Recently, I experienced a huge career shift, both professionally and geographically. After spending a decade working in public affairs in Washington, D.C., I moved west to San Diego, landing at Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, an established and innovative public relations firm with a diverse portfolio of government and trade association clients. I quickly learned that public relations work is very different from standard public affairs practices. Fortunately for me, I found myself at an agency where they pride themselves in redefining PR, meaning I could take learnings and tactics from both professions to reimagine what it means to be a PR pro with a public affairs background.
Here are some keys to success in both public affairs and public relations that I have learned along the way.
1. Evolving – and revolving relationships
Whether it’s a congressional staff member on Capitol Hill or a journalist at the San Diego Union Tribune, relationship building can make the difference between securing a meeting with the Senator or getting your client’s news published on the front page. Keeping up with an ever-changing rolodex is common for both PR and public affairs professionals. Both politics and media experience high turnover and are suffering from a shrinking workforce, making building and maintaining relationships more challenging. Pew Research, a think tank in Washington, D.C., found that U.S. newsroom employment has fallen 26% since 2008 (Source: link) and similarly, The Hill recently published that turnover of House staff is the highest it’s been in 20 years. Ensuring you have up-to-date staff directories, current contact information and are checking in with your network on a regular basis is key to managing and maintaining strong relationships in an industry where it counts.
2. Powerful messaging
During the legislative session, a congressional staffer may have up to eight meetings a day that each include several constituents, lobbyists and industry stakeholders. With a carousel of meetings and people, it’s critical that your message is delivered in a powerful and memorable way. This is also the case when pitching the media, as a journalist may have hundreds of e-mail pitches sitting in their inbox on any given day. To create an impactful message, you will need to research your audience to understand their need, concern or interest (NCI). Sharing stories that demonstrate a shared NCI — a key takeaway from NST’s writing standard, ‘The Model’ — will increase engagement with a stakeholder in any meeting or pitch. These elements will help to personalize your message and make a deeper connection, ensuring your message is remembered or followed-up on.
3. Prioritize based on your stakeholder’s calendar
You’ve definitely heard of the election cycle and the news cycle, oftentimes one feeding the other. These terms refer to the chronological cadence of how politics and media determine scheduling and priorities. It’s important to be mindful of the calendars in which these industries function – as timing can lead to new opportunities or completely squash efforts and activations.
Being acutely aware of large events, holidays and current happenings in your community or the regions in which your clients operate is imperative to ensuring you find success in garnering media interest and securing meetings with key legislators.
4. Defense is critical, but not the goal
There will always be opponents in politics, and sometimes fending off their efforts to pass harmful legislation to your cause or industry can be a full-time job. This is the same with the presence of negative op-ed pieces, social media “firestorms” and crisis communications, as PR or public affairs professionals can feel like they are spending more time on defense than on offense. Taking these opportunities to push back is critical for your reputation and viability, however moving towards an offensive position where you can be proactive in highlighting your clients in the press is the ultimate objective.
5. Persistence and patience
As professionals, we may be expected by clients or executive teams to deliver immediate short-term wins, but for both public affairs and PR, focusing on long-term gains is when we experience the greatest success. The time it takes to build a company’s brand and reputation, or for Congress to pass a piece of legislation, can often take years and sometimes even decades. Being patient, yet persistent, with your stakeholders will prove rewarding and ensure your efforts are enduring.
The differences between public relations and public affairs are often written about, yet the parallels are ignored. These are just a handful that I’ve personally experienced during my time working in public relations.
I know I have several more decades ahead of me to become even more knowledgeable in the public relations sector and I’m confident that drawing on my public affairs experience will help get me there.