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Is it government relations, public affairs, or public relations?

TriadTeam-Roy2By Roy Wells

People I meet are sometimes confused about what I do for a living. Am I a lobbyist, public relations professional, business consultant, or just someone who is well connected? As president and managing director of a firm whose value proposition is providing clients with advice and services that allow them to navigate successfully through federal, state and local governments, I am never surprised by their confusion. 

In fact, it’s that confusion that inevitably leads them to ask me questions about what I do. During the last 30 years, I have been asked that question hundreds of times. Some might find answering the same question exhausting, but I find it exciting. To me, it’s an opportunity to educate someone about a profession I love, and many times, it’s an entrée into developing a new client.

There is no easy answer. The reason is simple; each client’s interaction with government is unique. Although the strategies we develop for them may have similarities, the tactics we deploy on their behalf make each engagement different.

Consequently, the answer to the question depends on who is asking it. It creates an opportunity to ask them questions about what they do, and whether they or their company ever interact with government. By listening to their answers, I can frame my response about what I do in a way that’s more meaningful to them.

Because their answers are always unique, my answer could sound more like that of a traditional lobbyist (securing passage or defeat of legislation); a business consultant (how to develop a property in order to maximize the use of public funding); a public relations professional (how to develop and deliver a message to a targeted population); or a sales consultant (how to win government contracts). 

In my world, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, or one basic price that covers all costs. In my world, you need to have the tools (people) in your toolbox (firm) that can assist in solving a client’s issues. Though adjustable pliers may be able to remove a nut, a standard or metric ratchet set can remove that nut more carefully and far more efficiently.

Unless you are working around government every day, it is easy to confuse the terms government relations, public affairs and public relations. The confusion centers more on the fact that they are not mutually exclusive. Many government relations activities can be what one might view as traditional lobbying (direct conversations with decision-makers advocating for the passage or defeat of legislation or regulation). 

In some instances, advocacy takes the form of a public affairs engagement because of the need to expand the conversation with communities outside of government, to persuade stakeholders of the importance or consequences of a pending government action for their organization or business (grassroots coalition building). 

In other cases, advocacy can take the form of a public relations engagement that includes earned and paid media to educate the public (opinion and editorial pieces, television and radio interviews and traditional advertising). Depending upon the prospective client’s needs, a firm’s ability to tailor an engagement around a strategy that utilizes the most appropriate mix of tactics can provide that client with an enhanced chance of success. 

As with the purchase of any professional service, budget will affect what tactics can be implemented to reach a goal. A small nonprofit organization may engage in traditional lobbying because it lacks the resources to build coalitions or use the media to deliver its message. A group of nonprofits may have the means and the collective membership to engage in both lobbying and public affairs, but still lack the resources to employ a full-scale media campaign. A nonprofit or group of nonprofits with the support of a wealthy donor or supportive foundation may be able to utilize all the tools in a firm’s toolbox to achieve success. 

A firm that possesses all the tools can provide an array of tactics to a prospective client to craft a successful strategy within its budgetary constraints, or be honest enough to inform it that without being able to employ certain tactics, the chance of success is diminished. So, whether I am a lobbyist, public relations professional or business consultant depends entirely on what you need.

Roy Wells is president and managing director of Triad Strategies LLC. For more information about the firm, please visit


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Vince Phillips

Nice commentary.

I have been a lobbyist in Harrisburg since 1989. When asked what I do, I say "I'm a lobbyist" rather than public affairs professional, etc. The follow up question gets more interesting. That's when I use the word advocate although I mean it in a larger sense than just advancing a particular client's narrow interest. To me, it is an advocate in the market of ideas. More government? Less government? More local government control vs more state control? Power of elected body versus the institutional bureaucracy? Sovereignty of PA law versus Federal fiat or decision by a regional entity that ignores PA statute? My clients' interests are reflections of these deeper questions. Again, thanks for sharing.

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