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What’s in a Name? Do We Work in PR or Communications?

This is a post by PR columnist, Alison Kenney.

Last month Paul Holmes blogged about the difference between public relations and communications. He argues that PR, and building relations with various publics, is more than just communicating.

Paul’s blog was in response to another one by Richard Edelman in which he explained why he is not in a hurry to re-brand his PR firm as a communications agency despite the evolution of PR to encompass digital, research, media planning and content creation.

Holmes and Edelman are both great defenders of PR and good at explaining the strategic importance of the practice and why it is aligned so well with the needs of businesses in the future.

However, here are some alternative schools of thought:

Broaden the name to go after a bigger piece of the (budget) pie: Holmes says he, met ‘with the senior staff from a PR agency—one I respect—that had recently been recast as a “communications” firm, and so I pushed back, gently, asking them why they had decided to narrow their focus from PR to “just communications.” The answer was the one I expected, which is to say that while there are people like me within the industry who define public relations broadly, most clients—and particularly those clients with the biggest budgets, most of whom are to be found in marketing departments—don’t see it that way. They view public relations pretty narrowly, as “part of the marketing mix,” the part focused on earned media. Some of them are reluctant to allow PR firms to work outside that narrow box, on brand strategy—in some cases, even on digital and social media strategy.’

PR is a sub-set of corporate communications, not the other way around: although Holmes says communications is a just a tool in the PR strategy kit, there are others who believe the reverse is true, that PR is subsumed within communications. Richard Bailey points out that, in universities, public relations courses and degrees typically fall under the communications discipline.

PR has a tainted reputation, so it’s best to use another term: some people, when they hear PR think of ‘flacks’ who ‘spin’ the news. Others are tired of arguing that PR plays a strategic role and is more than just media relations. By dropping that moniker and employing the term ‘corporate communications’ they can avoid having to re-brand public relations.

What do you think? Do you work in PR or communications?

Alison Kenney an independent PR practitioner with more than 15 years of PR consulting experience. She is based on Boston’s North Shore and has worked with organizations in the technology, professional services and consumer industries. She writes a bi-monthly PR column on You can find her at Learn more about Alison Kenney.

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2 Comments - Add yours!

Nate Purpura (May 17th, 2011)

I agree that PR is being viewed as a subset of communications.

I personally think it’s a semantic difference, but it’s an interesting discussion to have.

The invaluable part of “traditional PR” is getting that reporter feedback.

We all like to sit around and guess a what we think a reporter might write about, but you really have no idea until you pitch it. And, the process of pitching it and getting that feedback on what does and does not work should inform what you do on your blog, Facebook page, etc.

Davina K. Brewer (May 17th, 2011)

Hmm… I think about Apple dropping ‘computer’ from its name and it made sense. The brand represents so much than technology or products, vertical integration into our digital lives.. never mind what they think of next.

I will have to say “communications” specifically marketing and corporate communications. I agree with Nate, it’s semantic .. up to a point. Matters less to me which term gets the umbrella in the daiquiri so long as they all work together and get their seats at the grown-up table. It’s when PR or corporate communication get a back-seat view on overall business strategy and planning, that’s when I speak up: How will marketers market, managers manage, employers employ, service reps. provide service without quality, effective communication? I’m about integration, for what it’s worth.

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