Capital communicators

Leading public affairs for a federal agency is like no other position in PR. Mark Hand profiles five government comms heads

Leading public affairs for a federal agency is like no other position in PR. Mark Hand profiles five government comms heads

Robert Johnson
Director of public affairs
Department of Transportation

At the Department of Transportation (DoT), Robert Johnson doesn't have to struggle to pique media interest in the work of the department and its many sub-agencies. Since September 2003, Johnson, assistant to the transportation secretary and director of public affairs for the DoT, has headed the department's large communications apparatus, which includes about 135 people.

One of the biggest challenges, Johnson says, is to make sure his staff is pursuing a proactive messaging effort. "We don't have as much difficulty getting the media interested, but the flip side of that is that you have to work hard to fight the complacency of knowing the phone will ring," he explains.

Johnson says he routinely gets press requests from reporters who want to interview Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to learn about the department's agenda.

"We generally don't grant those requests, which would be the easy thing to do," he says. "We save those for an opportunity to turn that story into something more advantageous to us."

For example, the department's public affairs staff put a hold on a request by Traffic World, a leading transportation trade magazine, to interview Mineta. Instead, Johnson and his staff waited and offered the magazine an opportunity to travel with the secretary on a tour of the South, where he discussed transportation issues with local officials.

"We ended up getting a cover. They ran five or six pages," Johnson says. "They got four days with him instead of 30 minutes. And we got a story that covered soup to nuts all of the big transportation issues that we're dealing with and got it in a big way because it was their lead for the week."

Barbara Wainman
Head of external affairs,
US Geological Survey

Some federal agencies are more recognizable than others. Communications specialists at these higher-profile departments in Washington can spend a large chunk of their workday simply taking calls and responding to inquiries from the news media and public. During most days, they don't have difficulty generating interest in their activities.

But communications executives at lesser-known federal entities have to hustle more to get the news media to cover their activities.

At the US Geological Survey (USGS), for example, the fact that its mission does not include a regulatory function sometimes means that the agency's work doesn't get noticed.

"We're not as visible to folks because we're not issuing orders that immediately get their attention," says Barbara Wainman, who has headed the USGS's 55-person communications staff as its chief of external affairs since 1999. "So the challenge for an agency like USGS is the proactive one."

But Wainman, who spent two years at the Bureau of Land Management and 19 years on Capitol Hill, believes that the USGS's lower profile gives her department an opportunity "to set the agenda and not let the agenda get set for us."

Wainman appreciates the great amount of resources at her disposal at the USGS, as opposed to her time as a press secretary on the Hill, where she often felt like a one-woman operation.

"A lot of people think of the Hill as being so exciting and such a great place to work, and it was," she explains. "But there are many more opportunities in the federal government, in the bureaucracy, to effect change. I really believe that in an agency you can have an impact."

Suzy Bohnert
Public affairs director,
Mine Safety and Health Administration

At the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), an agency of the Department of Labor, the public affairs department handles a steady flow of calls from the media on a daily basis. But what often sets MSHA's outreach apart from other agencies is the regional nature of the coverage. When a coal-mining accident occurs, local media from the affected region, such as Appalachia or the Powder River Basin, are likely to contact Suzy Bohnert and her staff.

"At MSHA, many of the media outlets that cover us are smaller publications, so that requires more of a local or regional public affairs outreach effort in order to optimize the coverage," says Bohnert, MSHA's public affairs director.

Before going into government PR, she headed the public affairs and government relations programs at the Independent Electrical Contractors Association and the International Sign Association. At a trade association, the public affairs staff responds primarily to the needs of the membership base. "But with the government, you really feel like you are reaching
out to a lot of people," says Bohnert. "You're dealing with all of the citizens, the taxpayers. It's a much wider audience."

Barbara Daly
Press director, Peace Corps

At the Peace Corps, Barbara Daly finds herself in a unique situation compared to most federal government communicators. The Peace Corps has a rule that says staff cannot work at the agency for more than five years.

Daly, who has performed PR work for the Transportation Corridor Agencies in Orange County, CA, and Sprint PCS, as well as worked for a California PR firm, says she plans to remain in the communications field when her time is up at the Peace Corps, "as long as I'm working for an organization that I believe in."

Nedra Darling
Public affairs director,
Bureau of Indian Affairs

Perhaps the most unusual environment for a government communicator is the public affairs office of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), where the staff hasn't had e-mail or web access since 2001. Because of a lawsuit over the Interior Department's handling of the Indian Trust Program, the case's judge issued an order to disable web connections on all computers that could be used to access Indian Trust Fund data until each Interior division could show that its sites are not vulnerable to hacking.

"It's overwhelming and frustrating not having internet access," says Nedra Darling, BIA public affairs director. Instead, her staff of three must rely on phones and fax machines to communicate with the media and public. Darling, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, says it's her love of American Indians that has kept her in her job through all of the frustration.

Before joining the BIA in 1998, she performed promotion and outreach to American Indians and Alaskan natives for the Census Bureau. Darling also served as director of film and video at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

From public face to private sector

Working as a government communicator in Washington, whether it's on Capitol Hill or in a federal agency, often proves to be a great training ground for people who might decide
to try their hand at PR work in the private sector.

"The skills that it takes to be a successful communicator within the government are skills that are obviously going to serve a person well doing communications work in the private sector," says Jim Morrell, who has worked as a spokesman in the Bush White House and as a communications director on Capitol Hill, and now serves as a communications associate at Quinn Gillespie & Associates.

Although he doesn't envision a return to Capitol Hill in the near future, Morrell says that, "for individuals who have been bit by the politics bug, the door never completely closes."

Helaine Klasky, who now serves as director of public affairs at Yale University, says it was her work in the public affairs division of the State Department that sparked her interest in the field. The primary focus in her career had been international affairs. But after working at the State Department, she moved on to become deputy assistant US trade representative for public affairs and then deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department before heading to Yale in 2001.

"I worked in some very vibrant organizations in Washington," she says. "The biggest difference is when you work for a Cabinet secretary, you're often inundated with calls, and when you work at a university, you spend a lot of time pitching stories."

Brad Fitch, who worked on Capitol Hill for 12 years as a press secretary and committee communications director, used his many years as a government communicator as the basis for a book he authored called Media Relations Handbook. The book offers guidance to press secretaries on Capitol Hill, public affairs officers in federal agencies, PR professionals in nonprofit organizations, and lobbyists.

Fitch, who now serves as deputy director of the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, says he has noticed in recent years that policymakers have become more appreciative of the role that communications plays in governmental and public affairs work. "Policymakers are beginning to recognize that nothing of any significance in Washington happens without some positive, constructive, and well-thought-out public relations strategy behind it," he says.

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