What’s in a name? ‘Public Relations’ or ‘Corporate Communications’

Published on Monday 27 August 2018

So, a brand new intake of Taylor Bennett Foundation trainees joined us last week, and I’ve been busy going through my ‘PR basics’ seminars with them, outlining the different strands of the communications business, how they differ, and what they all have in common. And this time I made a diagram! Oh yes, how companies organise their stakeholder comms, and how the various communication functions are structured in your average conglom. Enjoy.
It’s these sessions that always remind me of that ultimate irony in the PR industry. Good PR is about simple messaging, clear labelling, consistent language. And yet is it ‘PR’ or ‘corporate communications’? Is PR a branch of corp comms, or corp comms a strand of PR? Well, that depends very much on who you ask. Which prompts me to dig out this piece I wrote for Unicorn Jobs, aimed at PR professionals, a couple of years back. Everything still stands I think…

So, when someone asks you what you do for a living, what do you tell them? Do you work in PR or public relations or publicity or corporate communications or stakeholder relations or reputation management?

All of these terms could be used to describe what is basically a PR job, ie it involves managing relationships between a company and one or more of its stakeholders. And across the PR industry different people and agencies employ different words to describe what they do.

Why is this? Well, partly it’s history. Different parts of the industry developed independently from each other and, by the time people started grouping all these constituent parts together as the “PR industry”, different names for each strand were already established.

But it’s also partly because some strands of the industry just don’t like the term “PR”. Some see PR as being too closely aligned to media relations work, as if the ‘P’ stood for “press”, so if they manage relationships with stakeholders outside the media they feel the PR term is inappropriate.

Others, especially at the more corporate end of the sector, feel “PR” has become too associated with the celebrity, publicity stunt and parties end of the industry, and that it doesn’t represent the work they do briefing analysts, engaging employees, initiating corporate social responsibility programmes or helping CEO’s build a reputation for thought leadership.

So, what terms do these people use instead? Well, it depends on which stakeholders they work with, but often they use the ‘communication’ word, either on its own or as part of the term ‘corporate communications’. Though this leads to everyone outside the industry, and quite a few on the inside, asking “what’s the difference between PR and corporate comms, is the former a branch of the latter, or the latter a branch of the former, or are they different, or are they the same thing?”

Part of me likes the communications word, and I’ve used it myself in the past to describe non-media-focused PR projects I’ve working on. But when PR people describe themselves primarily as communicators it can cause confusion. Because PR professionals are not the only people working in or for a company who are involved in communication – sales, complaints, marketing and advertising are all involved in comms as well, and so are those who manage communication technology. So just calling yourself a communications person is confusing.

Plus, and somewhat ironically, the closer you get to the corporate end of PR – where the comms term is more commonly used – it’s actually less appropriate, because these PR people are often involved in a whole lot more than just communications – they are managing key relationships, influencing a company’s entire operations from the point of view of managing reputation, and responding to events in the wider world, sometimes as decision makers as well as communicators. To be frank, the term public relations – which many of these people shun – is wholly more appropriate for them.

Does it matter, though, if some PR people call themselves ‘PR specialists’, others ‘corporate communicators’, and others still one of the plethora of other terms available? Well, in some ways yes. In my mind the wider PR industry lacks cohesion, and the wider public are confused as to what exactly it is that PR and comms people do. And that can be a problem when trying to recruit the best young talent, when trying to convince a CFO of the ROI of your work, when trying to persuade CEOs of the need for structural changes to meet reputation challenges, and when trying to explain to your Great Aunt Mavis what exactly it is you do for a living.

Given that PR people don’t seem to be able to agree on any of the plethora of terms currently available to describe what they do, how about something totally new? I’m proposing 3R – the new name for the people who help companies manage their relationships, reputation and responses to world events. Nobody else currently uses it, it can’t be confused with another discipline, and it should satisfy all ends of the industry. Yeah, you’re right, it will never catch on. Oh well, perhaps I’ll set up my own PR company and use it for that instead.