What is the difference between public relations and communication? PR and communications are so intertwined that distinguishing between the two may seem like splitting a hair. Public relations always involve communications, but communications does not always involve public relations. For example, advertising is communication, but it is not a form of public relations. The term “communications” encompasses a variety of positions, skill sets, and ways to promote a company’s message, both internally and externally. More than ever, there are many similarities between public relations and strategic communications. Both require skill in delivering the desired message to customers, media, and stakeholders using the best communications techniques for their audiences and their organization’s goals, such as written word, video, graphics, and photography. The communication tools you use, including PR, depend on what you are trying to accomplish.
We Always Communicate, Intentionally or Not
People who go into a communications career often have a knack for conveying ideas through writing, speaking, or graphic design. Both verbal and non-verbal communications provide the foundation for specific communications professions, such as journalism, advertising, marketing, public speaking, graphic design, public affairs, advocacy, videography, website design, social media specialist, and public relations. Professional communicators can articulate the implications of a particular message – will they will perceive it as trustworthy? Will it be memorable?
When is Communications “Strategic?”
“Strategic communications” is knowing when to use a specific communications vehicle, method, or discipline – such as advertising or social media – to accomplish an organization’s goals, campaign, or movement. In other words, strategic communications is considered the intermingling of public relations with marketing, and at times, advertising as well. Used strategically and holistically, there may be very little difference between public relations and communication.
For example, if you are running for public office, your goal is to get elected. Your strategic communications planning may include a lot of grassroots advocacy work, which puts you into neighborhoods, knocking on doors, speaking at public school events, or holding neighborhood rallies. You may also use paid advertising to ensure your specific message gets out to the potential voters at specific times of the day or in specific places, like the billboards of key neighborhoods or on certain social media platforms. And you almost certainly have a media relations component.
A business that is launching new product, may also use advertising to promote the benefits of its product or draw comparisons between its product and the competition. Some marketing tactics include holding special events with the public, inviting them to try your product for free, or offering discounts.
Both examples may want to try to get unpaid or “earned” media attention through a journalist that covers voting activities or your company’s product. This is called media relations and goes hand-in-hand with public relations.
PR: The Definition is in the Name
A public relations professional works to develop, foster, and maintain positive relationships with the public or other identified stakeholders which can include the shareholders, policy creators, customers, and even employees.
A PR professional uses several communications tools in their relationship building, particularly writing. Most PR professionals will write press releases for news media, give presentations or press briefings, or write for company executives. They exercise persuasion and work to present their organization in the best possible light—and they do it by “earning” publicity and public goodwill versus paying for it, as advertising professionals do. They also try to limit or mitigate any negative information or crises.
While public relations may be persuasive, the best PR professionals understand that being truthful is the cornerstone of PR. In the early 1900s, a man named Ivy Lee considered the founder of modern public relations, argued that the public deserved honest and accurate information versus simply persuading an audience.
The profession took another turn when Edward Bernays, a member of President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, advocated that PR professionals use psychological precepts that target emotions to elicit the desired responses from an audience. (This makes sense when you realize that Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew.)
A glaring example of Bernays’ philosophy in action—and genius in tying it to a current event—was his success in tapping into women’s emotions amid the suffrage movement by declaring that cigarettes were the enlightened woman’s “torches of freedom.” By smoking in public, women were declaring themselves equal to men.
The shift toward true relationship building as a tenet of public relations occurred during the 1950s and 60s, as the public began to protest corporate power in America. Organizations began to see the importance of building relationships with their audiences and promoting two-way communications, which is still the touchstone of today’s PR profession.
Some people still consider PR as “propaganda.” Bernays himself wrote a book simply titled “Propaganda.” His long-tenured influence on public relations undoubtedly had a great deal to do with other derogatory adjectives commonly associated with PR, like “slick” or “hype.”
PR’s early inroads into America created a catalyst for change. In 1948, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) was formed. Soon after, the organization developed an ethics code and voluntary accreditation for PR practitioners. Professional PR professionals take professional ethics seriously because PR is a powerful tool that is an investment in your company.
The Bottom Line
History teaches us that as society changes, public relations—and all communications – also change. The difference between public relations and communications waxes and wanes depending on the public’s trust of particular message delivery mechanisms. The rise of social media demanded that PR professionals build their communications proficiencies. Print newspapers and magazines declined significantly, highlighting the need for digital communications. These changes, along with other media and audience consumption, have blurred the lines between PR and multiple communications competencies. Americans’ trust in the news media continues to decline, making earned media less of a PR weapon than it once was.