Public Affairs Tries Changing Culture

March 10, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — To the novice, public relations and public affairs might appear to be the same practice.

But that is not the case, at least not in today’s battle for the eyes, ears, minds and wallets of a public that is heavily saturated with media messages of all types.

In a nutshell, without regurgitating dictionary definitions, public relations tries to change the way certain people think about a product, person, firm or institution, while public affairs attempts to alter society with bigger-picture issues.

Ed Kettle, a familiar name locally, is celebrating his 30th year in advertising, promotions and public relations this year. But for the past three years he has been working almost exclusively in the field of public affairs.

“The way I look at it is public relations is looking at the media and other methods to affect the thinking, attitudes and decision-making of people. Public affairs uses the same methods, basically, but to change the culture.

“So it’s not people, it’s the people,” said Kettle.

“Public affairs goes more into public policy and how that affects business, religion or people’s everyday lives,” he added.

As an example of the difference, a public relations effort would use an ad campaign to convince a specific group — such as men aged 21 to 34 — to buy a certain beer. In contrast, a public affairs effort would attempt to persuade the larger public of the benefits or hazards of alcohol consumption. It’s a job, Kettle said, that is tougher to do.

“It’s a lot harder. It’s very time-consuming. And there are all kinds of layers to it and different styles to get there.

“You can do it through finesse, or you can do it through head thumping. It depends on what the issues are and how volatile the issue is that you’re trying to work with, or the message that you’re trying to convey,” he said.

Kettle is in the midst of such a campaign, serving as the public affairs counsel for a local grassroots organization that he co-founded called Coalition for Community Involvement. The group is trying to persuade public school educators, parents, taxpayers, and anyone else who will listen that the management style of the city’s K-12 school system should be changed from a centralized system to a site-based managed one.

“We’re taking about 40 years of mindset and culture building, and saying, ‘Let’s change this culture,’” he said.

The city began to lose residents to the suburbs when the highway system opened 40 years ago, meaning their kids left the city’s school system.

When that happened, the federal government got involved with schools, and a new mindset regarding education emerged.

“Instead of education to the local masses, it became education to the national masses on a national theme. It became one bureaucracy feeding another one,” said Kettle. “That was when education started growing away from the public it served and became more of a master than a service-provider.”

Kettle switched from public relations work to public affairs as he became more interested in how public policy affected everything people do.

He felt he could help his business clients understand how they could work within a public-policy setting, or possibly even change that policy. So Kettle said he really sees his role as that of an interpreter rather than a promoter.

“Business people, on their best day, can’t understand how or why government does what it does, and vice-versa. But certainly there is a higher level of frustration in the private sector toward government than government toward the private sector,” he said.

Kettle said that in the last few years more public relations professionals have turned their talents to public affairs. He remarked that many have moved into a fairly new field known as “socially conscious” public relations, a synonymous term for public affairs, which promotes in environmentally friendly areas like “green” manufacturing, construction and even investing.

But one public affairs battle that stands out for Kettle had nothing to do with green.

It happened when he represented a local billboard advertiser and tried to convince city planners that the signs could make a social contribution to the city by lighting up street corners and by creating lighted, sheltered public bus stops.

He lost that scuffle, though, and left the encounter with a different view of what went on than what city officials expressed — one that has vividly stayed with him through his years in public affairs.

“The result was, in my opinion, they were legislating taste, and I contend that you can’t do that. That is what I argued at the time and I lost. I still contend you can’t legislate taste,” said Kettle.

“That was an attack on billboards. It doesn’t matter whether you like them or not. The point I’m trying to make is, the attack on billboards really was to eliminate an industry through ordinance. And I think that is completely incorrect, completely off base.

“I don’t think government should ever do anything to eliminate a free enterprise business.”           

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