MARKET FOCUS: PUBLIC SECTOR - Under pressure. September 11 thrustthe spotlight on communicators at government entities. Thom Weidlichlooks at the challenges that face PR teams in the public sector

Since September 11, PR departments in the public sector have been

under pressure and scrutiny. Government communications teams have been

stretched to the limit - at local, state, and federal levels - as

employees, journalists, and the public demand information, explanation,

and reassurance.



Quite a challenge for any communications team. But government PR

professionals face a number constraints not even imagined by their

private-sector colleagues.



These include restrictive budgets, small staffs, a host of niggling

rules and guidelines, and discouragement by the government to be

bragging too much about what they do. And, by their very nature, public

entities must function in the open, for all to see and criticize.



So how much support do these departments receive? And have recent events

served to highlight the undervaluation of PR in the public sector?



Public versus private



Communicators in government departments say they like their jobs because

they're dealing with issues, not selling soap, and their mission is to

provide information to the public. Still, they say, just like their

corporate counterparts, they sometimes struggle to make their employers

understand the importance of what they do, and find it especially

difficult to bring them into the decision-making process earlier.



"We get support, but it's an education battle day-to-day when you get in

new managers who think it's all about publicity," says Patrick J.

Cooney, deputy director of communications at the Oregon Department of

Transportation.



"If a program doesn't go well, they say, 'Dump a lot of public affairs

on this.' We need to be involved earlier on."



And just as corporations are feeling the squeeze from the economic

doldrums, public-sector PR pros are looking at slimmed-down funding

because of the attendant drop in tax revenue. But tight budgets in

government may be perennial. "You're never going to get the money needed

to do everything properly, as most companies in the private sector

have," says Rene Henry, who recently retired as a communications

director in the Environmental Protection Agency's mid-Atlantic region in

Philadelphia. "One of my colleagues at the EPA in New York spends maybe

one tenth of his time on the Hudson River PCB problem (pollution from

General Electric's discharge of polychlorinated biphenyls). GE has tons

of people on that."



Still, many say they are managing to function within the confines of

their funding. David Matustik, a public information manager for Austin,

TX, says the budget for the Office of Public Information and Customer

Service had been expanding, though it's flattened this year, and is now

at $2.7 million. The office has 27 staff members, and oversees

internet services, customer services, a cable-TV channel, and public

information, including media relations. "I think we're doing well within

that budget," Matustik says. "We've even expanded our role. We use the

internet more than we used to. Obviously, if you had more money, you

could do more things."



Some departments involved with public safety are finding that, given the

recent tragedies, they are less affected by cost cuts. On November 6,

Michigan governor John Engler signed a measure to bring the state's 2002

budget in balance after tax revenue drop-offs. The Michigan State Police

budget was not cut from 2001. Michael Prince, manager of the state

police's public affairs, says that although impact was minimal, the

department is having to deal with more media inquiries than usual.



"The demand for information has increased so much since September 11,"

says Prince. "We're trying to maintain our current level of services and

also respond to increased requests about what the state is doing about

terrorism. We want to reassure the public that we have policies in

place."



Yet many information specialists, particularly at the national level,

are now having to make decisions about what information to withhold.

"We've come to a new place in government communications where we have to

balance being completely honest with worrying about security," says Gaye

Farris, president of the National Association of Government

Communicators and the information branch chief at the National Wetland

Research Center in Lafayette, LA.



"The press has been understanding when they call me and say, 'I'd like a

geologist to describe the rocks behind bin Laden's head in that video,'"

says Carolyn Bell, acting public affairs officer for the US Geological

Survey. "We've stopped providing some information. Many agencies

have."



The value of PR professionals



Although many government communicators come from PR and journalism

backgrounds, they still suffer from what might be called the Linda Tripp

syndrome: the notion that, like the infamous Monica Lewinsky confidante,

they were promoted to PR from a secretarial job. They believe career

path is becoming a thing of the past.



Bill Bissett, director of communications at the West Virginia Department

of Agriculture, says government entities are waking up to the importance

of hiring real communicators. "If we have a program coming out the same

day as, say, the Division of Natural Resources, and ours is plastered

everywhere and theirs isn't, I think they see the downside of not

putting professional people in this job."



But recognizing the value of professionals is only part of the

battle.



The problem of coaxing talent into all types of government positions

persists.



A recent survey by The Partnership for Public Service, a group launched

in October to encourage people to work in the US government, found that

only one in six (16%) college-educated Americans expressed significant

interest in toiling for Uncle Sam. Although the respondents expressed

warmer feelings toward the government after September 11, this attitude

adjustment did not increase enthusiasm for working for the federal

bureaucracy.



One barrier is salaries. An IABC study that found the median salary for

a government communicator to be $47,000, and the average $52,000. The PRWeek/Impulse Research survey of 2000 salaries (PRWeek,

March 26, 2001) showed professionals in government/politics to be making

an average of $51,000 - that's $8,000 less than the

overall PR figure, and less than all categories, save nonprofit and

education.



Henry, who a few years ago headed up a PRSA committee that tried to get

more government communicators accredited, believes the typical lack of

increased pay for such credentials in the government world is also a

problem.



"If someone becomes accredited, their salary should automatically

increase," he comments. "But trying to get that through the bureaucracy

was virtually impossible."



In addition to salary considerations, government work offers strictures

not found in the private world. For example, Henry says that when he was

at the EPA, he had to use photos of his regional administrator in action

with another person, rather than headshots, which were viewed as too

promotional.



"It's the little things like that. It's the impediments," he says,

adding, "There are no standards of professionalism for people practicing

at any level of the federal government. If I wanted to bring in a writer

at a PR agency, I gave a writing test. With government personnel, they

won't let you give a writing test."



Training for government work



Another popular notion is that government communicators often lack

training.



This is true in some areas, less true in others. Although the PRWeek

salary survey found government/politics pros to have the lowest

satisfaction of any sector concerning their career opportunities (about

25%), they had one of the highest satisfaction ratings with their

training (nearly 75%).



Many government agencies mandate a certain amount of training for their

employees. For example, Austin, TX has a policy that all city workers

get a minimum of 16 hours of training a year. At the national level, the

National Association of Government Communicators runs an annual

"communications school" recognized by the federal Office of Personnel

Management as official training, according to Farris. Many observers say

the military is particularly good at training its communicators. The

Defense Information School at Fort Meade, MD trains military and civil

personnel in public affairs and journalism, including photography and

film techniques.



Still, overall training and networking opportunities geared specifically

to government communicators are rare. To address this, Hill & Knowlton's

Chicago office held a "Press Secretary University" in Springfield, IL on

October 4. Nearly 60 press secretaries and PIOs from Illinois state

agencies and legislative offices (and some federal communicators in the

state) attended panels on government communications. And in 1998, the

federal government set up the Federal Communicators Network as part of

its "reinventing government" initiative. The FCN is now an 800-member

support group overseen by the US General Services Administration.



No doubt, such support for what government communicators do is a welcome

development. We're going to be seeing them - and hearing from them - a

lot more.



USPS and UPS: a comparison of public and private



The US Postal Service (USPS) and United Parcel Service (UPS) are fierce

competitors on opposite sides of the public-private fence.



The 800,000-staff USPS is decentralized, with most of its 100

information specialists based in eight regions. Central communications

handled in its Washington, DC, headquarters include media relations,

internal communications, publications, and speechwriting.



UPS (with 320,000 US employees) has a more centralized PR operation.



It has 24 PR people (not including internal communications), 17 of them

in the Atlanta headquarters. The rest are split between business units

as opposed to regions.



Both operations have media relations people from diverse backgrounds. At

the USPS, many work their way up through the bureaucracy, while others

come from outside agencies and journalism jobs. It's similar at UPS.

"You name it, and I can find someone from that background here," says

manager of national media relations Norman Black. "We've got people from

agencies, corporations, associations, nonprofits, and broadcasting."



The USPS uses outside agencies for specific projects. It brought in

Burson-Marsteller and Manning Selvage & Lee to help deal with the media

inquiries about anthrax.



In the wake of the 1997 Teamster's strike that lead UPS to rethink its

PR approach, it dropped longtime agency Edelman (which still does

international work), and brought in Fleishman-Hillard.



After several years of surpluses, the USPS has been running a

deficit.



"We've had job reductions," says media relations representative Gerry

Kreienkamp. "Every level of the postal service has had budgets reduced.

We're attempting to be more efficient."



Compare that to UPS' net income of $2.9 billion.



So, does Kreienkamp think the government lends enough support to post

office PR? "I'd say, given all that's gone on in the past couple of

months, that they're very aware of the importance of communications."



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