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Private Sector PR vs. Government Public Affairs: A Difference In Terminology With Real Implications

This was my response to a followup question on the previous post, "5 Ways To Work Effectively With The Media: Tips for Federal Communicators."

 

On the positive side, federal communicators are extraordinarily sharp people (and have always been). Also positive, the sophistication level in terms of technique and in terms of the demand for transparency is growing by leaps and bounds. Just in the past five years, it's literally amazing to me. 

 

Furthermore positive, I have always known agency leaders to be sophisticated in terms of their ability to read the tea leaves, and to exercise good judgment. One memory in particular stands out of Robert Bonner, the former head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Bonner was amazing - he used to scribble out **all** of my drafts of his executive message for the monthly magazine and write it himself. I remember that handwriting!

 

But there is a less positive side, that hopefully we will overcome. And that is the failure to distinguish in theoretical terms between "public affairs" and "public relations." Many times, more times than I can count, I have personally experienced frustration that agencies were not as forthcoming as they could be, because there was a prevailing opinion that silence is golden.

 

This is not tied to one administration or another...rather it's a constant battle between those who generally want to "avoid trouble," and in their shortsighted view this means not talking about problems for fear of provoking (insert exaggerated worry).

 

Unfortunately I've seen communicators suffer because they were perceived as too open...because they did not understand the unwritten rules.

 

What is really sad, to me, is the contradiction between the incredible integrity of public servants, and the incredible distrust the public has for the government. And every single time we open up and are transparent, we find ourselves rewarded with greater trust - just the opposite of what is feared!

 

Where things do go wrong - and of course they do! - the best course of action is to tell it early, tell it often, tell it clearly, and be overall matter of fact about it. This is not just good government practice it's good PR practice as well! 

 

At the end of the day, the key difference between private sector PR and government public affairs is who is paying the bill and what expectations they're bound by. The private sector PR expert is trying to help their client resuscitate or enhance their image. The government public affairs expert is trying to help the taxpayer get the information they need and more broadly trying to help the government function effectively and efficiently. 

 

Confusion over this distinction is the source of another hornet's nest of misunderstanding, and that is the term "branding." The word means "propaganda" to so many, but for government it actually means doing a better job at communication - unifying the agency inside and giving the public a consistent and useful experience on the outside.

 

Further Reading

 

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All opinions my own. Originally posted to Quora. Public domain photo by hbieser via Pixabay.