What You'll Do as a Press Secretary

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Congressional press secretaries generally confine their work to the Washington office, although nearly all of them get chances to travel in the legislator's home district (And as a new press secretary, you'll want to travel to the home district at least once to personally meet with the reporters who will be reading your press releases and other mailings, and then periodically thereafter.)

Especially at the beginning of a new session of Congress, lobbyists and others try to "influence'' politicians by inviting them (and their legislative aides) to receptions where they can talk to them about this bill or that while chowing down on shrimp, steamship round, and drinks. But don't get your party hopes up. Lobbyists (correctly) believe that legislative aides work more closely with their bosses on upcoming bills than press secretaries. So, not surprisingly, I only need two hands to count the number of invitations I have received to such receptions.

A typical day in the office would start at 8:30 a.m. with the Washington Post and other national newspapers and a cup of coffee. By the time you're finished with the papers (at least a couple of cups later), you've usually fielded some calls from reporters, talked with the boss about a press release, and started reading the papers from the congressman's district There are regular staff meetings at which upcoming bills and current issues are discussed, as well as the quantity and content of constituent mail that's been received. A good press secretary can usually find many things to write about after these meetings.

Once a week, you might produce a five-minute radio program, which involves drafting five or six questions, taping the program with the congressman in the House recording studio (you ask the questions; he gives the answers), and getting enough duplicate tapes and scripts to send to radio stations. The whole process takes about two hours, most of it production time.

Depending on how fast they can write, press secretaries spend much of their time at their desks producing a variety of written materials. More and more congressional offices are being equipped with computer terminals, so it is a plus to have had experience in this area.

When the House is debating and voting on some major bill, you will get calls from reporters wanting to know why your boss voted this way or that And your boss will likely want you to write a press release on the legislation. Every congressman and senator has pet projects, interests or bills they have sponsored. You will have to convince him that you are publicizing them every chance you get Although most politicians are from other states, they all read the Washington Post and the other national newspapers, and you will be required to write letters to the editor and op-ed pieces, trying to get your boss some national exposure on his favorite subjects.

Don't expect to always get out of work at 5:30 p.m. I didn't. If the House is working into the evening hours, you will be, too. And don't expect overtime pay-it doesn't exist in a congressional office. (It does in the federal agencies - which is sometimes known in Washington as the "real government"-but not in a House or Senate office.)

And Where You Can Go Next

Where can you go after having worked as a congressional press secretary? Well, you can move to another congressional office, though you should plan to stay with the party you started with-once you have worked for a Republican, for example, it is wise to stick with Republicans. You do not have to belong to the same political party as the congressman you will be working for, but the government establishment doesn't think much of those who jump back and forth across the aisle.

You can also try to get a job as a press secretary for a U.S. senator. The pay is better than in the House (average salaries are about $54,000) and you will usually have an assistant or deputy press secretary to help with some of the writing and production workload.

Some press secretaries end up with jobs in one of the numerous federal agencies, either as political appointees (known as Schedule C employees), which usually last only as long as the current occupant of the White House, or in civil service positions, which are protected no matter who is president

There is always stiff competition for press jobs in the White House, and again, these are not advertised-one usually finds out about them only via insider word-of-mouth. But they're certainly worth investigating. Can you imagine having "Deputy Assistant Press Secretary to the President of the United States" listed on your resume?

Of course, you can always, as they say, go "over the wall"-into the private sector to work as a press secretary or speech writer for the public relations department of a major corporation. The pay and benefits are much better than working for the government, and your government contacts will often prove helpful.

You can also try to get a job in either the Republican or Democratic national campaign organizations.

Incidentally, there are a number of organizations you may consider joining, such as the National Press Club, as a way of meeting new people in the press/public relations line of work and extending your network of social and professional contacts, since "word-of-mouth" is the best way to discover possible job opportunities in Washington. Along with the National Press Club, I also belonged to the Republican Communicators Association, which is composed of Republican congressional press secretaries, and the Connecticut Society, a bipartisan social group that includes people from all walks of life who happen to be from Connecticut and live in the Washington, D.C. area).

Wherever you end up, you will find the skills and abilities developed from your stint as a political press secretary to be easily transferable to any number of other positions in other areas of the government or private industry. And, with luck, that you had some fun and accomplished some important things while you were acquiring them.

Prior to coming to Washington in 1983, HARRY PHILLIPS was press secretary to the House Minority Leader of the Connecticut State Legislature. Before that, he was a city editor and police reporter for two Connecticut daily newspapers for six years and freelanced crime stories to various New York newspapers.

He has done campaign work for a former Connecticut congressman, a candidate for Congress from eastern Connecticut, and a Connecticut gubernatorial candidate.

Mr. Phillips has also worked as a press secretary for Congressmen William F. Clinger, John G. Rowland, and Joseph M. McDade. While attending college in New Mexico, he was a stringer for United Press International and, during 1982, a contributing writer to Connecticut Magazine.

He has won several journalism awards, including the New England Associated Press News Executives Association Award.
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