By Al Maiorino

Organizations often seek a relationship with their public and struggle finding the effective way to do so. This is when public relations and public affair firms are hired. Believing that public relations is an umbrella term and public affairs is a mere specialty within it, many organizations jump into hiring a public relations team without knowing the full benefits of both industries. Definitions and firms are completely different. Organizations must acknowledge the differences between public relations firms and public affairs firms to effectively have their message delivered.

Public Relations is ongoing commercialization. It is the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics. Firms have creative, original ways to grab the target public’s attention amid thousands of media outlets swarming with messages. Messages help develop a brand, create an image and ultimately provide publicity an organization needs. The communication then becomes more commercialized.

Public Affairs can be more short-lived commercialization. With public affairs, the messages are less commercialized and firms concentrate on localized issues between the people and a legislative body or an organization and its community. The main focus is obtaining support and debunking opposition through grassroots communication by building relationships with communities.

The main goal of a grassroots campaign is to bridge the gap between companies and the community. In such campaigns, public affairs specialists seek local support to build allies in order to form a supporter coalition. Grassroots campaigns include a wide range of activities—creating and maintaining a database of supporters, sending out informative mailers to local residents, organizing petition drives, and encouraging community members to write letters of support to their elected officials and local newspapers. In the end, the primary goal of a grassroots campaign is to send a positive message about the project through the community or targeted area. When building a relationship with a selected group of people regarding your company, project or legislative issue, grassroots campaigns are the best way to go.

Public affairs certainly involves public relations techniques in a day-to-day capacity, but it most often influences the impacts of projects, initiatives and announcements on respective communities. This is where public affairs firms meet “Not In My Backyard” groups. NIMBY groups represent members in communities who debate over nearby developments. Often, these NIMBYs dispute projects regardless of the project’s nature and apparent benefits. The fact that a development might enter their community spurns NIMBYs to action. This action is frustrating for developers and community members who may support the project or even growth in the community.

Very often the opposition stems from misinformation and poor communication between project representatives and the community. Sometimes communities form their negative opinion based on misunderstood facts about the proposed development. In addition, local residents may not know the benefits the project will bring to their community. Public affairs plays on the offensive. Instead of waiting for the opposition to grow, public affairs concentrates on providing communities with the real facts and advantages of your project.

Public affairs firms develop extensive experience in winning land use and zoning campaigns. They are familiar with referendum management, legislative issues, and use grassroots campaigns to build a reputation and find common ground with communities and NIMBYs. Some public relations firms aren’t always equipped with the necessary tools and experience in developing rapport with a community. Additional knowledge of government and policies is needed beyond public relations knowledge. Public affairs practitioners foster relationships with communities, their NIMBYs and organizations.

Often, public relations firms do not specialize in NIMBY opposition. Their campaigns tend to target the entire community, create awareness of their client, and generate positive attitudes. There is little negotiation and direct contact with NIMBYs.

Public relations is considered a highly credible form of promotion. According the Edelman trust barometer, it is more credible to advertising 9:1. Professionals know how to strategically capitalize on the influence of the media to portray messages. Various tactics such as press kits and social media management are used to establish credibility for a company in the minds of targeted consumer groups.

A public affairs firm can use many public relations’ tools to influence public policy. The two types of firms overlap in many areas: relationship building, researching publics, implementing and maintaining their campaigns and measuring impact. Even though they have their similarities, the biggest difference is in each firm’s campaigns and the specialization of their practitioners.

Public relations organizations possess a wide variety of tactics and skills, but when building a relationship with a selected group of people regarding a company, project or legislative issue, public affairs campaigns may be best way to go. When an organization thinks about hiring a firm, they should always consider their audience, the type of campaign they want, and the specializations of the firm’s practitioners. Organizations must acknowledge the differences between public relations firms and public affairs firms to effectively reach their publics.

Maiorino is president of Public Strategy Group, based in Boston, Mass. He can be reached at: 617-859-3006.