I hear people use the terms “public affairs” and “public relations” (PR) interchangeably quite often. But, while I understand why this happens, these two fields are actually very different. Depending on a variety of factors, your business may benefit greatly from engaging with a public affairs firm and not even have a need for a PR firm - or vice versa. So if you’re thinking it’s time to enlist the help of a partner in one of these fields, here are some questions to ask to ensure you head in the right direction.
1. What is your primary goal?
Whenever you set out to work with any external expert, it’s important to first spend time thinking through your objectives. What are you wanting to achieve by looping in this person or agency? Sometimes, a business leader will have a vague idea of what they want to accomplish, but take it a few steps further. Make sure you clearly define what success means to you in this context before beginning an engagement with an outside firm.
Let’s say your company developed a new software system designed to help the government identify red flags in nonprofits’ financial reporting. But, you ran into a problem because of a particular privacy law. So, you want to change this policy in order for your solution to work as intended, which will require an understanding of the government, policy making and so forth. Since this goal is political in nature, you’d want to consult a public affairs firm.
So then let’s look at another version of this scenario. Let’s pretend you’re with the same company selling the same solution outlined above, but you have a different goal. Instead of changing policy, you’re looking to change public opinion about your product. So, your tactics may include issuing a press release and pitching the media. Since this goal is commercial in nature, you’d be best served working with a public relations agency.
2. Who are you hoping to influence?
Your goal is your desired end destination, but there are a lot of plot points on the way there. One of the biggest ones is influence. Both public affairs and public relations deal in the currency of influence, but they’re handled in different ways.
Public affairs professionals leverage connections in the private and public sectors, in order to help clients form strategic relationships and partnerships. For example, if your business is looking to win a government healthcare contract, you’d look to your public affairs firm to introduce you to the government benefits director, the procurement officer responsible for this area, and perhaps an elected official who cares about the quality and affordability of healthcare plans. This is why our tagline at Traversant Group is “Expand your Influence;” because the people you know and the relationships you have can make all the difference in realizing your goals.
PR professionals operate differently. Relationships are still important in this field, but it’s more about relationships with the media and the public. If you’re wanting to get exposure to potential investors, for instance, you could engage with a PR agency to secure earned media (e.g. a magazine feature about your company’s growth and vision). They’ll use their relationships with the media and knowledge of the industry to convince an editor that you and your company deserve to be in the limelight of this targeted audience. PR firms also help with things like crisis management and reputation management, which can also involve the need to influence particular people.
3. What specific expertise do you need?
Finally, it’s important to think through one more component: expertise. Not all public affairs firms are created equally, and the same is true for public relations firms. Depending on your industry, offerings and goals, it’s important to seek out a partner that speaks the same language as you while filling in complementary skill sets.
If you’re a tech provider who wants to sell to the government, for instance, Traversant Group could very well be the right public affairs firm for you. We’ve walked this road countless times with many clients. But if you’re a tech company wanting to publicize an upcoming acquisition, conversely, you should consult a public relations company that has experience handling M&As.
Hopefully at this point you have a clearer idea of whether you’re in the market for a public affairs partner or a public relations partner. But remember that sometimes, you may even need both. And that can be great! Public affairs and public relations are well suited to work hand-in-hand when the need arises. Either way, these are both nuanced fields best navigated by seasoned professionals who are trained to shepherd you and your business through them - until you achieve your end goal.