Considerations for a Career in Public Sector PR
By Claudia Keith
Working as a PR professional in the public sector doesn’t have a glamorous reputation. People think of bureaucratic clock-watchers working for low pay. But as companies and PR professionals become more interested in corporate social responsibility, maybe it’s time to rethink that reputation. Increasingly, people want to work for organizations whose missions align with their own personal values.
Feeling a sense of purpose and making a difference are often cited as reasons why people enter the public sector. For communications professionals, it’s much easier to write, pitch and spend 40-hours-plus per week working on something you feel passionate about.
If you’re interested in politics, government or community, then the public sector offers opportunities to explore those areas in your PR career. You might even get the chance to help pass legislation that furthers a cause you believe in, launch communications programs to fight a disease, or engage citizens to participate in an initiative.
If you’re thinking of trying out the public sector, then here are some things to consider:
Pay and benefitsCommunications jobs in the public sector have typically been characterized as paying less than PR roles in agencies or corporations. But in today’s tight labor market, public communications salaries are becoming more competitive, particularly at the senior level. Benefit packages are generous with vacation days and other perks. While PR professionals generally don’t join public organizations to get rich — such jobs won’t offer stock options or bonuses — salaries for senior-level PR professionals in the public sector can be attractive.
Political savvyThe boards of public organizations often include elected officials from the state, local and federal levels. When I worked in communications at California State University for example, the governor and lieutenant governor were both members of our board of trustees.
Sometimes, these elected officials bring their own communications people who have their own ideas about which stories to pitch and how to deal with the media. Striking a balance between an internal-communications role and support for board members often requires public sector PR professionals to be politically astute. Even when your job is defined as public relations, you will likely coordinate or overlap with government and community relations, especially if your budget comes from local, state or federal funds.
Advocating for revenue might become a constant in your communications. You might find yourself writing documents aimed at your state legislature or federal government, participating in campaigns to place measures on ballots, or lobbying elected officials about the importance of your institution.
When you work in communications in the public sector, journalists might cover your organization as part of their beat. At California State University for example, higher education reporters from throughout the state contacted us daily — a dynamic that changes the relationship between spokespeople and journalists. To perform their jobs well, both sides need each other.
Establishing strong relationships with the press requires spokespeople to be informed, accessible and credible. For their part, reporters covering a beat also need to cultivate good relationships with spokespeople they can contact for stories every week. When you work in public sector communications, the media will expect to receive press releases from you on a regular basis, and they will contact you often to report their stories.
Communications professionals who work for public entities need to become budget-literate. This means understanding fund sources and the laws and regulations governing the use of funds, and how to explain such information to the press. My experience has been to cultivate a good relationship with the budget director, who is often relied on to explain complex fiscal-policy issues to the media.
When communications professionals transition from the private to the public sector, something that often frustrates them is transparency. Information you don’t have to divulge in the private sector — your salary, for instance — is fair game when you work for a public organization. This sense of working in a fishbowl can feel intrusive and subject you and your organization to criticism. But it’s part of working for a public organization, particularly one that uses taxpayer dollars.
Taxpayers want to know how and where their money is spent. Reporters file requests for public records, including emails and text messages. It takes skill and restraint to operate under these conditions, but a good rule of thumb is to not email or text anything you wouldn’t want to see published on the front page of a newspaper or online.
To be successful in public sector communications, you also need to translate complex technical jargon into language that is easy to understand. Find subject matter experts within your organization and work closely with them. Train those technical folks to talk to the press, conduct media interviews and understand their role in helping you communicate.
Succeeding in this sector also requires a tough skin. Working in a high-visibility position brings scrutiny. Be prepared for others to criticize and second-guess your work. But over time, being credible, trustworthy and direct will help you dampen criticism and gain respect as a communications professional.
If you feel less than enthusiastic about your next media pitch or client meeting, then think about your professional passions. Consider pursuing a PR job that supports a cause, initiative, program or organization that you believe in. You just might find it exciting.
photo credit: echo collection