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
It all goes back to the recession in the 1980s when PR pickings
One of the defensive strategies adopted by PR companies was to
redefine themselves as being masters of a wider range of
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
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
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.