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Have corporate PR and public affairs become same?

29th March 2018


What’s the difference between public affairs and PR? That’s a regular question at dinner parties but also a question which makes it into client meetings and even internal board meetings.

After I’d answered it a few times the penny began to drop that this was industry jargon which few people outside professional communications understood. Moreover it began to occur to me that the terminology divide shouldn’t exist at all. There shouldn’t be two different worlds with some invisible dividing wall between them.

Unnecessary barriers
If you have the words ‘public affairs’ in your job title you’re frequently told by media and PR people that you shouldn’t talk to journalists. Equally, public affairs people regularly talk in terms of being ‘above’ media relations or make out that they don’t have the special skills required to ‘sell in’ or approach journalists.

There’s been a bit of movement towards integration, but traditionally our industry has put barriers between those who talk to decision makers and those who write about the decisions which are being made. The result of this odd specialism means that we don’t get the biggest bang for our messaging buck.

What clients want
When we set up our agency we asked what it was the client wanted to buy? We resolved that clients really wanted to buy two things: reputation and influence. Unless they are comms professionals schooled in the siloed thinking which has emerged from our profession they have not thought about this divide. Nor should they have.

The truth is: to build reputation and influence you need two simple ingredients: great messages, and a great strategy to get those messages to the right people. When it comes to influencing decision makers, you need to get the messages to them directly as well as via the channels they consume. Air cover is as important as the direct fire.

One for all
I firmly believe that the same people should be constructing the messages as delivering them. That could either happen in one organisation or in one agency or a combination of those two vehicles irrespective of the job titles associated with the individuals in that delivery.

A few years back I was in one agency devising a strategy to get to decision makers. We were playing competitive games against another agency employed by the client to influence one set of media whilst a third and fourth agency were employed to get to different sets of media. Of course so much resource was used in driving separate strategies, protecting those strategies from other agency competitors, keeping key tactics quiet and trying to ensure we were the agency which was maximising profile with the client. What a waste.

The really successful agencies today are those who have eradicated resource waste from lack of integration. They have grasped this nettle and integrated their communications professionals effectively across all channels.

Joined-up thinking
Yes, let’s get in some specialist knowledge where we need it, but the consummate communications professional will be able to build the right media noise around a parliamentary/government/decision making campaign. They will know which media to talk to and how those media outlets influence the decision makers they are targeting.

I wonder if, in the future, we’ll get rid of the expressions ‘public affairs’ and ‘PR’ and simply have ‘reputation and influence managers’. That way we would have integrated campaigns delivering effective models with no waste and extra cost for the client. 

Article written by Dirk Paterson, director of agency The Corporate Comms Shop



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