October 8, 2023
Avoid beginner PR mistakes by understanding important industry terms and how to properly use them.
Though the difference between “communication” and “communications” is only one letter, these two terms have distinct meanings in strategic public relations. Understanding when to use each term is critical for PR professionals, as misusing these words can undermine carefully crafted messaging strategies.
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- The act of exchanging information between two or more people
- A two-way process to understand a message
- Essential for effective leadership and relationship building
- The process of transmitting a message through a variety of channels
- A one- or two-way method to deliver a message
- Can be used to support leadership or achieve a specific goal
Dr. Julia Wood of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill refers to communication as the "systemic process in which individuals interact with and through symbols to create and interpret messages." It’s a two-way exchange focused on forming connections and shared understanding between parties.
In contrast, communications refers to the distribution and transmission of information through media, as defined by Dr. Larson of the University of Utah. This encompasses the technology, systems, and tactics used for sending messages to a mass audience. Channels like social media, PR, advertising, events, and others are leveraged to broadly share content and campaigns.
While these two terms work in tandem, PR experts must be careful not to conflate or confuse them. Using "communications" as a blanket term for all PR activities equates to the practice of simply transmitting messages through media. This overlooks the strategic, audience-centric communication foundations effective PR is built upon.
Communication blogger Dr. Michelle Mazur further distinguishes communication as involving creativity, planning, and strategy. The planning and managing of communication can include research to uncover audience insights, for example.
Data can be used to build messages that will resonate with an audience to facilitate meaningful engagement between two parties. When hiring PR talent, look for formative communication-based research, target audience insights, and message resonance to reflect strategic thinking beyond broadcast messaging. Likewise, using terminology correctly shows an expert-level understanding of strategic communication and communications execution.
For PR practitioners, recognizing the difference between PR terms as simple as communication and communications will work to empower sharper audience targeting, more meaningful messaging, and better relationship building.
Photo by Christina Morillo
Topics: PR tips