Public relations or communication: still slugging it out

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

It’s a useful point of discussion for students and it’s an essential debate for practitioners. The question is how we describe our practice: as public relations or as communication(s).

Some find this topic as tedious and as irrelevant as discussions around definitions of public relations – another good classroom topic. If this is you, then please skip this article.

But for the others who are learning, or who are new to the field, or who don’t have a fixed view, then last week saw a brilliant exchange of views on the topic. This post aims to highlight the competing arguments.

I’ll also admit to having changed my mind over this question, having been quoted in an early edition of Alison Theaker’s The Public Relations Handbook arguing that it would be more honest to describe what we do either as marketing communication or as corporate communication.

In the blue corner, consultant Chris Measures asked if it’s Time for PR to change its name?

‘I applaud the CIPR’s efforts to demonstrate the strategic value that public relations brings. But I think the whole profession needs to go further – we’re communicators, so let’s be upfront and adopt a name that reflects what we do and gives us room to expand in the future. From now on, I’m not a public relations consultant, I’m a communications consultant.’

His argument is that ‘communication’ is a simpler and more comprehensive concept than ‘public relations’.

This was well received on social media, with Francis Ingham reminding us that was one of the reasons why the PRCA changed its name from Public Relations Consultants Association to Public Relations and Communications Association.

It also finds favour with many working in the public sector, who prefer the more neutral term to the historical baggage that comes with ‘public relations’. And with internal communicators, many of whom distance themselves from any association with public relations, which they take to be media relations.

Add to that the academic and practitioner literature around marketing communication and corporate communication, and there’s a powerful lobby in favour of the argument put forward by Chris Measures.

Then, from the red corner, came an articulate counter-punch from consultant and trainer Stuart Bruce: PR is not just communications.

‘PR is public relations. The clue’s in the name – public relations. Are relationships really so shallow as just to be about communications? Will whispering sweet nothings and denying impropriety really be enough to save a marriage while the philandering partner continues their affair?’

Though it’s public relations that shares the awkward history with propaganda, he’s making the point that public relations is more than just what we say; it’s also about what we do (and yes, I’m paraphrasing the opening phrase from the CIPR’s definition of public relations, the one that starts by asserting that public relations is about reputation).

Just as there’s more to relationships than talk, there’s more to reputation than words.

He rebuts the claim that communication is both simpler and more comprehensive, and makes the point that it’s open to misinterpretation. How many comms teams would offer to fix the telephone network or manage the firm’s logistics, yet telecommunications and transport are both forms of communications.

‘Another [claim] is that communications is ‘comprehensive’, when actually it is the exact opposite. It misses out the most important aspect of public relations – relationships, reputation and behaviour.’

In short, the debate centres around whether public relations is so debased a concept that it should be speedily ditched, or whether there’s value in emphasising that PR involves more than words: it’s about actions too.

So it depends on your view of the legacy public relations acquired in the twentieth century. Has it been irretrievably damaged by association with propaganda and spin – or is there a value in the 70 year legacy of the Institute of Public Relations (now Chartered Institute), and the approaching 50th anniversary of the PRCA?

There has been an extensive scholarly contribution to our understanding of public relations – though the European mainstream today appears to be to add ‘and communication management’ to every mention of public relations. Has half a century of global public relations scholarship amounted to anything?

We rehearsed these arguments when deciding on the name for this site in 2017, before choosing PR Place on the grounds that public relations self-evidently involves – and does not exclude – communication. It also has a brevity that works across social media (though there are academics and editors who will remove all mentions of PR, replacing it with public relations).

We have also aired these ideas in our essay on public relations as communication management – and also rehearsed the argument in favour of preferring the singular (communication) over plural (communications).  

Other essays in this series covered public relations as reputation management, as relationship management, as strategic management and as persuasion.

Perhaps it’s not so simple after all.