on the air – and I kept brushing him off, as politely as I could.

Eventually, I caved. I accepted his offer of free cupcakes. As it happened, he sent them on my day off – I still remember the confusion in our receptionist’s voice when she called my cell asking where to put all those cupcakes. The weekday morning crew said they were delicious. But the anchor never did eat one on the air.

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