If you go looking for a public relations career in government, you need to know where to look. Most government directories list public affairs offices, information offices, consumer affairs offices, legislative affairs offices, but no public relations offices. Agencies do not use the term "public relations" because of historic ties between "PR" and publicity. Moreover, legislators at all levels of government have long felt that agencies should not use public funds to generate publicity or propaganda, engage in lobbying, or otherwise attempt to influence public opinion on policy matters. For these reasons, I will refer to all communication functions in the government as "public affairs."
Working in Public Affairs
Whether you prefer working alone in an office or getting out to meet people, there is a government public affairs job suited for your temperament Some public affairs jobs can involve almost constant contact with the media, legislative staffs, or the general public. More frequently, public affairs jobs involve bursts of contact with outsiders, separated by periods of working with staff specialists within the agency to come up with the messages to be disseminated to various groups.
Some public affairs specialists spend large blocks of time designing, implementing, and evaluating various efforts to get the public involved in decision making or in the operations of the agency. Employees who produce products to be read or viewed by various publics split their time between working with subject matter specialists, visiting operational sites, and working in an office to plan or produce materials. Specialists in internal communication often spend their days interviewing technical experts and policy makers within the organization and using this information in preparing materials to be distributed to the employees.
Beyond Public Affairs
A career in public affairs in the government can lead to other career options, either within government or in the private sector. Many government public affairs workers stay in the government but leave public affairs to work in general administration areas such as budget, planning, or personnel. Often these fields do not require any more specialized education than the college degree held by most public affairs specialists, and the larger size of the administrative units may mean more advancement potential. Outstanding employees can be named to special developmental programs and trained to become executives, without too much concern for their specific college background.
Public affairs specialists who also have technical education related to the mission of their agency have high potential for advancement within their agency or similar agencies but outside of the public affairs office. Employees who hope to advance because of their technical knowledge should keep their technical skills fresh and move into technical jobs frequently enough to maintain their marketability.
Government public affairs specialists who want to switch to private sector should build strong bridges to the private sector early in their government careers. Being an active member of professional societies with a large private sector membership, taking on major responsibilities in the public relations of city and statewide nonprofit organizations, or belonging to business organizations, all establish the credentials a government employee needs to make the jump to the private sector, either in mid career or after retirement from the government Traditionally, the effect of career changes on pension benefits has made many government employees hesitant to move to the private sector. In recent years, however, the federal government in particular has made its retirement benefits more portable, making it possible for employees to move to the private sector without losing benefits.
Education and Experience
The ideal job candidate has education and experience in both public affairs and a technical specialty related to the operation of the agency doing the hiring. Master's degrees are attractive, particularly in mid career employees, but are relatively rare. Experience as a public affairs officer in the military is favorably viewed by many civilian agencies.
In reality, agencies are seldom able to find their ideal candidate, and more frequently offer jobs to applicants who do not meet all these criteria. One reason that ordinary people have a good chance of landing jobs is that only a handful of applicants have technical backgrounds that match the operations of a specific agency. Another is that many recent graduates have little or no work experience in public relations. Most applicants do not have the exact college degree the agency has in mind, whether it be communications, journalism, public relations, or marketing. Thus, anyone who meets one or more of the criteria for the ideal candidate has a chance at a job, depending on grades, references, and other factors.
In federal and state governments, advancement to the highest levels in public affairs can require several geographic moves to gain experience in different parts of the organization. Particularly in large state agencies and large federal agencies, the top public affairs positions are filled by political appointees, not by career government employees.
Internships are a good way to gain experience. Many government offices make room for interns on their staffs, particularly those enrolled in programs targeted for minority students. Internships are usually established in cooperation with specific schools or groups of schools or through private organizations which act as brokers in providing interns for government agencies.
RICHARD A. LINDEBORG has worked in government public affairs for nearly 20 years. He earned a B.A. in biology and literature/journalism from New Mexico Highlands University and worked for two daily newspapers in New Mexico. His first government public affairs positions were as a soldier editing U.S. Army newspapers in Vietnam and Germany.
Lindeborg earned his M.S. in journalism from Syracuse University, studied mass communications research, and taught journalism at the university level. He then worked in scientific editing and publishing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at research installations in Colorado and Wisconsin. More recently, he was a public affairs account manager and market research analyst for the Forest Service in Washington, DC.
Lindeborg served the Forest Service as speech writer for Chief F. Dale Robertson and the Internal Revenue Service as speech writer for Commissioner of Internal Revenue Shirley D. Peterson. He has published papers on journalism education, newspaper content, government publishing, speech writing, and public opinion.