Similar in many ways and yet different in many others, PR and PA have existed side by side for decades, if not longer. However, understanding the difference and deciding how best to utilise each, or both, is vital.
For those not fully inducted into the intricacies of communications strategy, the lines can swiftly become blurred and the two can begin to look the same. Certainly, PR and PA frequently use very similar techniques; both employ strategic communication tactics (in the form of message development, digital outreach and ‘coalition building’ for example) to build awareness, bolster influence and mitigate risk.
Nevertheless, this is often where the similarities end and put simply, the main differentiator is audience. Whilst PR engagement generally seeks to boost an organisation’s reputation through the third-party validation of media exposure, PA work is designed to influence relevant public policy and foster a more favourable legislative environment.
This being said, the decision certainly is not necessarily an either/or scenario and the two frequently flourish when working side-by-side with the skills of PR and PA frequently intertwining to achieve core goals.
For instance, a hard-hitting opinion piece in a key trade title can prove very useful when attempting to persuade the minister responsible for an upcoming piece of relevant legislation. Conversely, demonstrating your influence amongst policymakers will help when boosting your media profile, as journalists will be naturally drawn to the key policy influencers within an industry. Similarly, public opinion, and therefore policymaker support, can be garnered through positive profile in the press – and local media, so often disregarded, can be key to this process.
The same can also be said of more negative scenarios. If a communications crisis is handled badly, policymakers are less likely to seek conversations through fear of being associated with an unpopular organisation.
In short, by addressing both the policy and media fronts, organisations can often maximise the effectiveness of each initiative. Such an approach can also enhance value-for-money in other areas - for example in the case of thought leadership, where research insights can be used to inform both policymakers and journalists alike.
Indeed, when clear goals are set, public relations and public affairs can prove to be a potent combination. However, it is vital that an organisation fully identifies its needs, including defining commercial objectives and assessing potential risks, before it decides where to invest resources.
Who do we want to reach? What is our ultimate goal? What challenges are we currently facing and are they reputational or legislative (or both) in nature? The key to successful communications strategies are most often identified by accurately answering these questions.
Alexander Spurgeon is an Account Manager at Infinite Global