A Primer on Public Affairs

Public affairs professionals are specialty marketers who master, explain and advocate for ideas, major projects or innovative initiatives and ride to the rescue in times of crisis. They are who to call when you face a communications challenge involving any kind of a public issue.

Public affairs professionals are specialty marketers who master, explain and advocate for ideas, major projects or innovative initiatives and ride to the rescue in times of crisis. They are who to call when you face a communications challenge involving any kind of a public issue.

We have been asked more than once what public affairs involves. Our best answer is a communications challenge that occurs in the shadow of a public issue.

Public issues can loom over marketing, media relations or crisis communications. Public affairs to address a public issue can take the form of strategic communications, marketing plans, crisis counsel or advocacy – and often involves some combination.

Public affairs professionals, at least the ones who know what they’re doing, typically have experience in the public sector or dealing with the public sector, such as a reporter who covers government or the courts. One way or another, they have the scars and skills earned through managing – or muddling through – a public issue.

At its core, public affairs is like any other form of marketing. You need to understand your audience, condense your message and tell your story with effect, whether in writing or orally and whether you have 30 minutes or 30 seconds. That’s why knowledgeable public affairs professionals know the value of research and have a working knowledge of what type of research matches specific challenges.

Some public affairs professionals are attorneys, but all good public affairs professionals have a solid working understanding of the law, legal procedures and judicial language. Public affairs professionals frequently work side by side with attorneys because their respective disciplines overlap. Sometimes the best solution to a public issue is legal; other times it requires changing a law or regulation. 

It is fairly easy to grasp that public affairs involves managing a public issue through direct engagement (open houses, town meetings, door-to-door visits), media outreach (press releases, op-eds, white papers) and social media (explanatory videos, infographics, charts). 

It is less obvious that public affairs centers on reframing or clarifying a complex, contentious public issue. The ability to reframe a contentious issue and clarify a complex one is what sets apart a skilled public affairs professional from someone who simply has ‘public affairs’ on their business card.

Another overlooked attribute of a skilled public affairs professional is the ability to anticipate a public issue and the arc of its evolution. Managers and clients would be wise to listen to warnings from public affairs professionals and their recommendations on how to ward off an impending public issue or at least mitigate its dire consequences.

Public affairs professionals are an important part of any team attempting to advance a major project, respond to a crisis, engage the public on a significant initiative or pass legislation. Public affairs professionals know the lay of the land, media contacts and elected officials and their staffs. Chances are good that an experienced public affairs professional has worked on a similar project or faced an analogous challenge and, as a result, can add valuable perspective of what to do – and not to do.

Effective public affairs depends on who you know and what you know. Experienced public affairs professionals have a lifetime of contacts they can tap for information or attempt to influence. They have watched the wheels of government grind away, followed the footsteps of men and women on planning commissions up to congressional committees and synthesized confusing events into 10 to 12 revealing paragraphs. They have a vertical understanding of public issues that enables them to see the depth of an issue and know where to dig for a solution.

Of course, knowledge has a shelf life. People move on from government, newspaper and nonprofit jobs, so connections need to be refreshed continuously. Communication techniques and channels morph and change. Almost every communications plan worth its salt these days includes a website, social media and video content. As recently as a decade ago, that wasn’t so.

Processes and practices evolve, too. The days of building rapport by taking someone to a professional sporting event or a pricey dinner have ended in the public affairs space, thanks to stricter ethics laws and reporting requirements. Public affairs professionals have adapted by pursuing other ways to build and maintain relationships. Integrity matters more than ever.

One thing hasn’t changed. Public affairs remains a roll-up-your-sleeves, hands-on form of communication. Personal contact, authenticity and compelling presentations are still what makes public affairs effective. Knowing what you’re doing is important, too.

(Since its founding in 1990, CFM Strategic Communications has been regarded as a leading public affairs firm in the Pacific Northwest with experience guiding major projects, developing and executing strategic communications plans and providing crisis counsel.)

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.