Platform: Why relations must be separate from affairs - Public relations and public affairs are complementary industries, but the disciplines themselves are quite different, says Chris Butler

For some time, practitioners of public affairs (the euphemistic term for lobbying) have divided themselves into two camps: those who believe that they are a profession in their own right, and those who are happy to be included within the overall umbrella of PR.

For some time, practitioners of public affairs (the

euphemistic term for lobbying) have divided themselves into two

camps: those who believe that they are a profession in their own

right, and those who are happy to be included within the overall

umbrella of PR.



Why is it that some public affairs people affect such disdain

over the discipline of PR that should at least be complementary

to it?



It all goes back to the recession in the 1980s when PR pickings

ran thin.



One of the defensive strategies adopted by PR companies was to

redefine themselves as being masters of a wider range of

activities.



Thus, the economic cycle encouraged new, more all-embracing terms

such as ’communications consultancy’ - I call it ’intergalactic

PR’ - which tended to displace the term PR. Management

consultancy, public affairs activity, marketing were all added to

the trophy board as corporate capabilities.



The question that must be asked is whether such positioning is

really beneficial or harmful to the core business, and, for that

matter, to the reputation of PR itself. It cannot be to the

ultimate good of the PR profession if it purports to undertake

activities in which its practitioners are either semi-skilled, or

worse, unskilled.



It is also rather misleading to boast of a corporate capability

when in fact that capability is contracted out to a third party

After all, how many PR companies claiming public affairs activity

actually have it in-house?



The most pernicious manifestation of this tendency is to maintain

that public relations and public affairs are one and the same

thing. The nightmare scenario of the public affairs practitioner

is some bright spark PR practitioner boasting about success in

winning a concession from Government before that concession is

actually signed, sealed and enacted.



Nothing is more designed to alert and outrage the opponents of

any such concession. It debases governance and the reputation of

politicians if they can be portrayed as having buckled to a crass

advertising campaign.



The science applied in public affairs is the intellectual

deconstruction and reconstruction of a case followed by its

presentation to the right quarters of the policy-making

machinery. Emotional headlines in the press can so easily be

dismissed by officials as special pleading, tabloid journalism,

and an ignorance of the way government works.



Maybe that is why public affairs professionals turn to the press

sparingly and seldom boast about their successes. Maybe, too,

that is why public affairs’ own PR is so appalling. Why else

would directors of public affairs receive job applications every

day from youngsters desperate to get into the field because they

think that the game is won by padding about the corridors of

Westminster and attending louche cocktail parties?



The roles of public affairs and public relations should be

complementary, and indeed all my experience in having moved to

set up a proper public affairs division within a PR company

proves that the relationship can be highly functional when both

PR and public affairs work jointly on an account without

demarcation disputes. But, within these two disciplines the

people are different, their background and skills are different,

and is best recognised for the science fiction it really is. It’s

PR, Jim, but not as we know it.



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