Comms or PR – what’s in a name?

I’ve read three contrasting blog posts in the last week, alongside watching a great interview launching the CIPR #PRPays campaign, and the four of those have really got me thinking about whether public relations is the right name for our profession going forwards, or alternatively whether communications works better.

The CIPR’s campaign, to highlight the strategic importance of PR to the business community is very welcome, and the video interview with Heathrow Airport chief exec John Holland-Kaye underlines our profession’s value well. Hat tip to Koray Camgoz. I can’t say I’m not a bit disappointed that the campaign is describing itself as focusing on the business community, when the same point applies across sectors, including in the public sector – but that’s a separate and lesser issue.

What is signally interesting about that interview is how when asked repeatedly about PR this business leader couches his answers using the term communications. It didn’t feel like he was drawing a distinction between the terms, just using them interchangeably, and without question.

Chris Measures’ ‘Time for PR to change its name?’ blog piece argues the case for change pretty effectively I reckon. PR as a term generates memories of Ab Fab or Max Clifford shenanigans amongst many people, so why not go with the more serious communications instead?

But then this morning I read Stuart Bruce’s ‘PR is not just communications’ article, and it stopped me in my tracks.

Hat tip to my mate Mike Carhart-Harris for this. If he reckons it’s time to reclaim PR as a term, then I’ll wind my neck in long enough to think carefully about whether I really should be on the other side on this issue.

David Meerman Scott’s piece Public Relations Vs Media Relations for me maybe straddles this debate, reinforcing instead the point for me that whatever our profession is called PR or communications, it needs to be recognised as a lot broader than just media relations. This is absolutely correct imho, and is probably common ground.

So where does all this Saturday reading leave me on the PR versus comms debate?

I’ve reflected back on my own practice, and if I’m honest, I do the same as the Heathrow guy, using the terms interchangeably, but with my routine default selection being communication. My own job titles have without exception included ‘the C word’, and in all the new posts I’ve created over the years, I’ve never once chosen PR instead of comms.

I applauded the PRCA a while back when they rebranded, making their C stand for communications, whilst leaving the PR unchanged too.

So back to first principles – what actual difference does each name make?

If PR is so commonly tainted in the minds of key people we work with either because of popular culture or some of the frothiest or unethical practices at the fringe of our trade, then are the rest of us disadvantaged?

On the other hand, does using communications create a sub-conscious perception that self-limits our role to being all about the channels – the tactical work, rather than making a strategic contribution? Does it unhelpfully help anchor ourselves to the centre of our organisations, rather than being about engaging face to face with the public.

In the public sector in particular, I often also see comms teams step back (if not run away) from community relations work, if that means organising and staffing public meetings in drafty village halls on wintry Tuesday evenings. ‘That’s not the role of the comms team, sorry – have you tried the community and voluntary sector team?’ – sound familiar at all?

If I’m honest, I remember saying that myself at times. I’ll cut myself some slack, and recognise that I was being pragmatic in relation to how resources were allocated, but it’s not a proud place to be, when you effectively hear yourself saying that you don’t want your profession to embrace the full range of relationship building with key stakeholder groups.

Equally, I’ve been lucky enough to be appointed to senior enough roles in visionary councils that have allowed me to perform a head of profession role (across hierarchical boundaries) that ensures that resources allocated to corporate comms teams, to community and voluntary sector teams, and to economic development and business relations teams are all coordinated and pulling together to make sure that there is a stakeholder relations approach taken that’d make us proud, regardless of name chosen.

So where does all this reading and reflecting leave me on the comms versus PR question?

Answer – err – it leaves me craving both more analysis and more data too, before I jump off my newly-acquired seat on the fence (having previously been an intuitive supporter of comms over PR).

So – who else has got some thoughts on this? What other articles should I read? Who wants to scribble their own thought piece? What data is there out there on what both our profession and our bosses and colleagues think? Do we need to start our own debate, or commission our own survey?

For me, the ultimate answer isn’t going to come from a popularity poll of one term over the other, but instead an evidence-based analysis of which helps most and hinders least our ability as a profession to add most value, at both strategic and tactical levels.

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3 thoughts on “Comms or PR – what’s in a name?

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  1. Great article. I don’t think I’m arguing we shouldn’t also use communications, just that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that primarily we are public relations and to just describe ourselves as communications does us a disservice. My own business website (www.stuartbruce.eu) uses both as there isn’t a great enough understanding for public relations to be able to just use it. I suspect if we did research the ‘evidence’ will tell us that communications is a more favourable term, without some of the negative connotations of public relations. But that’s not necessarily a reason to change it, given that they are different things. If your read Trust Me, PR is Dead by Robert Phillips he doesn’t actually argue that PR is dead, but that old-fashioned publicity orientated PR is dead. He tries to make the case for ‘Public Leadership’, but to me it sounds very much like real public relations. And writing this highlighted the problem of trying to rebrand as I had to get the book off the shelf in order to remind myself what Robert’s new term was.

    1. Cheers for the book tip Stuart – just what I was after. Sorry I summarised your point wrongly – everyone should read your article for themselves. I’m not hugely excited about dropping PR as a title anyway, as you’re right – it’s much more important what we do, how we step up to influence change and deliver real value, and how we earn our place at the decision making table.

  2. Thanks for the mention Peter – and for the even-handed look at the subject. I think we’re all pushing in the same direction, aiming to ensure that both our stakeholders and our wider publics understand the positive impact of what we do – and that we need to be integrated and seen as strategic. What we call ourselves shouldn’t distract from the overall aim!

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