23 March, 2018
It may be a crude stereotype, but public affairs professionals are often seen by their PR colleagues as wonkish, and a bit geeky. In turn, PA professionals sometimes dismiss PR as ‘light and fluffy’. Unfortunately, this blinkered view can lead to siloed working, and a massive missed opportunity for smarter, more effective campaigning. After all, both are different sides of the same communications coin and can and should reinforce and strengthen each other.
Many would define public affairs as insider influencing – targeting political and other influential stakeholders to achieve change by promoting new policy, securing amendments to legislation, holding parliamentary events, and working with MPs on Private Members Bills or APPGs. But this is just one element. Organisations also want to influence the bigger picture by pushing their issue up the political agenda so that the next time special advisers and strategists are looking for a new flagship policy – it’s front of mind.
This is where PR comes in. If there’s one thing politicians care most about it’s public opinion and winning over voters – and traditional and social media coverage is a good proxy for what voters care about. If you can drive your issue to the top of the news agenda, political advisers and politicians will start to take notice. That’s why PR can be just as useful for political influencing as it can for pushing up donations. Both disciplines target a public audience to drive policy change. Viewed through this lens, securing coverage of mental health in The Sun was key to positioning the issue not as the ‘Cinderella’ of health policy, but front and centre of the last Conservative manifesto. Similarly, PR campaigns by charities like Shelter helped make housing a key consumer issue and therfore a new focus of government policy.
What does this mean, practically, for in-house teams? It means creating an integrated communications plan where pieces of PR-led activity can be amplified through PA, and vice-versa. For example, if the PR team is doing a stunt to raise awareness of an issue, why not place a comment piece in a broadsheet or a blog on the Spectator, New Statesman, ConservativeHome or LabourList looking more deeply at what politics can do to help solve it? Or if the public affairs team has a list of MPs or Ministers it’s trying to influence, think about how PR can get the issue in the news in their constituency. Working together can make all the difference.