Corporate Communications vs PR

Ok, I am a snob….after thirty years of being a practitioner, I still cringe when people say “Oh, you are in PR”. Actually, I’m not. I’ve been a corporate communicator for all of my professional career. To me “PR” is all too often shorthand for “press relations” and that is (in my view) the bottom end of the food chain in my profession. Ask any poor intern about the “joys” of “selling in” a story to a reluctant journalist.  PR is all about “product push”, endless phone calls to publications in pursuit of those elusive column inches that your clients think are so important.  Ugh! I LOATHE PR, if that is what it means.  In fact, I’d rather hire journalists who can’t get jobs to write the press releases that will get the clients the coverage they want. Real communications professionals should be doing more meaningful work.

And I am not alone-  the sort of mental image that people outside the profession have of PR is not pretty. You know, “publicists”, “spin doctors”, “propagandists”. All the negatives wrapped up into one concept, dismissively called “PR”.  And that word is usually accompanied with an adjective “it’s just PR”- in other words, not real, smoke and mirrors, the “dark art” and other assorted negative phrases.

So, for years I have said that I do “corporate communications”-  the strategic stuff, the “big ticket” work, “crisis communications”, “mnagement communications”, “issues maangement”, “public affairs”, “reputation management”- in short, everything but PR.  There is a reason why the defnitions matter- because the language used has meanings for those who matter.

Corporate Communications is more professional than PR. If you are going to be working with top teams, the C Suite (Chief Executives, Chief Operating Officers, Chief Finance Offices, the CEOs, COOs, CFOs, etc) then the word “PR” is certain to relegate you to the backroom. “Corporate Communications” is something that tends to command more respect; it’s the way into the boardroom.  For me, that’s where I want to be.

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About catherinesweet
Academic, professional, communicator, stakeholder in a dozen different disguises

14 Responses to Corporate Communications vs PR

  1. Well said – though I would like to have that T shirt!

  2. Know exactly where you are coming from Catherine. In my 12 year practice career – before undertaking a PhD and moving into HE – I never had the word “public relations” in any of my job titles. However, there are some rather circular debates about renaming, or ahem, rebranding PR. Corporate communication is good for putting strategic leadership at the heart of the profession. But, my preference would be “strategic communications” as I also like to include activist campaigning within my definitions. Indeed, if “PR” is to be accepted as a public good, then it needs to be seen as doing more than assisting large corporate entities maintain their dominant positions.

  3. If PR really is something at the bottom end of the food chain and all about “product push”, and press relations then why is there such course as BA and MA Public Relations?
    I do not reacall learning anything (one unit maybe) about press relations, selling, product push etc
    Also, I myself as a PR student have experienced a lot of negativity when I`ve said that I am studying PR. That has made me rethink whenther I did the right thing by studying something that “everyone can do” or “journalists will be better at”.
    Should’nt students be give some confidence boost by renaming PR courses to Corporate Relations or just Communications without the infamous “PR” added to the name?
    So when a graduate is looking for a job he or she can say that they studied Corporate Relations/Communications.

  4. Catherine Sweet says:

    Evija, it might surprise you to find that I agree with you- I think the professionalism of our work would be enhanced a lot if we stopped calling it “PR”. And that would involve changing the titles of our university degrees. BUT- if I said “corporate communications” to a group of 18 year olds, would they know what I mean? Would they be encouraged to take the degree? In fact, if you say “PR” to people now, they have a vague idea what you do. So, a lot of universities take the easy way out. In the UK, to my knowledge it is only when you get to the masters level that you get offered a degree in corporate communications. And the Chartered Institute of PR has a vested interest in making sure that all its accredited degrees are called “PR”. So, it is challenging. That said, most PR practitioners know the difference!

  5. Egle Dementjevaite says:

    Catherine you say that: ‘…the definitions matter- because the language used has meanings for those who matter’. But do we really know what things matter to others? Isn’t quite subjective thing how people feel about one or another thing? You say for you PR is something you do not want to be associated, i say i am proud i am studying my MA in PR, isn’t that subjective?
    You listed some negative names people tend to relate PR with :”publicists”, “spin doctors”, “propagandists”,please tell me a profession which would only be associated to positive names and would have no negative definitions about it? I have done my BA in Journalism and believe me not everyone defines ‘journalist’ as someone who has a bright personality and does an incredible job, more like nosey, annoying sensation seeking people, but is that the whole nation voice or subjective some people opinion?

    • of course what you say is reasonable- I defy anyone to tell me a profession or occupation that does not attract some criticism or negative stereotypes! That said, what I was trying to say was that how you define something will change the way people react. For me “corporate communication” was a title that brought me closer to strategy, closer to the senior management, and more “empowered” to be able to influence how the organisation used communication as a tool of strategy- and that a title of “Head of PR” would have not had the same effect. One of the chronic complaints that senior PR people have is that they are not “on the board”, when they feel that they should be. Maybe PR at that level needs to re-brand, to improve senior management’s receptivity to our advice. PR people can help their cause if they label themselves with words that senior management respect.

  6. Catherine – I disagree totally with you about using corporate communications instead of public relations for a number of reasons, which ironically relate precisely to the language used.

    First, the word “corporate” ignores the opportunities presented outside the corporate world. Not only in non-corporate organizations (from government to charities and beyond), but also exercise of the competencies within activist functions – ie often in opposition to corporates.

    Second, the word “communications” is limiting and potentially a cul-de-sac. It implies an entirely presentational perspective based on the message and other aspects of the communication process. Those claiming the corporate communications title are labelling themselves to be included at the top table as communications experts – which is a limited role and unlikely to really gain strategic recognition of the wider role (eg boundary spanning, reputational or ethical guardian, internal activist, etc) that we can play. I say it is a cul-de-sac because everyone communicates so claiming this territory does not offer a unique viewpoint and highlights a functionary rather than a functional role.

    In contrast, the words Public Relations offer a much better position. We understand and work with publics (those who affect or are affected by the achievement of strategic goals) in monitoring and developing relationships that matter.

    Because PR is misunderstood by journalists as relating to press relations is no reason to change the name, any more than someone who thought the AA offered alcohol advice rather than roadside assistance! Yes, it is a term that is abused – including offering the PR title to those promoting bars in Majorca – but again, that gives us a reason to stand up and explain what PR really means.

    Anyone wanting that position of influence (inside or outside of organizations) needs to concentrate on something much more important than their job title. The competence and credibility to do the job – which in my book means having more about you than an ability to communicate the corporate message.

    • Well- that’s a robust argument- but I am going to disagree. Linguistically “corporate” does not mean “commercial” or “company” as you suggest, but rather the “corporate body ” of an organisation, so can be (and is often) used for NFPs, the pubic sector and NGOs, in my experience. And I have never found a CEO in twenty five years of working with them who gives a higher status to the initials “PR” than to “Corporate Communications” but maybe that is because I worked in financial services, local government and public affairs. For me it was the route to strategic credibility. I haven’t run across a job title that says “boundary spanning” or “internal activist” although I know that most Corporate Communications directors worth their salt do both. “Publics” for many CEOs in my roles were often seen as just the general public, whereas they got the concept of stakeholder relations. And we are all about two way communication, so it isn’t about being the corporate propagandist, but helping the organisation communicate more effectively means listening too, whether you are doing corporate communications or PR.

      Whilst I agree that arguing about job titles is not the issue, it is often surprising to find that one’s “in-house license to operate” is very much influenced by how the role is titled and where it fits into the hierarchy.

  7. Maria says:

    You should learn how to spell – you are in corporate communications.

    • Well done, Maria- you spotted the typographical errors! Sorry, passion got the better of my typing skills, so I did misspell “crisis communications” and “management communications”. Funny thing that; I often have to correct my students’ grammar errors and typo mistakes, so I suppose it is only proof that I am human to be caught doing the same. That said, a comment about the content would have been appreciated, too.

  8. nwandy says:

    hi catherinesweet, how can an engineer build a career in corporate communications? i love writing, copy editing, research and I am also bilingual. i would really appreciate some help cos am thinking of a career change. I do not think electrical engineering is my passion anymore.

  9. Qiesh says:

    Hi, i just graduated from highschool and i am about to enter university soon. I’ve been doing research on different courses. There is a diploma in corporate communications in a university near where i live. I seem to be interested in the course and i’ve discussed my interest with my parents and they oppose my decision to study corporate communications. They say corporate communications is like pr. And they say that after i graduate i’ll just be working in marketing. Is that true? What did you study in univeristy and how did you become apart of corporate communications? And also, is it a hard job? I hope you’ll reply me, i’m really interested to know. Thank you so much 🙂

  10. ThePRgirl says:

    Some universities call the degree program public relations. My major is Public Relations but I have learned be a journalist, event planner, designer, marketer, researcher and so many other things. I think if you explain what you do within a resume, cover letter or a blog. You are good to go. In PR, we learn ethics BUT we have learn about ethics throughout the coursework not just in an ethics classroom.

  11. Awesome article! It really painted a clear picture for me showing the dynamics of both fields. Thanks!!

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