Public Relations vs. Technical Writing

Recently, a student asked me about the difference between PR and technical writing. The two categories overlap from time to time, but in general:

  • A public relations writer delivers a compelling message to influence the behavior or opinions of a broad, general audience.
  • A technical writer provides concise answers to specific problems faced by a small, specialized audience

A technical writer typically writes for experts in a particular field, for people inside an organization, or for people who have already bought a particular product. A public relations person writes or delivers messages for a broader range of people (the "public"), typically in order to get them to spend money, to vote a certain way, or to perform some action. It's possible to get PR jobs for worthwhile organizations such as charities and churches, of course, but public relations is essentially distorting (or at least spinning) the facts to your employer's advantage, while technical writing is (ideally) about explaining something clearly and efficiently.

Note: I'm being terribly biased... please consult a PR person for a more sympathetic view of that profession!

A tech writer must be accurate; a PR person must persuade. Ideally, a tech writer's accurate work will also be persuasive, and a PR person's persuasive work will also be accurate. In fact, a technical writer who is accurate (correctly predicts that a bridge will collapse under certain conditions) but not persuasive (fails to convince a reader to redesign a particular bridge) is not a good communicator. Similarly, a public relations person who successfully persuades (gets a particular candidate elected) but relies upon inaccurate information (lies about the candidate's record) could cause just as much damage.

Nevertheless, public relations requires a certain flair for showmanship -- which can sometimes include dancing around the harsh truth (consider President Clinton: "It depends on what you mean by 'is'").  By contrast, a a tech writer needs to value accuracy and completeness -- to the extent that a particular technical document can appear boring to the non-expert.

I used to write press releases for a summer theatre company, I edited a fundraising newsletter and wrote press releases, and I spent a year doing a radio news internship, so I have some entry-level experience in communications and PR. I personally got frustrated because, no matter how good I thought my press release was, I wasn't a good PR person unless I managed to convince other people to publish news items based on my press releases.

Plus, in some smaller papers, I saw people essentially take 4/5 of my press release, add a few lines of their own, and put their name on it! I couldn't complain about the plagiarism, of course, since I was doing my job by making it easier for other people to write their articles. My boss was happy with me because I "placed the item," but I felt uncomfortable.

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