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The difference between communications and communication in PR

By Jessica McNellis

Industry professionals should stop using these two words interchangeably.


A group of people communicating.A “communications strategy” or a “communication strategy.”  Your company’s “corporate communications department” or “corporate communication department.” 


It’s all the same, isn’t it? Not exactly.




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In the same way leaving out a comma when you write “Let’s eat, grandma” changes the entire message you’re trying to convey, the “s” in communication(s) gives the term a completely different meaning.


So, how should we distinguish between the two? Let’s break it down.



Let’s get grammatically correct. 

What better place to turn for clarity than the tried and true Merriam-Webster’s dictionary?


communication: a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior (an exchange of information)




communications: the technology of the transmission of information (as by print or telecommunication)


To put it even more simply, communication is the action of sharing information between two or more people. It can be verbal, nonverbal, or written. Communication is essential for building relationships, sharing ideas, and working together.


Communications (with an “s”) is a broader term that refers to the systems and technologies used to communicate. This includes telephone networks, computer networks, radio and television broadcasts, and other mediums.


While it is a subtle difference, as professional communicators, we know better than anyone the value of getting words right. 


Taking a look at real-world examples

The communication vs. communications debate is not new, but we continue to see those who choose to use the two terms interchangeably without a thought, as well as those who are ready to draw a clear line in the sand.


As one editor calls out, “…Communication is the strategy and creativity. It is the planning and managing that takes place first, and then communications are employed (through various media, whether the medium is print or Web or whatever) to get those formulated messages across.” (Joshua De Lung, Executive Editor for Relatively Journalizing)


Here are a few examples of how you might hear the distinction play out in your day-to-day:


"Effective communication is essential for success in the workplace."


"The client had communication problems that ended up losing them customers."


"The teacher's communication skills were excellent."




"The company is investing in new communications technology."


"The government has strict regulations on communications."


"The new communications software made it easy for collaboration."


Why the distinction matters 

The irony of an entire field of communicators miscommunicating about something as basic as our industry titles is reason enough to make sure we’re getting it right.


We see the term “communication(s) department” or “communication(s) manager” accepted as common titles all the time, without much concern about the distinction. There seems to be a common understanding globally that they all mean the same thing, more or less. 


But based on the definitions detailed above, wouldn’t there be a vast difference between a Department of Communications in charge of, say, managing the phone networks within an organization, and a Department of Communication focused on the exchange of information between humans?


An analysis by English Business looks into the use of the terminology across other English-speaking countries and reveals notably interesting results:

  • Communications as a function in an organization: The Merriam-Webster dictionary does mention that communications in U.S. English can be a function in an organization, using “communications department” as an example. The Oxford Dictionary does not have the same classification. 
  • U.S. vs U.K.: Google Trends found the term “communications department” is more popular in the U.S. (along with Ireland, Canada, and Australia), whereas “communication department” is the more popular phrasing in the U.K. 

The findings leave a degree of ambiguity about differing terminology across borders. Here’s where that becomes a problem.


Businesses are getting more and more global, collaborating with other organizations and teams around the world. What if a global partner asks you to draw up a communications plan, focused on infrastructure and channels, and you deliver a communication plan with messaging instead? Not a good first impression. What if you put up a job listing for a communication manager and end up with hundreds of applicants better suited for a communications role to sift through instead? That’s quite the time investment for your hiring manager. These are just a few ways the nondescript terminology can stand in the way of business progress, proving that it’s more important than ever we get intentional about how we describe what we do.


Our stance

At Axia, we describe communication as the art of how we share information, whether that be verbally, nonverbally, in writing, or any other means to form relationships. Communications, in contrast, describes the system we leverage to share that information — broadcast channels, print mediums, online, or others.


In other words, your communication strategy breaks down what to communicate and your communications strategy details what medium to use.

If you’re ready to get clear about your communication strategy and the communications channels best suited to share your story, contact us today or book a one-on-one consultation to get started.


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Photo by August de Richelieu

Topics: PR tips

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