To the average television viewer last December, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Sunday show "It's Your Business" looked like a public-affairs program trying to stay on top of events when it focused on Japan just before Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's Jan. 2 meeting with President Reagan.

What most viewers didn't know was that the program represented a double-barrel coup for Gray & Co., the largest public relations firm in the city and the one credited with transforming Washington public relations from a quiet profession to one that now spotlights itself almost as much as its clients.

The entire program was a Gray production on behalf of two clients -- the Chamber, which pays Gray to produce the show, and Japan, which hired it to create a positive climate for the Nakasone visit. Meryl Comer, the show's moderator, and Steven Johnson, who produced the taped broadcast, both work for Gray.

Washington's peculiar brand of public relations is booming the way the legal business here did a decade ago. In some instances, PR firms are performing lobbying tasks that used to be carried out by the city's high-powered law firms -- which are beginning to use PR firms to boost their images, too.

PR firms are expanding their staffs and renting extra office space, as they have taken a sharp turn away from planting stories in newspapers to producing their own radio and television programs and creating grass-roots coalitions that provide hometown support for their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and within the administration.

Burson-Marsteller, the second-largest PR group in Washington, formed a coalition of advertising agencies, national advertisers and independent television stations when it represented the movie industry in its battle with the TV networks over the ownership of television reruns. Gray, hired by NBC to represent the other side, organized its own grass-roots coalitions to wage the reruns battle for the networks.

"We went to senior citizens and told them it was free TV versus pay TV," said Gary Hymel, who runs the lobbying side of Gray & Co. and is former assistant to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill.

It is a sore subject that Gray's side lost in the Reagan White House -- where Robert K. Gray, who founded the company four years ago, is supposed to have unparalleled access. He was cochairman of President Reagan's first inauguration, and said he got the idea of quitting Hill and Knowlton after 20 years to found his own company while sitting on the inaugural platform and listening to the president's speech.

Hymel's explanation: "The president's a movie actor. He sided with the studios."

The incident brings up the question of access, and how important it is in the Washington public relations game.

"I don't think there's a more potentially perishable commodity than access. If you misuse it, you lose it," said Gray, who plays Washington's social circuit like a harp to keep up with the people who count. He once said he wears out two tuxedos a year attending parties.

His contacts in the Reagan administration run deep; not only does he know the husbands, but he often does favors for their wives by helping them get jobs or assisting their favorite charities. He was secretary to the cabinet and appointment secretary for President Eisenhower before going to run the Washington office of Hill and Knowlton, once the city's largest PR operation.

"If you have have access, and I'm proud we do, it shows you are doing something right, not something wrong," Gray said.

"Almost never have I had an issue worthy of the president's time. If you take somebody to the White House just to show you can get in, you are not going to get in next time."

Hymel and Frank Mankiewicz, a veteran Democratic campaign operative who held key positions with Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern, said access means that phone calls get returned promptly, but it doesn't guarantee anything else.

"Access matters," said Mankiewicz, who heads Gray's public relations division. "In Washington, what matters is getting phone calls returned. So much is going on that a senator or congressman could be on the phone all day; they can't talk to everyone who calls. Somebody's got to win on that, and that is where access comes in.

"People will talk to members of the firm, but it doesn't mean you get the vote you need, the story in the paper or the client on a television show," Mankiewicz said. "It just gets you a hearing. But having a hearing is better than not having a hearing."

The Washington branch of Burson-Marsteller, now the country's largest PR firm, is beginning to copy Gray by hiring big-name talent, including Sheila Tate, who moved over from being press secretary to Nancy Reagan; Patrick J. Griffin, former secretary to the Senate's Democratic minority, and Patricia Bario, who worked in the press office of the Carter White House and served for a short time as press secretary for Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential campaign.

But John Jessor, an alumnus of both Hill and Knowlton and Gray who now runs the Washington office of Burson-Marsteller, said big political names don't dazzle his big-money corporate clients.

"We have to deliver solid counsel. If we hire airheads with big names, it's not going to be anything but trouble," Jessor said. He described Tate as a "top talent" who worked at Hill and Knowlton before joining the White House's East Wing.

Jessor acknowledged that his firm is talking to Michael K. Deaver, who has announced he is leaving the White House inner circle. "We'd love him to come," Jessor added -- a move that could set up a shootout between Deaver and Gray over who has better access to the White House.

Other top PR executives deride the importance of hiring big political names to gain access. "Everyone has bought the perception that's the way public relations is," said Jerry Blizin, a former Florida newspaper correspondent who came to Hill and Knowlton 15 years ago after working as an aide on Capitol Hill.

"We don't have trouble getting appointments for our clients if they've got something to say," added Bob John Robison, the former Navy lieutenant commander who heads the Hill and Knowlton office here.

"Access is a part of PR," he continued, "but it's not the be-all and end-all."

"The old days of the golden handshake access are basically by and large gone," said Michael Dowling, who opened Ogilvy & Mather Washington, the new name given to the international PR firm's local office.

Ogilvy's decision to add "Washington" to the name reflects the general agreement that public relations here differs from PR anywhere else in the country, specializing in public policy instead of products and corporate images.

"I wouldn't know how to do PR in any other city in the country. My skills and rolodex are not transferable," said Johnson, the producer for "It's Your Business."

"New York-based firms don't recognize the uniqueness of Washington," said Jessor, whose own company, Burson-Marsteller, has its national headquarters in New York. "I'm convinced major public relations firms should be based here. Granted we don't do financial, we don't do marketing. If you asked me to market a new cereal, I'd be at a loss. I'd have to bring people in from New York.

"Everything we do is issues, public affairs," Jessor said. "This is the center of what's happening that's important in this country."

Jessor's office devotes major attention to building coalitions to support its clients' concerns. While representing Bethlehem Steel Corp. in its fight for import quotas, for instance, Burson-Marsteller used Local Officials for Fair Trade (LOFT), an existing group of local officials from the steel-producing states headed by Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri, to lobby Congress and talk to the press.

Jessor said Burson-Marsteller has five specialists who do nothing but design similar coalitions for clients. "They are building the allies and neutralizing the opposition, hopefully," he said.

The attention to grass-roots opinion and the building of coalitions are the newest wrinkles in Washington PR, a recognition of the old adage that politicians react faster to pressure from home than to anything else.

Some firms, including Gray, send Washington-based people around the country, while those with a number of branches, such as Ogilvy & Mather and Hill and Knowlton, use local offices. In either case, the effort has a common aim: to build support at home for something a client wants done in Washington.

"We use the press to support the lobbying effort. You don't move the big wheel of government without having people behind you," Gray said.

Until recently, few Washington PR firms had lobbying divisions. Gray said he lobbied for Hill and Knowlton, but Hymel, his chief lobbyist said, "I swear I never saw a PR man" when he worked for Tip O'Neill. "But I saw an awful lot of lawyers and lobbyists."

Most firms focus their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, figuring it to be the best place to put pressure on the executive and the easiest place to get a policy changed, started or stopped. Hill and Knowlton's Robison, though, said he advises clients to try the middle levels of the executive branch before going to the Hill. And, he said, it's bad to start at the top -- either in the executive branch or in Congress.

"You run past the bureaucracy at your peril," he said. "It's all well and good to go to the top, but if you haven't briefed the staff and gotten them on board, you are blocked."

Other new developments are the way radio and television have replaced the old-fashioned press release. Blizin said Hill and Knowlton sends out fewer than than 30 releases a year from its Washington office, and most of those are required by various laws regarding corporate financial disclosures.

On the other hand, it has developed its own TV facilities and, via satellite, sends clips of news events involving clients to selected stations around the country -- the modern version of the PR man's old standby, the hometown release.

Gray tapes a twice-monthly radio program that features issues its clients are interested in, and sends the tapes to stations in the hopes of getting the message on the air. Mankiewicz said the presentation can't be too heavy-handed or the tapes will never get played.

"We present issues not otherwise presented, and count on the client to be persuasive," he said.

It's another example of new technology at work -- the modern version of sending canned editorials representing a client's positions to thousands of small newspapers.