Public Affairs and PR

Communications are strategic when they are based on solid research, regardless whether you are pitching public policy or soda pop.There is a difference between public affairs and public relations, but not much, or certainly not as much as some would say.

A recent blog by Paige Hawin contrasted the two, saying public affairs is associated with legislation and public policy, while public relations is aimed at connecting with the public to implement a marketing plan. She said PR is often regarded as an extension of advertising. 

We disagree. All forms of strategic communications are at their core marketing, or should be. The marketing discipline demands solid research to inform communications strategies, choices of spokespersons, mix of tactics and preferred channels — regardless whether your objective is to change public policy or sell deodorant.

A maxim of marketing is to target your audience. You can't be something to everybody. You have to stand for something for a particular group of somebodies. This is why effective marketing plans tend to be segmented — you identify a target audience, understand what appeals to that audience and where they will pay attention to your message and have a good chance to see or hear it.

Looked at from that perspective, pursuing a policy objective or selling chunks of cheese are pretty much the same thing. All that's different — and this isn't always true — is the target audience, spokespersons and value proposition. The tools, tactics and channels are often the same or even identical — websites, social media, events, earned media and paid media. Content marketing is a critical element in public affairs and public relations.

Take egg producers, for example. They face mounting pressure from special interest groups — and now state legislatures — to manage their chicken flocks in a more humane way. But the pressure for cage-free eggs also is felt in the grocery store and consumers vote with their checkbook in choosing which eggs to buy. The public affairs and public relations efforts for egg producers would look pretty similar and definitely should be integrated.

Firms describe public affairs and public relations in different ways, usually to reflect their core competency or client mix. But trying to parse the differences can miss the point. Does an agency follow a solid, reliable marketing model, regardless of whether they are talking to policymakers or homemakers?

There are differences between public affairs and public relations, but they aren't differences that determine success or failure. Success is determined by how well you zero in on your audience, offer a convincing message they believe and project it in places they will see in a voice they trust.