A Positive Profession That Sees Problems as Doors to Solutions
‘Public affairs’ is often confused with romantic interludes revealed on social media. The profession of public affairs is the discipline at the intersection of public relations, marketing and lobbying.
Most people have no idea what public affairs professionals do, why they do it and who they do it for. For those familiar with public affairs, practitioners are usually lumped in with the crowd known as ‘insiders’.
The men and women who call themselves public affairs professionals usually qualify as insiders with backgrounds in government, the law and communications. In fact, understanding how government works and how to frame a position on an issue are essential skills for public affairs professionals.
What separates the best public affairs professionals from the field is their vision. They see problems as doors to solutions. This requires a positive mindset, an appreciation of differences and diversity and a commitment to progress. It accepts Duke Ellington’s advice that a problem is a chance for you to do your best.
Where Public Affairs Projects Start
A public affairs project may begin when an organization or a client sets an objective to change a policy, pass a bill or win public approval. However, the work of public affairs actually starts by listening and learning from people impacted by an issue or event. You can’t resolve a problem without knowing its origin and complexity. You can’t persuade someone without understanding their point of view and their concerns. As John Dewey said, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.”
Then comes the marketing side of public affairs. Starting with valid, sincere research, you can engage impacted stakeholders at a level they will understand. The general public may seem inattentive or surly. But actual experience shows people will respond to genuine efforts to hear them out and come up with solutions that take their views into account, even if they don’t agree with the solutions.
Skilled public affairs professionals are more practical than political. They search for workable solutions based on mutual advantage. It can be a compromise or an innovative approach resulting from thoughtful dialogue. It might be a suggestion overlooked or ignored before a careful assessment.
When a workable solution is found, public affairs professionals pivot to strategic communications. This is where they apply their public relations prowess to convey the solution, and seek feedback from affected audiences. Engage audiences on multiple platforms to reach different people where they are listening.
Effective public affairs relies on persuasion not intimidation. Persuasion requires understanding those you seek to persuade and highlighting mutual interest, not pushing a point of view. A good idea is more powerful than bullying tactics. People respect good ideas and resent pressure tactics.
Not a Profession for Heroes
Public affairs is not the profession for wannabe heroes. At its very best, public affairs is about engaging stakeholders, solving problems and letting others take credit for success. This self-effacing dimension of public affairs differentiates it from government work where taking credit is part of the job or journalism where good stories start with bylines.
The ‘win’ in public affairs is the satisfaction of uncovering a solution that reflects the voices that were heard, listened to and considered. Engineering a solution or a compromise can be sweet. It’s even sweeter when those affected feel the solution was theirs.
Emerging Issue Management
A valuable role for public affairs professionals is the ability to see over the horizon for emerging problems just beginning to percolate. Managing an issue is easier by addressing it early before it boils over into the news media or seeps into social media.
Forward-looking issue management can convince a company or client to take preventive action before the issue festers, demonstrating brand leadership and corporate social responsibility.
Strategic and Crisis Communicators
Some issues demand strategic or crisis communications. Public affairs specialists play an important role because they bring more background and context to situations that are important considerations in what to say, how to say it and where to say it.
Strategic and crisis communications are intended to address tough issues with clarity, accuracy and empathy. They are critical to calming and not inflaming an already tense situation. When possible, strategic and crisis communications can point the way to solutions.