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,
Quite a challenge for any communications team. But government PR
professionals face a number constraints not even imagined by their
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
"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
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
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
The problem of coaxing talent into all types of government positions
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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."