Public relations – or communication?

23 Jan

It's a good question: what's the difference between public relations and communications?

It matters because there's a century of investment in the idea of public relations: it has the professional bodies and trade associations, graduates have invested in PR degrees, many jobs are offered as PR roles. So it's not going to be easy to ditch the phrase.

Yet some are keen to try. In the Stockholm Accords, each mention of 'public relations' is followed by 'and communication management'. So they're hedging their bets. But what's the difference?

While all public relations roles involve communications, not all communications roles can be described as public relations. So communications can be seen to be a broader area.

Within universities, communications is widely taught as a scientific discipline. Public relations remains more of an art than a science.

In practice, public relations can be seen as an applied communications discipline. PR degrees are a good route to employability, even if the eventual roles turn out to be in corporate communication, marketing communication or corporate affairs.

Though there is a real distinction between public relations and communications, I'm neutral on the perennial debate over whether to use communication (singular) or communications (plural). The advocates of the former explain that the latter refers to telephone networks and networking protocols: information and communications technology.

We continue to offer public relations degrees, but we've changed the name of our subject group to Public Relations and Communications in order to include distinct courses such as journalism. This is clearly a communications discipline; and it's equally clearly not public relations (though there's some overlap).


6 Responses to “Public relations – or communication?”

  1. Andrew Davies 24/01/2011 at 8:58 am #

    Great point Richard.
    During my time at NHS Leeds we used to receive numerous phone calls every week that had been passed through our reception, with someone trying to get through to staff from all parts of the organisation. The reason for them coming through our team; because we were called the communications team.
    Although communications is a vital role in any PR job (or in some cases the job title), those who are not within the industry themselves have the hardest job at trying to figure out what we do.
    I find it funny that although this was not our job, we still managed to ensure every caller enquiry was dealt with to ensure great customer/patient service. It seems those involved within communications or PR always seem to be the ones with the greatest knowledge of the organisation.
    I personally feel that we should embrace the communications aspect of our profession. After all, we are the ones trained to communicate.

  2. David Phillips 24/01/2011 at 9:50 am #

    There is more to come on this later in the year but it is worth looking at the provenance of PR… lets go back a few thousand years…. Conclude that PR is about relationship management between constituencies (Marketing being about reputation among stakeholders) based on the human need to be social (like apes grooming with the benefit of language), use specialist (and many times unique) human capabilities and invent. The basic driver, then is a need to create, build and sustain (using trust as a big lever) relationships.
    Is grooming communications? If it is, and we can answer that at Lisbon, then communication needs to be part of the deal But exclusively communication…I think not.

  3. Richard Bailey 24/01/2011 at 11:08 am #

    David’s successfully argued the opposite case: that there’s more to relationships than communication.
    I’ve already noted his Lisbon conference paper as one of the highlights of 2011 – but unfortunately can’t make it. I look forward to following, reading and debating this later on.

  4. Geoffrey RowaN 05/02/2011 at 10:31 pm #

    Another question is: are you teaching communications or communication?
    I’d argue that it is communication that is at the heart of all human endeavour, and that it is the art and science of communication at which PR professionals must excel. We must know how to engage, create awareness, educate, motivate and persuade. (I believe “communications” has come to represent the physical equipment that is used to facilitate some types of communication.)
    “Communication” is a much broader concept than “Public relations.” PR is a subset; a form of professional communication. There is no public relations without communication. Therefore, teaching PR without teaching communication is like teaching algebra without teaching math.

  5. Communications Forum 09/02/2011 at 4:19 pm #

    Students need to know how to develop PR through digital media as well as standard analog methods. They need to know how to develop relationships–regardless of their degree’s name.

  6. Venkatesh 17/08/2017 at 4:09 am #

    If communications refers to Telecom why is your subject group known as public relations and communications. (Though you have mentioned you are neutral to the debate). This is confusing kindly clarify.

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