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What Is Public Affairs, and How Does It Work?

September 295 minutes to read
What is public affairs, and how does it work?

Whether you’re affiliated with a business or a nonprofit, you operate within an ecosystem where multiple entities—such as lawmakers, stakeholders, and, to some degree, the public—play vital roles. You do not, in other words, operate in a vacuum. 

And in that ecosystem, public relations, utilizing marketing and advertising techniques, helps to promote your brand or cause. But it’s public affairs that provides you with the means to communicate in nuanced ways with your various constituents and, in turn, to shape public debate around issues that directly impact your work.

“Nuanced” is key here, as public affairs, practiced effectively, is a long-term, multi-pronged effort. But before we get into details, it’s good to know what we mean, exactly, by “public affairs.”

What Public Affairs Is and Isn’t

Three terms that often get confused with each other are public relations, government relations and public affairs. This is, of course, understandable, so it’s worth distinguishing between the three.

The aim of public relations is to generate positive publicity, to help build loyalty for a company or organization and promote its brand. Government relations, meanwhile, serves as a branch of public relations, facilitating, in particular, communication between an organization and government officials. It’s the process of influencing public policy on various levels, from local to global, depending on the issue and who’s doing the influencing. The goal is to persuade government officials to change or maintain a policy, usually one that fits the needs of your organization.  

Public affairs extends far beyond the government. It’s a service that helps you interact with your stakeholders, legislators, and the media. Focused primarily on policy issues, public affairs experts, like those at CiviClick, concentrate on finding solutions to problems. They serve as a liaison between you and your community, the government, and the media, mostly by disseminating information intended to influence public policy and build support for your organization’s agenda.

One example of public affairs is the ways in which Walmart supports policies that positively impact not only its business, but the interests of its customers and other stakeholders. Among its activities are advocating for policies at various government levels; encouraging its employees to vote; and working with trade associations to advance issues that affect its stakeholders and business.

Why Public Affairs is So Important

Public affairs applies to trade associations and nonprofits as well. It provides a framework for guiding key advocacy activities with stakeholders, including allies, policy influencers, lawmakers, and government officials. These are people whose policy decisions extend far beyond business, affecting people, charities, and multiple organizations as well. By making stakeholders aware of your agenda, and your key “asks,” you ensure that your stand on issues are understood and help influence policy change.

Local and state governments throughout the country pass regulations and laws that touch multiple industries and communities. The way businesses are licensed to operate, the distribution of food and utilities—these are just a few examples of decisions made by governments at various levels. With this in mind, it’s imperative that the voices of an organization and its stakeholders are heard on regulations directly impacting day-to-day operations. Public affairs teams, employing a formal strategy, ensure that those voices are heard in the halls of power.

Public Affairs Strategies

Because what and who shapes policy is so important to organizations, government relations and public affairs often work hand-in-hand, providing a one-two punch, if you will. Ideally, teams working in both areas can craft a strategy that, first, defines an organization’s goals, then identifies important legislation and leverages relationships with stakeholders and decision-makers to achieve optimal results.

Here’s how it works. When proposed legislation is set to impact an organization, government relations specialists meet with and discuss the legislation with the appropriate decision-making parties while the public affairs team shares information about it with stakeholders, the media, and, if applicable, the general public. 

It can also work the other way. If a specific community expresses concern over an issue, one for which there is no existing rule or regulation, it’s the responsibility of the public affairs team to come up with possible solutions and, with help from the government relations team, convince government officials to act in a way that addresses the community’s concerns.

Advocacy: a Key Component

Public affairs, therefore, entails many responsibilities and demands that its experts specialize in a number of areas, including:

  • Lobbying local, state and national lawmakers on specific policies or legislation
  • Providing stakeholders with pertinent information, either directly or through the media
  • Monitoring political activity and information
  • Advising an organization’s leaders
  • Advocacy

The last one is especially important. As we’ve noted in previous posts, advocacy campaigns—whether legislative, grassroots or nonprofit in nature—are often vital to achieving the specific or overall goals of an organization, making advocacy a key aspect of a successful public affairs strategy. Developing and maintaining relationships that will benefit your industry or cause are vital to influencing government actions, including lawmaking.

For similar reasons, lobbying is important as well. Lobbyists, whose role is to take part in an organized attempt to influence legislators, are professional advocates for individuals and organizations. Any advocacy efforts they participate in can help introduce, shape, and support laws and regulations crucial to an organization’s cause.

Finally, public affairs teams must cultivate fruitful relationships with the media. All forms of media, from print to digital to social, serve not only as a means of sharing important information and issues with your stakeholders; they have the power to sway the general public as well. So building a healthy relationship with the media is key.


To reiterate, an effective public affairs strategy provides a business, trade association or nonprofit with a solid framework for guiding key advocacy activities. It combines stakeholder outreach with expertly handled government and media relations aimed at achieving an organization’s short- and long-term goals.

The most adroit public affairs experts, many of whom are employed by CiviClick, perform a variety of all-important tasks, including: maintaining ongoing relationships with lawmakers and government regulators; informing and reassuring stakeholders; monitoring policies relevant to a client’s industry; and leveraging media to help influence public policy.

If it sounds like a bit of a balancing act, it is. But the payoff—both protecting and bolstering a client’s work and well-being—is a huge one.