Government relations and public affairs are the types of public relations that deal with how an organization interacts with the government, with governmental regulators, and the legislative and regulatory arms of government. The government relations and public affairs are discussed together in this section; the two functions are often referred to as synonyms, but there are very minor differences. Government relations is the branch of public relations that helps an organization communicate with governmental publics. Public affairs is the type of public relations that helps an organization interact with the government, legislators, interest groups, and the media. These two functions often overlap, but government relations is often a more organization-to-government type of communication in which regulatory issues are discussed, communication directed to governmental representatives takes place, lobbying efforts directed at educating legislators are initiated, and so on. A strategic issue is any type of issue that has the potential to impact the organization, how it does business, and how it interacts with and is regulated by the government. Heath contends that “public policy issues are those with the potential of maturing into governmental legislation or regulation (international, federal, state, or local).”Heath (1997), p. 45.
Public affairs is the external side of the function that deals more broadly with public policy issues of concern among constituents, activists, or groups who lobby the government on behalf of a certain perspective. Public affairs are often issues of public concern that involve grassroots initiatives, meaning that everyday citizens organize and create a movement in favor of a certain issue or perspective. In that case, public affairs specialists would work to resolve conflict or negotiate on behalf of an organization, working with these groups to create an inclusive solution to problems.
Public affairs specialists act as lobbyists on behalf of their organizations, and they interact with publics who are interested in lobbying the government for legislation regarding particular issues. Public affairs specialists might focus on a particular area of public policy, such as international trade agreements or exchange rates, security and terrorism, equitable wages and working conditions, the regulatory process, safely disposing of production by-products, and so on. The list of public policy issues with which an organization must contend is practically endless.
In some organizations, the governmental relations arm or public affairs unit is coupled with issues management, or it can even be the same public relations executive responsible for both roles. Issues management and public affairs are extremely close in their responsibilities, goals, and activities. Both issues management and public affairs seek to facilitate interaction between organization and the government or governments with whom it must deal, and to incorporate and update organizational policy in accordance with governmental standards. However, issues management is the larger function because it deals not only with governmental and regulatory publics but also many other types of publics. The governmental relations or public affairs function is more narrowly focused on legislative, regulatory, and lobbying issues.
Public affairs can be used in a corporate setting to interact on policy and legislation with the government, interest groups (or, as discussed in the following section, activist publics), and the media. An organization must also use public affairs to communicate about policy and procedures with investors, regulatory publics, employees, and internal publics, as well as communities and customers.Lerbinger (2006).
Public affairs issues often center on a conflict of ethical values or rights between organizations and publics, and sometimes organizations, publics, and one or more branches of the government. An example would be the grassroots movement in the United States to protect wild horses from slaughter for human consumption in Europe and Asia. Many animal protection and rights organizations have lobbied officials on behalf of the horses, and those officials introduced legislation to make horse slaughter for human consumption illegal. According to the Associated Press, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 263 to 146 to outlaw the killing of horses for human consumption based on the active public affairs initiatives of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and grassroots initiatives, such as “Fans of Barbaro.”The source of information for this case example is “House OKs ban on horse slaughter for meat” (2009).
A sponsor of the slaughter-ban legislation, former Congressman Christopher Shays (R-CT) said, “The way a society treats its animals, particularly horses, speaks to the core values and morals of its citizens.” Defenders of horse slaughter, including the meatpacking industry and its public affairs lobbyists as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture argue that it provides an inexpensive way to dispose of these animals. “These unwanted horses are often sick, unfit or problem animals,” said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN). Clearly, the two sides of this debate and all the businesses and organizations involved on each side are lobbying their point of view with governmental officials and also using the mass media to build public understanding and support for their position.
At the core of this debate is an ethical divergence over the value of equine life and the role of horses in America’s society and history. At contest is the future of both those horses who live free in American herds and former sport or pet horses, and even stolen horses sold to the slaughter industry. Much money is at stake for the ranching and meatpacking industries, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Agriculture, and the resources invested in this legislation by the animal rights lobby.