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Why ‘communications’ is wrong – and why it’s right

The argument for ‘public relations’ instead of ‘communications’

Public relations is a much more useful term than communications. Yet large corporations in Britain and America routinely avoid it, creating departments such as “corporate communications”, or just “communications”.

This causes all manner of confusion, as PR staff end up speaking to salespeople trying to sell discounted telephone services and faster internet connections. And according to Harold Burson, of Burson-Marsteller fame and elder statesman of the PR profession, it devalues what PR people do. He says:

The term communications has become synonymous with PR but this does a disservice to our profession by making it tactical … The best term for what we do is public relations.

Indeed, in a speech in 2012, Mr Burson explained that there were, in fact, four roles of the public relations practitioner, and communications is only one of them. As Jack O’Dwyer, America’s best-known PR journalist, summaries, they involve:

four duties—to listen; to be the corporate conscience; communicate (i.e., answer questions), and serve as “ombudsman” representing what is in the public’s interest to companies.

By using the term public relations over communications, practitioners include higher-end, more strategic and extremely valuable work. Isn’t this a good reason for the industry to revert to using the term?

The argument for ‘communications’ over ‘public relations’

Public relations is a perfect fine term, but it lacks the strategic gravitas and breadth that communications has. PR is really a euphemism for media relations – that’s why my book on getting media coverage is called The PR Masterclass. On the other hand, communications is what big organisations generally use in real life to including stakeholder engagement and internal comms. And the issue really is this: should we demand people use language in a way that it hasn’t been used for decades, if ever, or should we use languages as it is actually deployed?

In real life, senior PR people have “communications” in their job titles – never PR – and there has been a dramatic move away from people saying that they work in a PR agency. They now say they work in a comms agency. Moreover, with the rebranding of the main professional body for PR people, the PRCA, changing its name so that the C stands for Communications instead of Consultants, it’s clear that the term communications is here to stay.

PR is a perfect fine colloquial term, but the business function is well and truly called Communications.