Summer placement student Ulla Bartsch has discovered that public relations might involve getting people to buy one brand of cereal instead of another. But in public affairs, you are trying to influence public policy. She knows which she’d prefer.
One day in August last year, I was sitting in an office at a public affairs consultancy in Brussels. It was the second day of my summer placement and I had just been asked to look up the specifics of some sort of voting procedure in the Council of Ministers.
The problem was: up until that very moment, I hadn’t even heard of the Council of Ministers; in fact, I knew very little about any of the EU institutions. At this point it dawned on me that I’d had no idea what I had let myself in for; I felt a bit out of my depth.
According to PR textbooks, public affairs is a public relations specialism. Kevin Moloney defines public affairs as ‘the public relations specialism that seeks to influence public policy making’. Yet somehow it never occurred to me that, as the term ‘PR specialism’ already implies, in addition to standard PR skills, specialist knowledge in a particular area is required. It was only on this second day of my placement that I realised that the knowledge needed for this particular specialism concerned, evidently, government and politics.
So how similar is public affairs to PR? Since returning to university I’ve realised that many PR students have no idea what public affairs is – maybe public affairs is so different from PR that it is a stretch even to call it a public relations discipline.
At the public affairs consultancy, I was surrounded by men. As any PR student will tell you, the majority of students on PR courses are female, and on previous PR placements I had always been working alongside women. No one at the consultancy had a degree in PR or communication; their degrees were all politics-related. To me it certainly seemed like I had left the world of PR – and entered the world of politics.
Public affairs was daunting at first. But my colleagues patiently helped me navigate my way through the institutional maze that is the European Union, and it soon all became easier. From day one, I loved every minute of my public affairs placement, and I don’t think I will ever go back to PR. So what is the allure of public affairs?
To be honest, I used to think politics was rather dull. But once you start to realise what goes on behind the scenes, policy making becomes quite fascinating. When you begin to understand how politics work, you realise that there is so much more to it than what you see on the news on TV.
At the public affairs consultancy, I spent a lot of time doing web research on all sorts of topics and condensing all this research into political monitoring, reports and briefs. Now this might not sound very interesting to many PR students, and the reality is, if you work in public affairs you probably won’t be organising a fairy tale themed store launch party any time soon.
Without a doubt, public affairs is rather more serious than PR. Many PR students are highly creative and enjoy being involved in imaginative campaigns – and public affairs might not be for them. I once told someone I was studying PR, and the reply was “so you’re going to be working as someone’s PA?” I’m sure many PR students could tell similar stories. However, I felt that – as is possibly the case with many PR specialisms – in public affairs you suddenly get taken a lot more seriously.
For me, it all comes down to this: PR is about coming up with creative, original ways to grab your target public’s attention amid the clamour of thousands of media outlets. Public affairs is about getting the attention of policy makers, so you need to behave accordingly and put forward your arguments in convincing and concise ways. In PR you might well be trying to get people to buy your brand of cereal instead of your competitor’s. In public affairs, you are trying to influence public policy.
I’m not saying it’s not exciting to get your company’s name into a national broadsheet. However, I also know what it’s like to have to write press releases trying to make a new range of shower fixtures sound interesting. Laws made in Brussels, on the other hand, have the potential to impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the 27 EU member states.
Public affairs certainly involves communication and makes use of public relations techniques, but it is undeniably a specialism. Not every PR student or practitioner would feel comfortable in public affairs. Depending on where your personal strengths lie, you may well enjoy working in public affairs, but don’t expect the transition to be smooth and easy.