Public Affairs practitioners – a case of mulitple identities and cultural hybridity

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This paper suggests that PA practitioners’ professional identity is in transition with the practice now exhibiting multiple identities and cultural hybridity. It is argued that this has parallels to the work of Abbot et al. (2014) whose research reveals similar identity complexity in those working in global settings. This is one of the key findings from a wider study investigating the knowledge, skills and attributes for effective public affairs practice. It synthesizes scholarship from the field of career and professionalism studies with the theory and practice of public affairs (PA). It argues the narrow definition of PA practitioners as pure lobbyists providing the interface between the organization and government is outdated. The role has evolved to become one of a skilled influencer inside and outside the organization managing a complex set of relationships focusing on alliance and partnership building in a changing public policy environment.

The study leads on a qualitative investigation allowing rich data mirroring the complexity of work and policy construction and involves 31 in-depth interviews with practitioners and policy makers. It is supported by an additional quantitative survey that helps to elucidate identity and competency constructs in more detail. The limitations relate to its scope – a UK study. Further studies in different cultural and political settings need to be encouraged and perhaps longitudinal studies developed to look at how professional identity evolves and the influences on it.

Many PA scholars (Schuler, 2002; Hillman, 2002; Toth, 2006 and Fleisher, 2007) have all tried to define the practice but common to all is the understanding that PA is about building relationships with those who shape public policy. More recently Fleisher (2012) has reflected on the current state of public affairs practice suggesting that the full impact of globalization, multiple communication channels and the need for more collaborative approaches is set to transform the practice.

How does this evolution affect the identity of practitioners? According to Ibarra (1999: 764-765) professional identity is defined as “the relatively stable and enduring constellation of attributes, beliefs, values, motives and experiences in terms of which people define themselves in a professional role”. Whilst traditional career scholars (Levinson et al., 1978; Super et al. 1996) view this as something passive as individuals travel through different career stages. More recent scholars such as Hall (2002) suggest that people actively develop their identities by improving their self-awareness and as suggested by Kegan (1994) by interacting with the complexity of their environments. Integral to both is an improved understanding of the competencies and strengths that are necessary in the role in order to provide greater recognition for the practice, the skill sets required and to establish career choices.

Early analysis suggests that PA practitioners recognize that their role has changed substantially in the last ten years in part due to the impact of globalization, technology including enabling easy access to information that was once seen as privileged and the changing policy landscape. PA appears to be fragmenting across a spectrum of interactions from narrow, regulatory one-to-one conversations between technical experts to campaigns that go to the heart of organizational reputation and survival involving multi-channel communication strategies across a range of stakeholder groups. Sector influences and organizational culture also impacts on the style and tone of PA. At the same time, there is an appetite to understand the practice better and improve self-efficacy.

The concept of multiple identities and cultural hybridity is just one aspect of this study that aims to have conceptual and practical value by creating a framework underpinned by a body of knowledge and competencies that captures the professional identity of this new breed of PA practitioner. In so doing it aims to improve understanding of the role of PA at the micro (individual self-aware), meso (organizational) and macro (societal) levels.

In terms of originality, the study aims to fill the research gap between PA and competency and professional identity scholarship. At the same time, most research into PA is North American focused. This paper adds value by looking at a UK and more broadly European perspective allowing for comparisons and shared learning.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 29 Sept 2016
EventEuropean Public Relations Education and Research Congress 2016 - Groningen, Netherlands
Duration: 29 Sept 20161 Oct 2016


ConferenceEuropean Public Relations Education and Research Congress 2016


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