PR vs. Publicity: What Actors Must Know

by Rick Krusky

[As originally featured on backstage.com.]

Every actor has heard of them. And practically every actor has dealt with them, whether well or badly. But in my experience, not everyone is clear on exactly what “PR” and “publicity” mean. Since the terms can be somewhat confusing and even lumped together as one at times, I thought I’d go over their basic meanings and give some examples in order to more clearly define them and make more of a distinction between the two. I’ve found that doing so can help actors improve both areas of their careers.

“PR,” which stands for “public relations,” has to do with the state of your relationship with the public. You could also say it’s your reputation and how others view you. So it’s subjective to a large degree. Part of a publicist’s job is to maintain a favorable public image for you (or help create or repair one, as the case may be).

“Publicity,” fundamentally, is the notice or attention given to someone by the media. It’s as simple as when you, as an actor, are interviewed by a reporter for a news program, are on the radio talking about an upcoming project, or when a writer for a magazine runs an article about you (which are all different from when you’re acting in a role for a TV show, or in a commercial for advertising). Part of a publicist’s job is to acquire or control this notice from the media.

An example that could help make the distinction could be if you attend a red-carpet event that benefits a charity. Any interviews or photos of you that run in the media would constitute the “publicity” portion, regardless of how it affects your reputation. While on the other hand, how you are viewed by the public as a result of this coverage—the state of your public image, good or bad—constitutes the “PR” portion. So, whether you arrive well-dressed, speak cordially to the reporters, and talk positively about the cause or, whether you arrive drunk, speak belligerently to the reporters, and verbally bash the cause… When your interview airs or runs in the media, it is technically “publicity.” (Remember the saying, “Any publicity is ‘good’ publicity”?) But how you behave, appear, or are viewed by others affects your “PR”—your relationship with the public.

So, in terms of PR, the cordial interview would provide a more favorable public image, while the belligerent one would cause an unfavorable image. We’ve all seen examples of celebrities who have “good PR” versus “bad PR”: Oprah donates $41 million to charity; Christian Bale is not so nice to a crew member on set. We all form opinions. So these actions positively or negatively affect their public image.

To further make a distinction between the two, in this example of the charity event, if you showed up and there were no press or red carpet at all (no publicity components), it would still affect your “PR.” That is, showing up and being nice to those in attendance and supporting the cause would likely result in a favorable public image for you. It’s “good PR.” And of course “bad PR” if you were not so nice. So your PR is affected regardless of any publicity.

But the same is not true for publicity in that it necessarily conveys some sort of PR aspect along with it, which may be where some of the confusion begins to creep in. A nightly entertainment show airs a segment on Oprah (publicity), which mentions her sizable donation to a charity (PR). Same with Bale’s segment (publicity conveying actions that affect PR). The segments convey something, and that something does something to your perception of the person, whether it alters it or further supports how you already feel. The good new is that if things go in the wrong direction, good PR can usually be restored with a little time, effort, or ingenuity—or a lot.

PR is your everyday, ongoing, possibly ever-changing reputation with regard to those who are aware of you, whether the information is conveyed via media outlets or not. And publicity is any information—whether good, bad, or indifferent—that is conveyed via media outlets. That is really the long and short of it. So, although the two terms do work together and are intertwined, they really are completely different concepts, and both equally important in the field of acting. And many other endeavors, for that matter.

Rick Krusky is an executive and publicist at MWPR, a Los Angeles-based PR and publicity firm.