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Getting the Boss's Name in the Headlines

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Harry Phillips, Former Congressional Press Secretary

Public relations for a politician whether for a president, senator, congressman, governor, or any other state or local political figure is usually the job of a press secretary. The simplest way of describing a press secretary's job is "to get the boss's name in the headlines." But, as I think you'll soon see, there is much more to the job.

A typical congressional staff has about 18 people on it, and the press secretary is usually listed in government directories as being one of the top people on the staff (right after the administrative assistant the chief staffer and the person usually in charge of hiring and firing.)

A Press Secretary's Duties and Responsibilities

The press secretary, first and foremost, must act as an official spokesperson for the politician. There isn't a day that goes by that you won't answer questions or provide statements to the press about your congressman's legislative activities.

If you think it is necessary, you'll want to get the congressman on the phone to answer some questions himself, but his typical work day in Washington is so hectic- a mind- numbing series of committee meetings, constituents' meetings, numerous other events, and, of course, the work that transpires on the floor of the House-that he will often not be available to talk with reporters before deadline, and they will have to settle for your answers. The reporters will frequently quote you by name in the articles or on the air, but it is understood that you are speaking for your boss.

Other duties of a political press secretary may include:
  • Writing press releases and speeches;

  • Helping write a newspaper column;

  • Producing weekly radio shows and occasional TV programs that can be beamed by satellite to district TV stations in time for the evening's news programs;

  • Organizing press conferences;

  • Writing and producing radio actualities statements (usually one minute long) on daily events that are read over the phone to various radio reporters;

  •  Producing periodic newsletters;

  •  Notifying the press by phone of your congressman's travels back home (and trying to get them interested in covering him);

  • Being available to be switched over to a congressman's reelection.
Regarding the latter point, there are always opportunities to work on political campaigns, especially, of course, during election years. In fact, if you work for a congressman or senator, at some point you will probably wind up getting switched over to the campaign organization. (Federal workers generally cannot participate in political activities. Getting switched over to a campaign means you will be dropped from the government payroll; your salary will come from the campaign coffers.)

What You Need to Become One of Us

How would I describe a leading candidate for a job as press secretary in a congressional office? Well, he or she (there are hundreds of female press secretaries) would be someone who:
  1. Is a very good writer.

  2. Can meet deadlines.

  3. Is very personable.

  4. Is a "quick study" of the issues.

  5. Can acquire some knowledge of all the issues.

  6. Is willing to work long hours.

  7. Can rationalize lower wages than the private sector.

  8. Can speak comfortably, clearly, and truthfully with the press.

  9. Will not be offended if the congressman wants to edit what he or she writes.

  10. Is willing and able to deal with red tape and bureaucracy.
Traditional qualifications for the job include several years experience as a reporter and/or editor for a newspaper or radio or TV station. Knowing how reporters think can be extremely helpful to a press secretary, who does, after all, spend a lot of time working with them.

There are so many qualified candidates for press secretary jobs and such a limited number of jobs to go around that a college education and previous experience in a related field have gotten to be basic requirements. Majors in journalism or political science seem to be prevalent As far as advanced degrees go, if you have one, it can't hurt, but it certainly isn't necessary. An interest in or actual participation in politics or some previous experience in government is a plus.


There are several ways to get a job as a press secretary for a politician. The most basic way is to visit Washington and, armed with a bundle of resumes, go door to door in the House and Senate office buildings, trying to meet the administrative assistants. Make sure to wear a nice suit and look your best the movers and shakers in our nation's capital are very image conscious. There are personnel offices where you can drop off a resume that may (or not) be referred to an office in need of a press secretary. While some jobs are openly advertised, the majority are found through word of mouth, so it helps to have a network of contacts that can point you in the right direction.

My First Job

How did I get my first job in Washington? I was working in the Connecticut state legislature; one day I simply got restless and decided to make a major career move. I got on the phone and called every journalism and political contact I had. Within three hours, I was in touch with three congressional offices with openings for a press secretary. The first one that called back offered me an interview. The next day, a Friday, I took an Amtrak train to Washington, had the interview, and went back to Connecticut. I was offered the job on Monday.

My experience was, to say the least, unusual, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have gotten a job in Washington so quickly. I know of many people who have moved to Washington and had to work part time restaurant jobs for months while they pounded the pavement in search of something more permanent.

A press secretary can also be promoted from within a particular congressional office. A lower level congressional aide with strong writing skills might be able to convince the administrative assistant that he or she can do the job better than an outsider since he or she is already familiar with the office operation and the congressman's home district. A candidate for press secretary who has some legislative skills or expertise in some issue areas national defense, social issues, the budget, etc. has obvious advantages over someone who does not.

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