Public affairs is both a generic term for the trends and conditions that define and result from socio-economic–socio-political trends, and the corporate management function that works to position each organization comfortably and cooperatively in its nonmarketplace context. Focusing on the latter meaning, Madden (2005, 665) defined public affairs as “the management function responsible for interpreting an organization’s external environment, or in the case of a corporation, its noncommercial environment, and managing an effective and appropriate response to that environment.” Its primary connection with society centers on governmental relations, the factors in the public policy (non-marketplace) arena that can lead government to influence (support or oppose) management decisions and organizational operations and policies.
Organizational Role Of Public Affairs
Its corporate role, and hence its definition, depends on whose eye is seeing the beauty. Some define it as a management function that subsumes public relations and other communication functions. Especially in companies with a primary emphasis on product marketing, the public relations function is likely to be dominant. For some observers, it is often confused with or used interchangeably with public relations. Those who see public relations as the dominant discipline feature public affairs as a sub-function devoted to government relations in the broad sense and lobbying more narrowly. In many large organizations, especially national and international or multinational corporations, public affairs is the dominant discipline. In such organizations, public relations is a marketing, product promotion, publicity, and image-management function that reports to public affairs. In non-profits that feature public affairs, it is the planning function, whereas public relations often is designed to implement the public affairs plans. To further obscure the differences or similarities, some organizations name these kinds of functions corporate communications, external affairs, and even community affairs.
Public affairs, as a department and function, is not limited to businesses. Many nonprofit organizations, especially if they are large and approach the discipline as an integration of many specialties, feature their public affair department, which often also has a public relations function. However, defined and positioned, proponents of these disciplines – public relations and public affairs – prefer that they are integrated and interconnected. Organizations that feature public relations as the dominant discipline tend to see it as implementing marketing and advertising promotion. In such organizations, public affairs is merely government relations, if it is a part of the organization chart at all. When public affairs is the dominant discipline, marketing may reside beneath public affairs and be part of or even report to public relations. So the definition is like a kaleidoscope. As it turns, it gives different perspectives on the subject at hand, namely the nature of public affairs as an organizational discipline.
Dimensions In Public Affairs Research
Dennis’s (1996) book is one of the few devoted to public affairs. It was published by the Public Relations Society of America and openly vowed to not attempt to fully reconcile the specific definitions of public relations and public affairs. This work featured public relations as a broader function: “Public relations helps an organization develop and maintain quality relationships with the various groups of people (‘publics’) who can influence its future . . . Public affairs is the public relations practice that addresses public policy and the publics who influence such policy” (1996, xviii).
Viewed this way, public affairs is the discipline that centers its attention, management counseling, and communication efforts on the dynamic factors and conditions specific to the ways in which organizations can affect public policy and the manner in which public policy can affect organizations. Public affairs, from its seminal days, has been more than publicity and promotion. It has developed to bring large organizations into the societal dialogue that shapes the socio-economic, socio-political arena. Public affairs became a vital topic under that rubric in the 1950s in the United States. From the start, the term “public affairs” seemed more comfortable to executives and politicians because “public relations” carried a lot of semantic baggage, which today is reflected in the editorial comment “just public relations,” or the pejorative appellation “spin.” As public relations seemed to lack substance and respectability, something was needed to define how this important function could be made credible and functional in the public policy arena. Continuing this tradition today, many companies and other large organizations see public affairs as being central to their efforts to manage risks, whereas public relations is more likely to be associated with revenue generation through sales or fundraising. Although experts disagree on the best methodology and independent variables (Hillman 2002; Schuler 2002), the central academic and corporate assumption is that effective public affairs performance helps overall management and organizational performance.
Emergence Of Public Affairs
President Dwight D. Eisenhower played a major role in the inception of public affairs when he brought a group of leading business executives together to give a bipartisan forum for Democrats and Republicans. Following World War II, many forces seemed imminently about to define and shape business interests. Eisenhower was keenly aware of the potential of international socio-economic collisions that would define the political and commercial arrangements and approach in the United States. In a spirit of citizen participation, he fostered the naming of the group as the Effective Citizens Organization. This group eventually changed its name to the Public Affairs Council (PAC) in 1965.
Many felt that public affairs was the new face of public relations practice. The 1960s and 1970s were a period of ferment, activism, reflection, combat, and self-examination in all of the institutions in the United States. Corporations and other large organizations were increasingly convinced that to ignore the public policy arena would leave them out of many decisions and allow others to define them and write their organizational missions. Whereas public relations had developed a reputation among many as featuring promotion, publicity, and image management, the tumult of the time called for a more basic and encompassing approach to positioning organizations and policies. The goal increasingly came to be to adjust organizations to the public policy arena and to adjust public policy to the needs and interests of large organizations. These organizations had increasingly become the voices that needed to be heard and needed to listen to one another, as the United States and other countries forged a postwar understanding of economics, finance, regulation, legislation, and standards of corporate citizenry.
Public Affairs In Practice
Public affairs departments perform many functions. One of the most crucial is serving in the management council of each organization. Using monitoring and issue analysis, public affairs specialists bring ethical and public policy issues to management-level decision-making. Specialists continually assess how comfortably the organization’s policies fit with those of other key organizations working to shape public affairs. As a communication function, public affairs fosters public relations, corporate communications, media relations, employee relations, and strategic philanthropy, and may participate in investor relations. Additional points of strategic response include lobbying, grassroots organization, campaign finance, management consulting, and benchmarking. In addition, public affairs specialists often play a vital role in meeting the management challenge to know and achieve the level of performance that fosters rather than diminishes the organization’s social capital.
From the inception of modern issues management in the 1970s, public affairs has adopted that approach to its public policy challenges. It defines issues management as “the process of prioritizing and proactively addressing public policy and reputation issues that can affect an organization’s success. Many large companies, in particular, use issues management techniques to keep all of their external relations activities focused on high-priority challenges and opportunities” (Public Affairs Council 2006). Public affairs and issue management, perhaps the offspring of public affairs, are viewed as being necessary for companies because of the keen abilities of their adversaries to shape public opinion and therefore drive public policy. It is not coincidental that public affairs and issues management started and became mature during a period of socio-political ferment.
The Public Affairs Council, located in Washington, DC, has been a driving force in supporting and promoting a public affairs approach to relationship building and noncommercial positioning of organizations and their stakeholder publics. One of the stellar accomplishments of the public affairs movement, the Council performs research to understand and refine the discipline, produces cutting-edge publications, and conducts workshops for executives and public affairs specialists. It believes that the discipline stays vital and refines its practice through continuing education. Its membership consists of major companies, associations, and consulting groups. It was one of the first organizations to innovate in, define, and give substance to issues management. “Born of a marriage between lobbying and communications and schooled in the techniques of community organizing, public affairs has grown up to be a credible participant in the formation of public policy” (Duke & Hart 1996, 14).
The public affairs movement has focused considerable attention on the challenges facing large organizations operating in an environment made ever more complex to management because of the tangles and challenges of public policy advocacy. If we accept that public relations failed to satisfactorily meet this challenge starting in the 1950s in the United States, then its mantle shifted to the shoulders of public affairs. Public relations seemed to lack the character and respectability to weigh in on the matters of regulatory and legislative shifts and twists. One of the failings was its historic connection with fabrication, spin, and smoke and mirrors. Some believe it came to rely on cleverly worded press releases to the extent that it lacked proactive participation in public dialogue. If an organization, industry, or other sector of society waits for other forces to shape public opinion, that body may have the conditions of its operation made more difficult. Public relations needed to act less reactively and more proactively.
Public affairs departments, and the discipline as such, developed to engage organizations earlier in the dialogues that lead to public policy formation. Some saw the advantage of working early when opinions are not well formed. Such a view can lead critics to surmise that public affairs can and will seek to undercut legitimate change in the public policy arena not by debating issues but by manipulating how those issues are debated.
In an era when public relations/public affairs scholars are again addressing responsible advocacy, one can imagine that the challenge to public affairs as a professional practice and academic discipline will be to refine its theory, ethics, practice, and management impact so that the larger interests of all legitimate voices are heard and respected. It seems that the challenge is not to know how to make an organization effective, but to learn the ways for the organization to work with other interested parties in a reflective manner to make society better, more fully functioning. Thus, public affairs as a discipline and employer of best practices is challenged to understand, appreciate, and proactively participate in the creation of effective public affairs, the socio-economic, socio-political dynamics that affect the organization’s ability to function in the interest of its various stakeholders.
- Dennis, L. B. (ed.) (1996). Practical public affairs in an era of change. Lanham, MD: Public Relations Society of America and University Press of America.
- Duke, W. E., & Hart, M. A. (1996). Public affairs: From understudy to center stage. In L. B. Dennis (ed.), Practical public affairs in an era of change. Lanham, MD: Public Relations Society of America and University Press of America, pp. 3–15.
- Foundation for Public Affairs (2002). The state of corporate public affairs. Washington, DC: Foundation for Public Affairs.
- Hillman, A. J. (2002). Public affairs, issue management and political strategy: Methodological issues that count – a different view. Journal of Public Affairs, 1/2, 356–361.
- Madden, W. (2005). Public affairs. In Robert L. Heath (ed.), Encyclopedia of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 665–666.
- Pederson, W. (2005). Public Affairs Council. In Robert L. Heath (ed.), Encyclopedia of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 666–669.
- Public Affairs Council (1998). Effective public affairs organizational structures. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Council.
- Public Affairs Council (2006). Issues management. At www.pac.org, accessed August 9, 2006.
- Schuler, D. A. (2002). Public affairs, issues management and political strategy: Methodological approaches that count. Journal of Public Affairs, 1/2, 336–355.