Terms of confusion

For a profession that’s claim to fame is communication, the industry in which I work seems to have turned confusion into an art form – especially when it comes to position descriptions.

Marketing, marcomms, public relations, corporate communications, media relations, media liaison, stakeholder relations, issue management, corporate affairs, public affairs, online marketing, digital marketing, social media marketing.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I have sat with senior executives or managers from other professional disciplines as they grappled to understand the role titles listed by a potential candidate in a job application. 

I suspect the varied descriptions of positions and functions is evidence of people seeking to avoid using the word public relations, which, for some, is viewed in a negative light.  A survey in Australia completed about 10 years ago showed about 15-20 names used to describe a range of activities that broadly relate to PR.  The notion of the smooth talking spin-doctor is one that many PR operatives have been anxious to dispel.

So I’d like to offer a quick guide to some of descriptions used in many job descriptions or departmental names.   At the risk of having the pedantic types jump down my throat, let me say in advance: This is deliberately simplistic – avert your eyes now:

Marketing as in Marketing Manager, Marketing Officer, Marketing Coordinator, Marketing Assistant:  Marketing describes those activities that drive awareness of a product, service or key message.  As a broad rule of thumb, marketing involves expenditure of money to place your message – as opposed to public relations, where no money is paid for placement.  Marketing in Australia tends to be mainly focused on promotion but worldwide the term runs much deeper, with marketing professionals involved in product creation, pricing and distribution.

Marcomms: A shortening for Marketing Communications.  This is used mainly where the marketing team does not have direct responsibility for product development or pricing. 

Public Relations: Broadly describes any activity that is designed to improve perception of an individual, company or organisation.  It differs from marketing in most cases because the activities that fall under the marketing umbrella generally don’t involve the exchange of money for a third party to promote a message or product.  Public relations, or PR as it is commonly known, is often used interchangeably with media relations or media liaison, which is really a gross simplification of what PR is all about. (See below)

Media relations: Is one specific function of public relations, which involves communication with journalists.  Simplistically there are two kinds of media relations:


  1. Proactive or promotional, which is where an organisation or company actively encourages journalists to cover news related to the company’s activities.
  2. Defensive: This covers situations where PR people endeavour to influence the reporting of journalists who are prompted to report an incident involving the company or criticism by third parties of that company.


Corporate communications: This is a “catch all” phrase that can extend from paid marketing to public relations.  Generally speaking the phrase describes a function within a company that is focused on helping that company to communicate with people inside and outside in order to achieve its business objectives.

Media liaison: The same as media relations – although this phrase tends to be used in organisations whose activities by nature attract a lot of coverage and therefore require qualified professionals to ensure the interaction with the media runs smoothly and doesn't disrupt operational activities.  Good examples would be emergency services like the police or sporting organisations.

Stakeholder relations: This is a specific function often within a corporate communications or PR team that provides advice or assistance in helping a company build and maintain better relationships with groups or individuals who have a stake in that company’s activities.

Issue Management: This is a specific activity and increasingly a specific function of some businesses that is designed to anticipate issues before or after they emerge, which have the capacity to damage a company’s reputation or relationships with key stakeolders.

Crisis communications:  This describes communication activity that normally takes place at a time of crisis – whether that be an event or an emerging issue likely to severely disrupt a company’s operations or to negatively impact on reputation and trust. This is a sub-discipline of crisis management - although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, which does muddy the waters a little.

Corporate Affairs: This is a phrase used to describe a range of functions that normally covers public relations including media relations, stakeholder relations, government relations and a range of unpaid communications. 

Public Affairs: This is very similar to corporate affairs.

Online marketing: : This is really about message and product promotion using the Internet.

Digital marketing: Much the same as online marketing but often extending out from sole reliance on websites to include other channels like phone-messaging, twitter, facebook and social media.

Social media marketing.  The application of marketing theory and practice to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to sell stuff or convince people of a particular message or raise awareness of an issue or cause.

Brand marketing: This might refer to a function that is focused on creating communications that help build perception of a company within the minds of consumers.  More powerfully, it describes marketing activity – often in the form of advertising – that is designed to stir feelings of attraction for a particular company among a key target audience.  In some instances, companies will split the marketing function into two: One that is focused on driving brand awareness and emotional engagement and the other that seeks to take advantage of that attractiveness to make promote products and services.

Reputation management: This is really another way of describing public relations but tends to be more focused on perception than actual behaviour.  

Community relations: Often used interchangeably with public relations especially for companies who may not offer products or services direct to customers but whose activities might impact on the community in which they operate.  (eg, a mine site close to a townsite).