Issue Advocacy Explained: What Issues Management Means for PR Professionals

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PR professionals discussing an issue advocacy campaign.Issue advocacy is the multidisciplinary process — spanning advertising, marketing, public affairs and public relations — of educating the public about a political issue. It is not lobbying, but a continuous process for shaping perceptions and mobilizing action across multiple channels.

What is Issue Advocacy Concerned With?

In the U.S., issue advocacy is most closely associated with political campaigns, having been the subject of multiple court rulings concerning its relationship to campaign finance laws.

Issue advocacy is the opposite of express advocacy, the other main type of political advertising recognized by U.S courts:

  • Express advocacy promotes a tangible electoral outcome, usually the election or defeat of a specific candidate or ballot measure (e.g., “Vote for Jones,” “Defeat Prop 24,” etc.)
  • In contrast, issue advocacy does not recommend that voters support or oppose Candidate X, but instead aims to more broadly educate the public about an issue.
  • For instance, an issue advocacy campaign may try to shape public perceptions via the presentation of facts and opinions about a proposed bill, without endorsing related action.
  • The exclusion of such calls to action, embodied in words like “vote for” and “defeat,” is a way of avoiding the so-called “magic words” that brand something as express advocacy.

The U.S. Supreme Court first made the distinction between issue advocacy and express advocacy in the landmark Buckley v. Valeo case in 1976, which ruled certain limits on campaign finance imposed by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 were unconstitutional. The court ruled that the expenditure limitation in that law applied to narrow express advocacy, but not to broader issue advocacy.

Since then, the distinction from Buckley has been steadily eroded. After the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (better known as McCain-Feingold) closed the loophole for issue advocacy spending, 2010’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck those newer rules down. As of 2020, organizations may spend freely on issue advocacy ads. Advocacy groups often enlist public relations firms to assist in every domain, from the direct creation of issue advocacy collateral to the social media management strategies associated with their issue advocacy campaigns.

How Issue Advocacy and Public Relations Intersect

The overall goal of issue advocacy is to attract public attention, making it a natural fit for public relations professionals.

A PR team working on an issue advocacy campaign will create and direct the communications that help a public issue gain and maintain traction, while also possibly providing input on related marketing and advertising assets. More specific responsibilities of issue advocacy-focused PR teams may include:

  • Drafting and editing press releases, editorials, reports, and policy documents to support the political issue being advocated.
  • Identifying the most likely supporters and opponents of an issue and figuring out how to engage them in the campaign.
  • Supporting the campaign’s goals by building a winning coalition, possibly even one that includes unlikely allies or former foes.
  • Continuously testing and refining different messages to see which resonate with key demographics.
  • Researching the opposition, both to anticipate and refute its arguments and to respond rapidly as needed across multiple communications channels.
  • Collaborating with other departments, namely advertising, and marketing, on initiatives such as direct mail and TV ads to ensure consistent messaging.
  • Optimizing different forms of content for the media channels on which they will appear, such as TV, a podcast, an organization’s official blog or a social media platform.
  • Measuring the results of the issue advocacy initiative, incorporating actionable feedback, and recalibrating the strategy as needed.

In the process of performing these tasks, issue advocacy-focused PR firms may also lead-related issues management efforts. The primary purpose of issues management is to ensure effective monitoring of — and response to — potential public relations crises.

What is Issues Management?

A more general term than issue advocacy, issues management refers to how PR professionals anticipate, identify, and ultimately influence the perception of public relations issues capable of negatively impacting their organizations and/or clients.

In the context of issue advocacy, issues management is an important function for PR professionals as they:

  • Determine how social and political trends may crystallize into a coherent issue, with distinct proponents and opponents who can be engaged through issue advocacy campaigns.
  • Work with relevant politicians and advocacy groups to decide how to frame an issue, respond to its opposition and adjust to changing circumstances and stakeholder expectations.
  • Develop a comprehensive understanding of an issue’s policy content and political constituencies, along with the specific media environments in which it is most commonly discussed (e.g., on social media or drivetime radio).
  • Perform media outreach to cultivate strategic relationships and ensure ample coverage of an advocacy group’s messaging. Press releases, op-eds, and PR-arranged interviews can all result from such concerted efforts.
  • Design crisis management strategies, with prewritten communications and potential next steps for mitigating the damage of a PR incident.

In some definitions of the term, issues management activities are structured around a multi-step process, known as the issue lifecycle. An influential research article published by the Institute for Public Relations identified five key stages in this cycle: early, emerging, current, crisis, and dormant.

These stages trace the evolution of an issue from its initial limited awareness among the public, through its increasing prominence and rising potential to precipitate a crisis, and finally to its exit (whether permanent or temporary) from public discussion. The issue lifecycle can repeat even after an issue has gone dormant.

For example, environmental causes went from the fringe of U.S. politics before the 1970s to the forefront, in part because of advocacy groups focusing their campaigns on specific practices such as the use of non-biodegradable Styrofoam packaging by corporations. Subsequent shifts toward more sustainable alternatives, like paper, were made under pressure from context advocacy campaigns that had created an ongoing PR crisis for these companies.

In the 2000s, this packaging issue, in particular, had receded to the background, before reemerging in the context of controlling plastic waste (think the widespread attention toward single-use plastic straws). Starbucks, for instance, has undertaken a major campaign to double the reusability of its cups by 2022.

Although these might seem like standard PR moves, they intersect with issue advocacy in important ways:

  • Regulations on the packaging, like those in California governing plastic containers, have been shaped by the same types of issue advocacy campaigns that helped raise awareness of environmental issues among the public.
  • High-profile company actions, like switching to paper packaging and post-consumer materials, reflect the successful pressure of advocacy campaigns and also encourage additional similar efforts to change regulations and laws.

Who is Involved in Issue Advocacy?

Both issue advocacy campaigns and issues management strategies are overseen by a diverse set of professionals, ranging from PR practitioners and advertising partners to policy experts and members of government bureaucracy. PR professionals seeking to assist with issue advocacy should have a relevant degree and experience.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, PR specialists usually have a bachelor’s degree in public relations, communications, journalism, English, or business. An advanced credential such as the Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR) from the George Washington University (GW) can also help in gaining the multidisciplinary expertise in PR, communications, and public affairs necessary for competing for positions involved in issue advocacy.

To learn more about how to get started with the GW SPR, visit the main program page or take a look at our blog on deciding if a public relations degree is right for you.

Recommended Readings

Social media is changing advocacy and activism

Advocacy vs. lobbying: How can nonprofits get involved?


Ballotpedia | Issue Advocacy

Institute for Public Relations Management | Issues Management

CQ | Issue Advocacy: What it is and Isn’t

The New York Times | How Much Has Citizens United Changed the Political Game?

Starbucks | Greener Cups and Packaging

The Dieline | The History of Plastic: Is McDonalds to Blame for The Single-Use Plastic Mess We’re In?