Making A Difference: A Career in Public Affairs

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Steven Mehlman, Communications Representative, American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)

'The American Association of Retired Persons is unique in American history and has assumed a major role in American life."Los Angeles Times

"AARP… probably the single most powerful lobbying bloc on the planet and the prime defender of Social Security." Newsweek

"Retirees' Group Becomes A Force in Business World." Boston Globe

Obviously, not everything you do in a career in public affairs will have this kind of national impact or result in such accolades for your organization.

But if you are looking for a job where you can truly make a difference in the success of a cause, the image of an organization or even in the quality of people's lives, then the public affairs field may be for you.

A Wide Range of Specialties

Public affairs is a very broad job category covering a wide range of organizational functions. These may include investor relations, employee communications, community and government relations, public information, media relations, and issues management.

This diversity represents both an opportunity and a danger to the individual seeking a career in public affairs. Opportunity: It allows you to choose from among many varied specialties. Danger Too much specialization may ultimately make it more difficult for you to be promoted to top public affairs management, where broad, general knowledge rather than expertise in a specific function is required.

For example, a 1987 study by the Conference Board, a national business research organization, found that nearly a fourth of senior public affairs executives are responsible for all of the following program areas government relations (federal, state, or local), public relations, community relations, issues management, employee communications, and corporate contributions and often for international public affairs, investor relations, and stockholder relations as well.

According to the survey, 35% are responsible for government relation s, public relations, and, usually, one or more other program areas, 41% for government or public relations (but not both) along with one or more other program areas, and 2% for functions other than government or public relations usually community relations.

Public Affairs Is Growing in Importance

During the recession of the early 1980s, it often seemed that public affairs/public relations personnel were among the first to be laid off in corporate staff reductions.

But the Conference Board study found that a number of companies had begun increasing their public affairs activities and upgrading the importance of that department within the company.

Top managers are today putting greater emphasis on public affairs (particularly media, government, and community relations) and recognizing the importance of improving their public image through better communication with the media, community groups, consumers, and the like. In more and more instances, the traditional "no comment" response to media or public inquiries has gone the* way of the dinosaur.

As one example of the growing importance of public affairs, the Conference Board survey found that more than half of all top public affairs managers report directly to the company's chief executive officer.

Preparing for a Career in Public Affairs

I'm sorry," the personnel officer says. "I can't hire you. You just don't have the experience we need."

"But how can I get that experience if no one will hire me?" asks the unsuccessful job applicant How, indeed? Unfortunately, this Catch 22 scenario comes up quite often in the public affairs job market, which has limited openings and spirited competition for the jobs that are available.

The key decisions you must make to help land a job in public affairs must be made long before you walk through the door for your first job interview. Are you interested in issues? Whether it be the environment, education, foreign policy, business management, labor relations, consumer affairs, Social Security, or some other issue, you can be sure that a number of corporations, government agencies, lobbyists, associations, and public interest groups are involved in each of those areas. And you can be sure that all of them have or should have if they are to succeed some sort of public affairs department.

Do you enjoy politics and political campaigns? Are you fascinated by the workings of government and how public policy is developed?

Are you a good communicator, able to write and speak articulately and intelligently? If not, do you want to learn how to be one?

Last but not least, are you interested in the media? Do you know what makes "news" and how a story gets into print or on the air?

Your answers to these questions will help determine whether you have an interest in and an aptitude for a career in public affairs. If you do, you needn't wait until you leave school to get the kind of education and experience you need to get started in the field.

You can't underestimate the importance of education to your ultimate success in public affairs. The Conference Board study mentioned previously found that half of all senior public affairs managers had bachelor's degrees; 25% had master's degrees. One in five had law degrees.

Your major is not as important as your scholastic record; people now in the public affairs field majored in political science and public administration, economics, business, communications, even engineering and science as undergraduates. However, I would suggest that at least a minor in communications journalism and/or public relations as well as some basic business administration courses will be very helpful to you. If your college major represents the bricks and mortar of your future career, the additional communications and business courses you take are the tools you need to help shape that career.

What you do after class may also help you break into the public affairs field. How about getting involved in student government or working on a local political campaign? Why not work for the campus newspaper or radio station or part time at an off campus media outlet to get some practical experience on the "receiving end" of public affairs? What about seeking an internship in business or government in the summer or part time during the school year? How about volunteer work? There are scores of volunteer organizations involved in community service and public interest activities that would welcome and value your help.

This extracurricular activity can help you decide whether you want to pursue a career to public affairs. It can also give you the kind of experience you will need to at least "get through the front door."

If this article has helped you in some way, will you say thanks by sharing it through a share, like, a link, or an email to someone you think would appreciate the reference.

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