Public Affairs vs. Public Relations

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Public affairs and public relations sound like interchangeable terms. But although the two disciplines overlap in certain areas – such as the particular communication skills they require – they still have distinct identities and associated career paths. Let’s look at what defines each of these fields and then how they stack up against one another.

What is public affairs?

There are varying definitions of public affairs, but most of the time the term refers to relationships between the public and specific institutions that are adjacent to current political, social and economic issues. In other words, public affairs has a distinctly political dimension, unlike the more commercial concerns of public relations.

Accordingly, a public affairs practitioner will usually work with stakeholders to influence the course of public policy. Specific activities may include:

  • Advocating for or against the passage of legislation.
  • Mobilizing supporters of a cause for the above purpose.
  • Working formally as a lobbyist or consultant.
  • Keeping tabs on public opinion on political and social issues.
  • Distributing information to relevant stakeholders.

What is public relations?

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” This formulation can make PR sound broad enough to encompass public affairs within its bounds, as a sub-discipline.

However, the “mutually beneficial” language in the PRSA definition points to how PR is concerned with reputation management to a much greater extent than public affairs. Whereas public affairs often involves practitioners attempting to influence government action, public relations is more about how organizations shape their perceptions.

Toward that end, PR professionals engage in tasks such as:

  • Drafting press releases and other communications detailing a company’s official positions.
  • Managing crises, via rapid response on channels such as social media and email.
  • Preparing spokespeople for public appearances, e.g. by writing their speeches.
  • Coordinating with advertising and marketing personnel on overall communications strategy.
  • Reaching out to members of the media for placement and coverage.
  • Tracking public sentiment and determining the best ways to connect with audiences.

In short, PR professionals perform more consistently commercial work than public affairs practitioners. At the same time, the two fields require a similar set of skills, including the abilities to write well, connect with stakeholders in the media, and coordinate a multi-channel communications strategy.

By earning an online Master’s in Strategic Public Relations from the George Washington University, you can prepare for a career in PR. Learn more by visiting the main program page today.

PR Council | Public Affairs
PRSA | About Public Relations
Bureau of Labor Statistics | Public Relations Specialists

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