Companies and nonprofits can get into trouble when their community outreach, public relations, government relations and marketing aren't in sync. This isn’t a rare problem.
The concept of public affairs grew out of the need to find a solid bridge between lobbying and PR. That bridge has added more lanes with the rise of public engagement, social media, content marketing and calls for transparency.
It may sound silly to some that the lobbyist should talk to the marketer, but it isn’t silly at all. Both are engaged in a form of positioning for their company or organization. Their messages will reach many of the same people, who will notice if the messages aren’t harmonious – for example, you tell customers you are environmentally conscious, but lobby against environmental legislation.
In today’s environment, companies and organizations express their branding in many more ways than paid advertising. How they lobby and what they lobby for can be as telling for some stakeholders and customers as how they market their product or service.
Marketing itself has undergone a major transformation, moving away from pushing messages to customer engagement. It is no longer enough to proclaim your value proposition, you also have to demonstrate your value.
Public affairs professionals may seem an odd choice to bridge policy and branding. In fact, they are the perfect choice. They come from varied backgrounds – journalism, law, politics, planning, but they have some common characteristics. They understand public policy and the political process. They have solid communications skills. They have connections and know how to make more.
Perhaps the strongest trait of accomplished public affairs professionals is the analytical ability to synthesize a problem and identify one or more viable options to solve it. Some issues may take years to resolve in a courtroom, but could be addressed more directly and quickly in a legislative hearing room. For all of its warts, the public policymaking process can work, if you have the patience, experience and expertise to know how to make it work.
In almost every way that matters, lobbying is just a form of niche marketing. You have a narrowly defined target audience – lawmakers or agency officials – which you need to persuade. Using a bullhorn can be as ineffective as trying to influence a consumer with fancy TV ads. What counts most is relationships that build trust. With trust, you can provide principled arguments, validated information and credible proposals. That is a fair approximation of the marketing sales cycle.
The greatest value of experienced public affairs professionals is they know how to bring together the right people and use the most effective tools to tackle a problem successfully. They understand the roles of project managers, marketing executives, lawyers and other consultants rather than try to supplant or undermine those roles. They build teams, not silos. They focus on results, not taking credit.
PR people like to describe public affairs as a subset of what they do. Government relations specialists, especially the ones who actually lobby, think of themselves apart from PR and even public affairs. However, smart organizations and savvy clients are beginning to recognize the value of someone who can tie together a lot of loose ends, who can connect the dots on a complex policy and marketing puzzle. The number they have on speed dial is someone with solid public affairs credentials.
Gary Conkling is president 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.