Why public affairs matters

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Palace of Westminster (Joseph Sharp)
Palace of Westminster (Joseph Sharp)

We’ve been publishing a #ThisWeekinPR round-up for over four years, providing a snapshot of what’s interesting in the world of UK public relations – or perhaps more precisely what interests me.

The 8 September 2017 post was the first in this series, and it covered the expulsion of Bell Pottinger from the PRCA which led to the firm’s collapse.

Below this headline, the entries were merely an undifferentiated list under ‘Pick of the posts’. Among these, Robert Phillips‘s take on public relations ethics in the light of the Bell Pottinger scandal is worth re-reading, not least because we’ve since lost his valuable critical voice to cancer.

Since 2017 #ThisWeekinPR has expanded and the entries appear under section headings (eg ‘internal communication’, ‘technology, media and digital’). Recently, I’ve noted the growth in ESG (environmental, social and governance) content, but the clearest trend since 2019 has been the strength of the content under ‘politics, public affairs and public sphere’.

If you need some convincing that politics matters, just consider: Brexit, the climate emergency, the building fire safefy scandal, the migrant crisis, the phasing out of petrol and diesel vehicles, the calls for an independent Scotland, the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland – for starters.

Politics matters, therefore public affairs is an important aspect of public relations. And the contentious relationship between politics and public affairs is seen every time there’s a so-called lobbying scandal.

Everyone working in public relations should be alert to trends and issues. For some, this leads to a specialism in public affairs.

This article explores the relationship between public relations and public affairs.

As Kevin Moloney and Conor McGrath argue in Rethinking Public Relations (third edition published in 2019): ‘all of us are profoundly affected by the outcome of politics.’ We can’t ignore politics like we can choose to ignore commercial promotional activity.

They identify the revolving door between politics and corporate communication, exemplified by one-time deputy prime minister and 2017 election loser Nick Clegg’s subsequent role as Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications at Facebook.

Yet despite the revolving door and despite the blurring between policy and presentation, they see value in the continuing distinction between policymakers (elected politicians and senior civil servants); policy explainers (civil service information officers); and policy promoters (special advisers).

They also see a distinction in the purpose of organisational PR as against political PR. The former is largely about private self-interest whereas the latter is connected to the public interest. Political ‘products’ are also more intangible than commercial products.

If we accept that politics matters, then we can also take from this that political public relations is a more difficult and abstract practice than commercial public relations since it’s about a battle for ideas.

Yet this is to argue against the wider perception that public affairs – commonly known as lobbying – is a murky and often discreditable activity that runs counter to the demands of transparency and democratic accountability.

As Moloney and McGrath write: ‘while most PR takes place in plain sight, lobbying is still often conducted in private, away from the scrutiny of journalists and citizens.’

Lobbying is used by insider groups to reinforce their powerful positions, yet it’s also available to outsider groups. ‘Technically, lobbying is an accessible set of low-cost techniques, not difficult to acquire, and revolves around a sense of collective interest, policy awareness and analysis, communication skills and organising ability. These techniques can be used to [promote] and protect the structural power of big business, or to challenge and expose that power.’

Is there an important distinction between public affairs and lobbying and between public affairs and public relations, or does public affairs still remain a function in search of a clear identity as Harris and Moss suggested almost two decades ago?

Moloney and McGrath argue that ‘public affairs encompasses all corporate functions related to the management of an organisation’s reputation with external audiences – usually including lobbying or government relations, media relations, issues management, and community relations.’

Boiled down to its essentials, lobbying is about knowing who makes decisions about public policy which affect your group or organisation’s interests, how and when to influence them… Professional lobbying has to involve a number of elements – public policy, influence, specialist personnel, and communication.

In other words, there’s little here to help distinguish corporate public relations from public affairs.

So let’s try asking another question. Is public affairs a specialist area within public relations, or is it a broader and more elevated discipline?

Danny Moss points out the two different perspectives on this. One perspective is to view public affairs as government relations and lobbying (‘the narrow definition’). The other is to view public affairs as encompassing government relations plus media relations, issues management, CSR, public policy analysis and community relations (‘the broad definition’).

‘One more or less common central element of both perspectives of the corporate public affairs function is the recognition of the central importance of what is generally termed the ‘issues management’ function as providing the underlying analysis for determining the public affairs agenda and cocus for all strategic public affairs planning.’

‘By implication, those working in the public affairs field increasingly are required not only to be proficient communicators, but to have a sound appreciation of how the political parties work, how policies are developed and how parties may be influenced, run campaigns and are funded.’

As with Moloney and McGrath, Danny Moss argues for the greater level of complexity and sophistication in addressing public affairs challenges than in creating commercial communications campaigns.

Those keen to learn the ‘accessible set of techniques’ involved in lobbying and to explore the landscape of public affairs issues management may be interested in the PRCA Diploma in Public Affairs Management delivered online by PR Academy.

UPDATE: This article was first published on 16 December 2019 following the UK general election. It has been updated with a new introduction in December 2021.

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Harris, P and Moss, D (2001) ‘In Search of Public Affairs: A Function in Search of an Identity’, Journal of Public Affairs 1(2): 102-110

Moloney, K and McGrath, C (2020) Rethinking Public Relations: Persuasion, Democracy and Society (3rd edition) Routledge

Moss, D (2017) ‘Public affairs’ in Tench, R and Yeomans, L Exploring Public Relations (4th edition) Pearson