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Demand for public affairs expertise is growing among corporations, nonprofits, coalitions and consulting firms to stay on top of cascading issues that are complex to manage and crisis situations that demand instant response.

Public Affairs Professionals Advocate, Manage and Communicate Key Issues

The demand for public affairs specialists is expected to grow in coming years to engage the public on a wide spectrum of issues, according to LinkedIn. So, who will these specialists be, what will they do and where will they do it? Hint: Not in the usual way or in familiar places.

Public affairs includes multiple types of advocacy – lobbying, strategic communications, political campaigns and issue management. Public affairs professionals work for corporations, non-profits, government agencies, politicians, consulting firms and individuals.

Public affairs isn’t the kind of profession you go to college to study. It is a more likely an accidental career track. Typical ways to stumble into public affairs are volunteering on a political campaign, working as a journalist, being a policy analyst or serving as a staff member for elected officials or a clerk for judges.

Public affairs professionals come from a variety of undergraduate degrees such as political science, public relations, history, public administration and English literature. While there are public affairs master’s degrees and post-graduate certifications, most successful public affairs professionals learn on the job.

Analytical ability is the most common characteristic of effective public affairs professionals. They know how to identify, gather and evaluate relevant information. They see the story behind the story. They anticipate and instinctively know how to devise strategies to address risks and cash in on opportunities.

It’s often the public affairs professional on a team who comes up with the winning argument and knows how to frame it. That’s because many of the most effective public affairs professionals have worked at some point as lobbyists, PR professionals, journalists and government staff members. As Willy Loman the salesman would say, they know the territory.

Public affairs professionals must build trust and keep it to remain effective.

Growing Need for Public Affairs
The need for public affairs counselors has grown as the economy, technology and communication has become more global and more diffused. People no longer depend on news delivered to their porch every afternoon or conveyed by someone like Walter Cronkite on TV. Communicating today is more like finding your way through an elaborate maze.

As a consequence, public affairs professionals have splintered into specialized areas who focus on specific issues. Federal lobbyists might develop expertise in transportation, health care or securing federal grants. Issue managers may focus on different industries or social issues. Strategic communications counselors often concentrate on community outreach, individual policy areas or crisis planning.

Whatever their area of expertise, the very best public affairs practitioners possess top-flight verbal and written communication skills. They know how to craft and deliver a key message. More important, they understand what a key message must contain to resonate and be believable. They also have working knowledge of the most effective communication formats and channels for different kinds of messages. The most savvy public affairs professionals are constantly learning how communication tools evolve, mesh together and reinforce each other. They may not know how to create a website or produce a video, but they know what it takes to reach target audiences.

Unavoidably, public affairs professionals of all stripes cross paths with politics and the policy-making process. They don’t have to love politics or policymaking, but it helps if they understand it from the inside out rather than the outside in. There’s a reason why many successful public affairs professionals cut their teeth as government staff members at the federal, state and local levels. Where else can you have an insider view of the pressures, demands and compromises that brew inside legislative bodies and executive offices. The ring-side view of effective and ineffective diplomacy, negotiation, persuasion and coalition pressure is a graduate degree in public affairs – without paying tuition.

Disruption by Polarization and Misinformation
The world of public affairs, like any kind of public discourse, has been disrupted by polarization, social media and misinformation. That has increased the strain on ethical behavior, including honesty, responsibility, transparency and professionalism. Public affairs professionals must build trust and keep it to remain effective.

There are increasing demands for advocacy and increasing avenues to advocate, which has stimulated the demand for public affairs professionals. Traditional advocacy fields such as education, transportation and taxation have been joined by new fields like behavioral health, artificial intelligence and homelessness. Emerging issue areas require public affairs professionals with different backgrounds, educational training and experience. Because many issues and communication channels are complex, there will be a need for public affairs teams to combine their diverse advocacy talents.

Public affairs professionals also need to learn to play defense as well as offense, sometimes at the same time. Advocates are unlikely to have the field to themselves as advocacy becomes more like chess than checkers, with more players and more sophisticated tactics.

Some of the players don’t resemble traditional public affairs professionals. Bloggers, influencers and podcasters represent new sources of advocacy that can influence under the radar and in places where traditional advocacy is unsuccessful and sometimes unwanted.

The Future of Public Affairs
Another trend is data-driven advocacy and the use of artificial intelligence. These and other technology advances make professional upskilling mandatory to remain effective and relevant as a public affairs advocate. Technological proficiency could be the difference in knowing and not knowing you are under attack.

As much as polarization is a fixture in issue management, so is the growing demand by consumers for authenticity, including from policy advocates. Fast-talking and half-truths won’t cut it. Straight-talk requires effective persuasion and more than just the facts and a snappy presentation.

Personal appearance, affability and a pleasant demeanor create an aura of likability, which experience shows can tilt the scales of advocacy. Surly public affairs professionals have the opposite effect. A human approach makes advocacy more relatable and authentic, which can translate into trust and ultimately success.

Changes in the mediaverse also influence advocacy outreach strategies. Connecting with target audiences through digital devices will be increasingly important while counting on print media to deliver a message will become less viable. Community meetings will likely be replaced by virtual or livestreamed events.

Artificial intelligence will be an aid as well as an issue. AI can expand and accelerate issue research. AI also can assist in testing potential messages and assessing target audiences. AI won’t be as useful developing key messages, though it might have useful suggestions for how to convey them with impact.

Public affairs professionals and public relations professionals share the reality that reacting quickly to an issue, negative news or a crisis situation is mandatory, not optional. Citizens with self-phones and Twitter accounts don’t have publication deadlines. Responding quickly is critical. Holding statements are pointless. Asking for extra time to respond can be perilous. Your reputation, not just an issue, is at stake.