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Public affairs vs. public relations: What’s the difference?

03 Jun, 2014


Marketers sometimes use the terms ‘public relations’ and ‘public affairs’ interchangeably, however there are clear and present differences between the two.

In business, and indeed in terms of marketing in general, public affairs (PA) and public relations (PR) are not at all the same thing and learning to distinguish between these two terms is crucial to a company’s branding and overall marketing effectiveness.

Whilst both descriptions have overlapping qualities and both involve building relationships with the public via a range of similar and in some cases, symbiotic tactics, campaigns and marketing collateral, their methods, aims and overall goals differ in both scope and magnitude.

Public affairs is all about informing the general public directly on such things as laws and legislation, policing, local ordinances, constitutional changes and public administration. It has no real measurable KPIs and is only concerned with disseminating information and building a public consensus.

Public relations on the other hand focuses on an organisation’s capabilities and its relationship with the public at large. PR’s main aim is to develop a brand, enhance an organisation’s image, and promote its products and services through an ever-increasing toolbox of promotional methods.

Conversely, PA practitioners aim to influence public policy, build and maintain a strong reputation and find common ground with all stakeholders. Therefore, the messaging is less commercial with organisations highlighting long term and at times, local issues.

Many large construction, mining or resources companies have both PA and PR departments - with the former developing the strategy and the latter using a variety of proven techniques to execute and deliver those strategies with measurable outcomes.

One example is the $8 billion North West Rail Link project in Sydney. The construction consortium building this huge project does not have a PR department – it has a PA one instead. As there is no need to create a measurable outcome, the idea is to build networks and reinforce public trust. PR is not required for a project that is already a fait accompli.

PR is in many ways the verb to the PA noun and requires a significant amount of creativity and ability to come up with original ideas to grab the public’s attention amid a flurry of competing and even contradictory messages.

PA on the other hand, requires more alliance or network building and while public affairs firms or departments use many public relations’ tools to influence public policy, the main aim of PA is to set the tone and balance (or start) the conversation and not to sell a product or service.

Put another way, while PA may develop the recipe and cooking instructions, it’s PR that cooks the meal, serves the food, washes the dishes and pours the drinks, all the while ensuring appetites have been satisfied and the customer returns.


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