5 common PR terms with murky meanings

Marketers and other communicators toss around ‘content,’ ‘engagement,’ ‘storytelling’ and others of that ilk, but what do we mean by them—and what do we mean by ‘ilk’?

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Who fancies a game of Buzzword Bingo?

Here are five words being used with increasing regularity among communicators:


Content marketing is just about the most overused and overhyped phrase in the public relations industry. In 2015, PR is all about the content. “We’re no longer a PR agency; we’re a creative content agency.” Puh-lease…

PR is using “content” as a solution to its problems, when it’s still coming to grips with what content marketing means and is. In this context, “content” is largely meaningless.

Related: Start winning with words, stories, and message mapping at our PR Writing Summit in Chicago, Aug. 5.


“What’s the key objective of your social media program?”

“We want people to engage with us.”

“Engage about what?”

“Our brand story.” (Please see “Storytelling” below.)

“And how are you going to measure the success of that?”

“Engagement rates.”

“What will that mean to the business?”

“It will show that we’re a conversational brand that loves to engage our customers. It’s all about the conversation, don’t you know…”

You see how ridiculous this is, right? Engagement is not an objective, nor an outcome. It’s just a method of achieving bigger, more important things—if that, even.

Measure it? Absolutely. Talk about it in any other context than a by-product of a proper strategy? Forget it.


When did millennials become a thing? Because boy, are they a thing. What they think, what they do in their leisure time, what they eat, how they communicate—you name it, someone’s written an article about it. Google “millennials,” and you get 13.5 million results.

Gen Y covers anyone born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. Anyone. To say, “We have to target millennials,” is nonsense.

You can’t label everyone born in a single year or month or even day, let alone an entire generation, with the same characteristics. PR pros like to do that, though because it’s “using data and insight.”


If we asked 100 PR people to write down a definition of “storytelling,” we’d get amazingly diverse responses.

Along with “content,” “storytelling” is a crutch that PR pros use to explain why it’s so much more beneficial than other forms of marketing. Except this crutch is made of marshmallows.

I see, “PR has always been great at telling stories,” with alarming regularity, but what does that actually mean? Not much.

Going viral

Ah, yes, “going viral”—the Holy Grail (another buzzword) of all public relations and social media marketing. I’d sell one of my kids to have something go viral for a client, because that would solve all my client’s problems and I could retire a happy man. (Not really.)

Here’s the thing: One man’s “viral” is another man’s “meh.” A client once emailed me very excitedly to tell me: “We’ve gone viral!”
For the client, getting a few tweets was exhilarating, I guess. For the rest of the world it was at best humdrum.

Going viral has no context and no link to anything meaningful.

A version of this post first appeared on Paul Sutton’s blog.

Topics: PR


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