We can define public affairs as “issues arising from the relationship of the public to an organization such as a government body or a financial institution.” Substitute the word “client” for “public,” and you arrive at the essence of a public affairs practice.
Each day, elected and regulatory officials make decisions impacting private businesses. The public affairs sub-discipline seeks to shape public opinion, and in the process influence government actions or decisions in ways that aid client interests. As one industry executive reminds us, “public affairs goes beyond advocating for products or helping clients gain market share. It’s about protecting the corporate brand in what may be far more challenging waters.”
Indeed the law making process in the United States is multi-layered and filled with opportunities for outside groups to make their voices heard. In this arena, PR firms oftentimes advocate on behalf of their clients’ interests by providing relevant information to the lawmakers creating and voting on the bills that impact their business. To further protect and promote their clients, public affairs professionals serve as trusted advisers, helping build reputations and influencing the world’s power centers, and they also fight intensive, short-term policy battles. In the United States, much of this activity takes place on the Federal level and centers on Washington, DC. Each state also has its own robust public affairs activity centering mainly in the state capitol.
Over the past two decades, corporations, trade associations and advocacy organizations have increased engagement in public affairs campaigns. This reflects in part the greater media’s increasing tendency to cover what has traditionally been a “Washington-focused” public policy conversation. As more attention shifts to the impact of policies on the world beyond the Beltway, clients are acknowledging that they need to be part of the conversation. Additionally, clients of all backgrounds are recognizing that multiple audiences influence how they are perceived. The broader topics that dominate many of the headlines are the ones that present the greatest opportunities in public affairs: Healthcare, education, energy, environment and the economy. It currently represents almost 10% of the public relations firm business.