INTERNATIONAL: Letter From America - Public relations is not the same as publicity

A lack of understanding of terminology has caused boundaries between various corporate disciplines to become blurred, writes US commentator Paul Holmes.

Ever since I started writing about public relations, it has been a business with an identity crisis.

I was reminded of that fact last week during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., where I was asked whether we should drop the tainted term public relations for something with less baggage.

So I was forced once again to defend the term, which I have always liked as I'm interested in what words actually mean, and the words public and relations express what I believe this business is about: building and leveraging relationships with key publics.

Unfortunately, over the years people have used the terms public relations and publicity interchangeably. Yet although publicity may be a product of good public relations, they are not the same.

As for the alternative terms for what we do, they all seem weaker rather than stronger. Someone once told me they were changing the name of their firm from XYZ Public Relations to XYZ Marketing Communications because 'we have broadened our portfolio of services'. But marketing (managing the relationship between a company and its customers) is a narrower discipline than public relations (managing the relationship between a company and all stakeholders) - though it's not narrower than publicity, which is probably what the firm was doing.

Similarly, the term corporate comms seems too narrow in its focus. Communications is one of the ways in which an organisation builds relationships, but not the most important, which is through behaviour. So which would you rather be, the person in charge of communicating corporate decisions, or the person who counsels management on how those decisions are likely to impact relationships?

There are terms I find less objectionable. If everyone who currently calls himself or herself a public relations professional suddenly decided to become a reputation manager, would anything change? In six months all those stories that accuse companies of 'public relations ploys' would suddenly start writing about 'reputation management ploys,' and announcements that were 'just PR' would become 'just RM'.

If we're worried about how we're perceived, we have to understand the importance and meaning of words. We must distinguish between publicity and public relations-and take every opportunity to explain what the latter term really means, and what distinguishes good public relations from bad.

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