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Government Public Affairs: Getting Started

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Many of you have read a government press release or seen a government press conference. Aside from the occasional high profile event, you probably were impressed with how relatively mundane the information was. From such experience, many students dismiss the idea of building a public relations career in a government office as non glamorous.

If this scenario describes you, please allow us to "open your eyes" to the fast paced world of government public affairs. True, like every job, even the most glamour filled career, there is a measure of tedium. However, our experience in the Consumer Information Center and elsewhere suggests that few days could be characterized as "boring".

CIC functions as a clearinghouse for government consumer information and publishes the quarterly Consumer Information Catalog, a listing of more the 200 consumer booklets published by more than 40 federal agencies. The publications are distributed out of a large Government Printing Office facility in Pueblo, Colorado. The Washington, D.C. office functions mainly as a liaison between the federal agencies and Pueblo and between the media and Pueblo. Obviously, with the volume of information that must be disseminated, the work load in this office is often overwhelming.



A Typical Day Writing & Phoning

A typical day as a member of CIC's media staff usually begins with work on one or more releases. Creativity, versatility and a hint of craziness are all pluses when writing these releases.

While all of the booklets put out by federal agencies contain valuable information, it is not always easy to make this information interesting in a release. Many government offices, just like private PR offices, put out very formal releases saturated with quotes that could put you to sleep. CIC's style is informal, conversational, and always written in the second person.

The key words to remember when writing for the government? "Be flexible." Even if you do manage to create something wonderful, you have to be prepared to be edited...extensively. When you begin work with any government agency, expect to get plenty of releases back that neither sound nor look anything like the original. This is frustrating at first, and you'll often ask yourself why management doesn't just write the releases themselves. However, in many cases, these edits relate to policy, agency style, and, perhaps, even the law.

Star student journalists should be forewarned just because you've been told you are a good writer doesn't mean you will be able to churn out perfect products right away. It takes time to figure out the agency's style.

After a time with an agency, most releases should come back relatively unmarked. You will probably be a better writer in some ways, and your skin will certainly be tougher.

But, even after years of writing, your releases may be held up or edited extensively by higher level officials. In fact, your copy may have to pass through layers of lawyers. In the government, the clearance process is a fact of life, one you will have to learn to live with.

Another big part of life for a government public affairs specialist is the telephone there are days when you will feel like it is growing out of your ear. At the CIC, most calls are from writers, editors, and reporters who want copies of booklets or need to know what government agency or office within an agency handles a particular subject.

This is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. Reporters, particularly those from smaller towns and far away states, are always so grateful when you've helped them or gone out of your way to get them some information.

In addition to telephone work, personal visits to major media outlets are often a part of government public affairs work. Such visits can accomplish more than phone calls, making reporters aware of what your agency is doing and what stories you may be able to help with.

One final advantage of government public affairs work you will have variety. You might be doing press work, developing a publication, setting up a press conference, overseeing or even creating public service ads, marketing information to the media, doing a radio or television interview, and/or preparing your boss for an appearance on "McNeil Lehrer" or before a Congressional committee. It helps to be willing to work hard and to be a generalist.

Some of the skills a good government public affairs person needs cannot be learned in a classroom. Good telephone manners and easy interaction with people may be part of your upbringing or your personality.

If you are not comfortable dealing with lots of people, you probably will not be comfortable in the press relations side of things and should think twice about taking such a position. However, there are publications office positions that require a great deal of writing and a minimum of greeting the public where you might be happier.

Getting Your First Job

Getting a job in government public affairs has, on occasion, been difficult. In these days of federal budget cuts, the public affairs budget is often one of the first to be cut. However, the government is again looking for new workers. The number of jobs available may depend on whether the administration in power at the time is for or against extensive government information programs.

The Importance of Internships

There is really no "best" way to get into government public affairs. If your interests lie in this area, it is a good idea for you to check into internships before you graduate.

Many federal agencies hire college students on a temporary basis or accept them for unpaid, college credit internships, either during the summer or for a semester. If you should get one of these internships, try to find out as much about the agency as possible.

If your internship should include work with agencies other than your own, find out everything you can about them, too. By the end of the summer you will not only have gained some familiarity with the federal system, but you may also have a job offer after you graduate. That is, if you do a good job.

Even if the work you do as an intern seems rather mundane, be aware that there are people watching you. How you behave when doing the "scut" work the willingness and initiative you show will impress (or turn off) the people in a position to hire you later.

Attaining "Career Status"

There is a new program to help recent graduates enter government service. If you have a relatively high overall grade point average (or, at the very least, high in your major), you may be able to get an entry level job more easily.

Otherwise, the main problem is that unless you have already worked for the government, you lack what is called "career status." Most openings in the federal government are government wide openings, which mean that they are looking for people who have worked for the government before. Therefore, it is worthwhile to work hard to get good grades, since "status" is not an easy thing to get. But once you have it, you can qualify for all kinds of government jobs.

There are also various types of appointments. There are temporary appointments which can last for varied amounts of time. Be wary of temporary appointments temporary government employees do not qualify for health benefits, life insurance, or retirement benefits. They also do not earn status. Consequently, when your temporary appointment is over, you may not qualify for a permanent government appointment.

The government also has several appointment systems that enable agencies to hire college students directly at lower levels for summer work. While these appointments do not count toward earning career status, they may be good for experience.

If you have Peace Corps experience or are thinking about joining, you can also be hired in a regular career position non competitively after you return from overseas service.

In all of these cases, it is best to contact your local Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which handles such matters for the entire government. They can provide you with the forms you need for applying for a job.

What You'll Earn

As an entry level government public affairs person, you will not get rich. Starting salaries for beginning bureaucrats are in the $16,000 to $20,000 range. However, there are professional career ladders that lead upward on an annual schedule to the journeyman level. Then, if you work hard, there is usually room for advancement to management and non supervisory upper level positions. Salaries at this level can range from $40,000 to $50,000 and more.

Tips for Preparation

Take the "Write" Courses

Take as many writing courses as possible, including classes in both print and broadcast writing. Since the influence of the electronic media is so great, take as many television and radio production courses as you can fit into your schedule. You can never learn too much about writing or have too much writing practice. And don't avoid writing some fiction even if you eventually want to become a news writer, exercising your imagination will help you come up with fresh material.

All potential writers for CIC, for example, must take a writing test when they come in for an interview. They are given a sample and two explanations of what CIC is looking for. You would think that most writers would get an idea of what is needed as a result, but think again! Many young writers produce samples written in the same style as their term papers. But for writing releases, clarity is most important using short, direct sentences in the active voice.

Practice writing that way. Read what you write aloud. Tape it and listen to it. If your tongue stumbles over a six syllable word and you turn blue before you complete a sentence, do it over again. Break it up. Talk to your audience. Be realistic with yourself what do you really like to read, technical books or conversational novels?

Some public relations courses would also be useful they'll teach you how to deal with crises, especially important in this field because public affairs people often function as the voice of the agency when it is under fire. They will also teach you how writing and marketing skills fit together and enable you to see the big picture.

It is also a good idea to take general courses, such as literature, math, science, history. If you've fallen prey to the bunker mentality of only taking courses you think will be "good for your career/' you may be thrown for a loss when you have to start answering questions on anything and everything.

Use computers and become comfortable with word processing. They allow you to edit, simplify, and rearrange your material almost as fast as you can think. Word processing allows you to rewrite without retyping, to make as many changes as you want, and to print out a beautiful, clean copy every time.

Join Appropriate Professional Organizations

Membership in professional organizations is very useful in getting ahead in government public affairs. The National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC), an organization composed of nearly 1,000 writers, editors, graphic artists, and public affairs professionals employed in federal, state, and local government agencies nationwide, is one such organization.

NAGC has a job information letter, a monthly newsletter, and plenty of events at which to gain professional knowledge and meet people. Through NAGC functions you can often meet the people who are doing the hiring and get the inside track on job openings.

Membership in NAGC currently costs $65 a year; compared to dues charged by many other professional organizations, it's an inexpensive investment in your future. Student memberships are also available at a lower cost. For more information about NAGC memberships, conferences, and meetings, write to them at 80 South Early Street, Alexandria, VA 22304, or call 703 823 4821.

If your college has a chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), join it. Although most of the member of its parent organization, the Public Relations Society of

The Starting Salary You Can Expect

At all of the entry level jobs mentioned above, your starting salary would be approximately the same between $15,000 and $20,000. Working in an agency or with a sports team lands you in the lower range; corporate jobs land you in the upper. These salaries are pretty comparable with those for other entry level jobs in the communications business.

If you're surprised that these jobs don't command higher salaries, remember: Everything is based on supply and demand. There are a lot of people who would absolutely relish the opportunity to rub elbows with Magic Johnson or Chris Evert. With the supply of people so high, the demand for a higher salary doesn't have to be considered. At the same time, what you lose in "salary satisfaction" should be offset by the opportunity to travel to interesting places, participate in major sporting events, and meet and work with the sports heroes and legends most Americans only get to know vicariously.

When you reach the top of the field, your salary will probably be comparable to many other areas of public relations, even higher if you own your own firm. Essentially, the range can be from $75,000 to more than $100,000, possibly less if you work for a team, but I'll explain that later.

The Ideal Candidate for Sports PR

A person with some type of experience in communications as an intern or volunteer, a job with a college organization, etc. If you have played sports, you will have an advantage. You don't have to be a former All Pro linebacker, but you should be versed in sports terminology, at the very least.

What kind of person would I hire? I look for bright, outgoing, aggressive, energetic, hardworking, mature, responsible and enthusiastic people who can demonstrate good organizational, people, writing, and planning skills. I am most interested in people, who have had some job related experience, although if a person can show me he or she has done this type of work in an educational environment, I am interested in speaking with them.

Should You Have A College Degree?

Yes. While it may not make you better qualified for the job, but it will certainly prove that you are well educated and, more importantly from my personal standpoint, that you have already set some goals and accomplished them. The job market is competitive; a degree will give you a competitive edge.

What Should Your Major Be?

It can be almost anything, but I would suggest that your course load include some journalism and marketing classes they will begin to expose you to the types of situations you will encounter in sports public relations. I also suggest that you take a solid load of liberal arts classes (history, literature, art history, psychology, sociology) these will heighten your creativity and strategic thinking.

Do you need an M.B.A to land an entry level job? No. You will be in the business of communications and ideas, not as much the quantitative situations for which an M.B.A. degree trains a person. Don't get me wrong, you should always consider yourself a businessperson, not just an artist. And eventually, an M.B.A. could be valuable later in your career.

Sporting Goods Company Public Relations

Your title will be public relations assistant at a company or assistant account executive at an agency. Your job will include writing, planning, researching, working with the media to develop stories about the company and its products the type of activities you can expect to do on any type of business. But your life should be rather enjoyable as you travel and work with athletes. You can expect to be in this position also for about two years, although independent workers can expect to move faster at agencies.

Sports Promotion/Marketing Public Relations

You will do many of the same jobs as the sporting goods company person. But, in addition, you will coordinate events and be expected to do many of the trivial but essential jobs associated with an event coordinating signage, registration forms, even driving athletes and VIPs to events.

And What's In Common

Be ready to work weekends, nights and long hours while all your friends are enjoying themselves at picnics and parties. Don't fret; however, you will be at the center of their action.

Be sure to be versed in sports. A sports fanatic would be the ideal candidate, but a working understanding of sports is advantageous to any of these jobs.

Know the basic techniques of public relations writing, working with the media, executing programs, managing people, and working with the public.

Understand that everyone is a sports expert and will have a strong opinion on how a sport should be approached. The kid in all of us the good and the bad kid comes out in sports public relations programs.

Your Typical Day as an Entry Level Person

It will always be busy and challenging, but if you like action, it will be very stimulating. A typical day could include:
  • Meeting with your boss to review overall plans and strategies for a sports program, Media kit, or feature story development strategy;
  • Scheduling an athlete's appearances at a local mall;
  • Attending a meeting with a marketing person to develop a program to build sales in a particular region or among a specific audience;
  • Writing a news release and arranging for production of photos;
  • Contacting a variety of media to develop a story on your client/team's newest product or star;
  • Attending a sports event or athlete appearance.
Sporting Goods Company Public Relations

You will have an influential role because such companies' typical advertising budgets are relatively small, so the public relations effort has to carry the load of making (and keeping) the company visible. This is also a "relationship business" where the customer interaction provided through a public relations program is important.

The responsibilities of the public relations department are similar to those of many companies. You will most likely:
  • Write and edit media kits and brochures;
  • Contact various media to develop stories;
  • Plan events in the field;
  • Plan and attend media visits for company spokespeople to promote products;
  • Develop programs to support product introductions and repositioning programs.
Sports Promotion/Marketing Public Relations

If the program is an expensive, high level one, the role of public relations will be very important, since they will be responsible for managing the program. This is especially critical for beer and cigarette companies that sponsor many sports events, such as horse races, auto races, and many other more conventional sporting events.

Typically, you will do the following:
  • Develop and execute comprehensive publicity programs to support the promotion/marketing program;
  • Stage special events;
  • Schedule pro athlete appearances;
  • Manage an event working with the media, arranging for food, entertainment, and signage.
Entry Level Jobs The Differences

Team/Sports Event Public Relations

Your title will be marketing assistant, public relations assistant, or, possibly, even clerk. You will be expected to be a jack of all trades  writing releases, planning events, researching stories and community activities and scheduling player appearances. You also could be called upon to do more trivial chores, like driving athletes or VIPs to airports or meetings. You will be expected to be a team player. Despite all this, you will experience a great deal of excitement. I will always remember a friend's photo that shows him holding the NBA Championship Trophy with Dave Cowens on the floor of Boston Garden he was a public relations assistant at the time, but as close to the celebration as anyone could have hoped to be. You could expect to stay in this type of job for about two years. Your next promotion could be to a managerial level with a title such as supervisor or manager.
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