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The Splash Page Essay

The Communications Professions:
Public Relations, Public Affairs, Public Diplomacy,
Public Information and Public Communications.

By Tim Dunne, CD, MA

What is the difference among the various forms of public communications? How does public relations differ from public affairs and how does that differ from public information. The various professions of public communications are fundamentally different, sometimes they are complementary and other times, completely separate.

The various definitions tell only part of the story:

Public Relations is the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program to earn public understanding and acceptance. -- from Effective Public Relations by Scott Cutlip, Allen Center and Glen Broom (6th edition)

Public Information uses journalists in residence to disseminate relatively objective information through the mass media and controlled media such as newsletters, brochures, and direct mail. -- from Excellence in Public Relations and communication Management edited by James E. Grunig

Public Affairs is the more integrated practice which uses research and communications to establish and foster a two-way, interactive relationship with members of the audiences and publics to whom the organization is responsible.

Public Affairs is the provision of information to the public, press and other institutions concerning the goals, policies and activities of the U.S. Government. Public affairs seeks to foster understanding of these goals through dialogue with individual citizens and other groups and institutions, and domestic and international media. However, the thrust of public affairs is to inform the domestic audience." (from The Planning Group)

Public Diplomacy "...seeks to promote the national interest of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences." (Planning Group for Integration of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department (June 20, 1997); or, according to Hans N. Tuch, author of Communicating With the World (St. Martin's Press, NY, 1990), public diplomacy is: official government efforts to redevelop the international pubic environment to implement American foreign policy, to reduce misperceptions and misunderstandings between the United States and other members of the international community.

Other definitions:

"PUBLIC DIPLOMACY refers to government-sponsored programs intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries; its chief instruments are publications, motion pictures, cultural exchanges, radio and television." (U.S. Department of State, Dictionary of International Relations Terms, 1987, p. 85)

The U.S. Information Agency has been the principal U.S. practitioner of public diplomacy for almost fifty, defined PUBLIC DIPLOMACY as follows:

Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.

A Library of Congress study of U.S. international and cultural programs and activities prepared for the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate, noted that the term public diplomacy was first used in 1965 by Dean Edmund Gullion of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and created with the establishment of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy at Fletcher.

The Murrow Center, in one of its earlier brochures, described public diplomacy as follows:

"Public diplomacy . . . deals with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy; the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with those of another; the reporting of foreign affairs and its impact on policy; communication between those whose job is communication, as between diplomats and foreign correspondents; and the processes of intercultural
communications.

"Central to public diplomacy is the transnational flow of information and ideas." In short, the profession of public relations and public diplomacy are responsible to monitor issues that relate to or have an impact on the client or employer (proponent), develop, shape and mold a public environment that is most conducive to the promotion of activities and implement measures that permit the proponent to be perceived in its most favourable light to
encourage the acceptability of its activities.

Public affairs, on the other hand, is normally the tool of government and publicly-owned and administered agencies and provides full, timely and accurate information to the public. Normally, the profession communicates through the mass media as this is the most effective communications conduit to the public. The role of public affairs is not to "spin" the information that is being provided, but to permit the public at large to develop its own opinion about the quality and acceptability of the work that is being done on their behalf.

However, if there is a misperception or a miscommunication of the information, the public affairs function requires that the people responsible for the communications process or program must make every effort to correct the information.

Public affairs is not an inexpensive alternative to its cousins, but a separate and distinct profession which uses the same media but different forms of information to communicate to the public.

Does this difference make public relations and pubic diplomacy immoral or wrong and public affairs right and proper?

Not at all. Like other commercial counsellors such as legal and financial advisors and accountants, public relations consultants are employed to be advocates for their employers. As such, molding the public environment and providing promotional commentary is essential for the communications counsel. To do otherwise is unprofessional and improper, and does not ethically meet the needs of the client.

© COPYRIGHT 2011 – TJD Communications Consultants, Inc.