Public Affairs VS Public Relations: What’s the difference?

Understanding the distinction between PR and public affairs is useful for organisations looking to establish their identity and tell their stories.

As their names suggest, public affairs and public relations both involve interacting with the public. You’ll find PR and public affairs professionals working in a variety of industries, including non-profits, government agencies, corporations and private companies.

Both involve engaging with the public, shaping public opinion and creating and managing public outreach strategies that will build relationships.

The key difference is, public affairs relates to matters that affect the public directly, such as legislation or public administration. Public relations has a more commercial role, bridging the gap between a business or organisation, and the public.

Corporate, non-profit and public agencies employ both PR and public affairs professionals, who often work side by side, combining their related, but different skill sets. They collaborate when needed, and work toward similar results, but they are distinct roles.

Public affairs tend to focus on public policy, and is typically aligned with non-corporate entities, such as government agencies or nonprofits, whereas public relations leans toward marketing objectives.

Good PR professionals are adept at branding and executing PR campaigns. PR is usually focused on helping companies from a promotional perspective. A public relations campaign will focus on generating goodwill and improving the image of a company, driving awareness about its product or service, and establishing its founders or most significant innovators as thought leaders, respected among industry peers for their perspectives.

Public relations focuses mostly on marketing. But instead of taking out paid advertisements, PR professionals do this by attempting to generate positive publicity through telling the story of the company.

A PR company will assess your company, find any unique angles and compelling messages and turn these into positive marketing stories. They’ll use social media, press and word-of-mouth to generate buzz. A PR company will:

  • Draft press releases, making the most of unique and consequential developments in your business to draw the attention of journalists looking for fresh, relevant and engaging content.
  • Handle public relations crisis management, reacting dynamically and intuitively to navigate a disruption or crisis that could threaten to undermine years of hard won trust in a brand.
  • Send pitches to journalists, leveraging established contacts and relationships to interest the writers who produce articles read by hundreds of thousands of people.
  • Develop a branding strategy that often involves a ‘discovery phase’ to establish and promote a brand’s core identity.
  • Utilise social media to create new audiences online.
  • Write blogs and articles to keep your brand in the public consciousness, often positioning you as a thought leader.

In contrast, public affairs is a more political industry and focuses on influencing policy. It may also help corporations build relationships with stakeholders, but there is rarely a commercial objective behind a public affairs campaign.

Public affairs professionals are skilled at positioning issues, and have experience working with elected officials, with the goal of influencing public policy. They are able to translate emerging trends into adept advocacy and socially responsible strategies.

Individuals who work in public affairs will also work with companies and individuals, but this industry tends to focus on public policy and lawmaking. When legislators pass new laws, this has an effect on business interests, and it is up to public affairs professionals to keep business abreast of new developments and maintain engagement.

Public affairs can also involve helping corporations build goodwill with their stakeholders. Stakeholders are a key part of any business, so it’s in a company’s best interest to maintain such relationships.

Companies often use public affairs as a way to bridge the gap between business interests and public policy. This will be achieved by:

  • Regularly establishing contact with politicians, political advisors and government regulators.
  • Maintaining a strong relationship with company stakeholders.
  • Monitoring policy proceedings.
  • Contacting journalists.
  • Building relationships with media outlets.
  • Influencing public policy through sophisticated language.

Even though public affairs and public relations are different concepts, they share important characteristics. People in public affairs and public relations roles rely on creating, developing, and executing campaign strategies that aim to draw a specific public response.

A person in a public affairs role might build a multimedia campaign highlighting the benefits of recycling in an effort to encourage more people to participate. A public relations team might represent the brand whose products are being recycled, and draw attention to the positive steps that business is taking as part of its business philosophy.

In a complicated media landscape, understanding the distinctions between public relations and public affairs, and identifying PR as the most appropriate and effective category for your business, is a good first step in engaging with the public to build relationships and tell your stories.

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