Businesses, nonprofits, trade associations, educational institutions and governments have audiences they must please to survive. Those audiences are as varied as shareholders, legislators and customers, communities, investors and voters. These organizations use the communication expertise of public affairs and public relations professionals to inform their various audiences about activities, services and products that affect and interest them. A career in public affairs lets you influence legislative and regulatory issues, while public relations work opens a more creative door to building public interest in an organization’s programs and products.
Public Affairs Mission
The decisions local, state and federal lawmakers make affect private enterprises. Public affairs practitioners follow pending legislation and regulations and, through communication campaigns and presentations, provide facts and information to get policy makers to consider their organizations' or clients' interests. In addition to working with lawmakers, public affairs professionals often take an issue directly to the public whose opinion is essential to policy development.
Role of Public Relations
Public relations, according to the Public Relations Society of America, "builds mutually beneficial relationships" through strategically executed communications. PR efforts work to mold public perception of an organization, its products and services, and its corporate citizenship. Public relations includes employees, shareholders, investors and the general public among the audiences it targets, depending on its assignment. Media relations, crisis management, speech writing and employee communications are specialty areas within the public relations field.
Public affairs is a branch of public relations. Practitioners of both functions build and maintain relationships with their respected audiences. They apply the same skills in their work, including special-event planning, preparing news releases and assembling media kits. Both deal with the media and the press. Both have professional accreditation options: certification in PAC & Grassroots Management from the Public Affairs Council and accredited public relations designation through Public Relations Society of America.
The governmental aspect of public affairs activities keeps its communication budget lower than a public relations budget for a project of similar magnitude to avoid the impression of wasting money. Public affairs and PR have different goals. University of Alabama professor Dr. Suzanne Horsley told "Platform Magazine" that public affairs has the good of the public in mind, while public relations seeks to sell products. Public affairs works more directly with lawmakers and politicians, while public relations speaks to its audiences more through events and different media platforms.
Students often overlook public affairs as a career. However, working in public affairs can give aspiring public relations professionals the experience they need to land a job in an agency or corporation, advises Dr. Horsley. Both careers look for applicants with college degrees who have strong writing and speaking skills and familiarity with social media.