Many people are wringing their hands over the Cannes Lions Festival. It’s about creativity, but who has the corner on that?  Advertising or public relations? But that may be a false choice.

It once seemed easy to distinguish between advertising and public relations. One paid for space, the other earned it. Or at least that’s how the man-in-the-street used to see it.  So did the denizens of a mythological place called Madison Avenue.

The ad guys had the big budgets and three-martini lunches; the PR guys barely held their self-respect, often being confused with carnival barkers. PR was cursed to perennial typecasting as a secondary player in the blockbusters of 'business life'.

But the typecasting was actually a muddle of means and ends. Neither PR nor advertising was hog-tied to a particular means of achieving their goals. PR people bought advertising all the time. In fact, it was one of the ways early publicists got their press releases into the papers. They had their clients buy ads and used the ad buy as leverage to get publicity. And few sophisticated advertising people would foolishly run ads that didn’t take their audience’s attitudes, opinions, and beliefs into account.

The real difference was whether their center of gravity leaned towards selling stuff or ideas.

P. T. Barnum was a 19th century phenomenon who could truthfully say on his deathbed in 1891, “All I have I owe to the press.” More than a few publicists followed in his footsteps in the early years of the 20th century. Some were even reporters accepting money for slipping flackery past the editors of their own newspapers. AT&T hired such a person in 1903 to undermine anyone who wanted to start a rival phone company. He traveled 40,000 miles a year, often on horseback, to throw sand in their gears.

But by 1907, a new CEO installed by J. P. Morgan realized the company’s problem was not selling phone service. The new-fangled service practically sold itself by then. No, the real problem was making sure everyone’s phone could connect to everyone else’s. The easiest way to do that was to make sure one company controlled the market. He called the idea “Universal Service” and hired a Philadelphia ad agency to sell the idea to the public, an account the agency kept until the last decade of the 20th century.

AT&T even sold a skeptical government on the idea of Universal Service and reached a 1913 agreement that gave it a monopoly on telephone service in exchange for accepting a degree of regulation and giving up the telegraph business. That monopoly lasted until 1984.

It was advertising that carried the message. But the message itself was public relations. And that’s the real difference between the two practices. PR is all about ideas; it’s active participation in the social construction of meaning. Whether it’s what “Throwing like a girl” means or what “Black Lives Matter” means.    

Someone suggested it’s sometimes dangerous to become identified with unpopular ideas. Good public relations people will help CEOs decide when an idea is so core to their brand’s meaning  it’s worth the risk. And they’ll make sure it’s expressed in way that is meaningful, not simply performative.

Ad agencies sometimes play with ideas in the interests of building brand relationships that will make it easier to sell stuff down the road. But that’s like Eliza Doolittle speaking in prose without even knowing. And it leads to a lot of tone-deaf virtue signaling, like the commercial showing one of the Kardashian girls giving a cop a soft drink at a racial protest.

“Brand relations,” to the extent there is such a thing, starts with the brand. Public relations starts with the, well you get it.  PR is an effective sales tool when it creates meaning at the intersection of  the public’s needs and aspirations and the brand it represents. Anything else is just publicity.  And while there’s value in that too, P. T. Barnum could have done it. Maybe better.

Although it’s easier to be dazzled by sparkling lights, let’s stop getting hung up on the machinery used to express an idea. Let’s focus on the idea itself and its purpose. Is it to sell stuff or to participate in the creation of meaning?  The purpose of the idea is the point. How it’s expressed is really the secondary play.

Dick Martin was chief communications officer of AT&T Corp from 1997 to 2003. He writes about public relations and marketing and is chair of the Museum of Public Relations.