Washington has become capital of hope for aspiring comms pros

I've been doing business in Washington for many years, but while shepherding a group of 25 college students there, I was struck by a new swagger in our nation's capital.

I've been doing business in Washington for many years, but while shepherding a group of 25 college students there, I was struck by a new swagger in our nation's capital. Clearly, the center of power has shifted south from New York to DC. These students were there to learn more about public affairs and corporate communication functions in Washington, and to assess the prospects for employment in this dreary economy.

They met with many seasoned communication executives, members of our department's advisory council who have served in the White House, walked the halls of Congress, and fought the good fight on both sides of the aisle. They painted for these students a surprisingly upbeat picture. Yes, the job market was tough. Yes, the DC-based media has contracted. Yes, they'll need to be better prepared than ever. But people are being hired, all is not lost, and these students shouldn't give up hope.

In their remarks, these seasoned pros focused on parts of the DC job market that are barely mentioned in career fairs and recruiting Web sites. Mike McCurry, former press secretary to President Clinton, touted the virtues of the public information offices found in nearly all government agencies. He noted that staffers in these areas play a key role in conveying just where all those tax dollars are going and how the public can utilize the many programs these agencies offer. Such messages are more critical than ever these days, as the federal government seeks to find remedies for the financial collapse.

Tucker Eskew, fresh from the McCain-Palin campaign, hosted the group at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). He explained the critical role of advocacy groups like EDF in making sure all sides of an issue are understood. “If you have a cause you are passionate about,” he said, “chances are pretty good that you can find a group here advocating for or against it. It can be a great place to begin your career.”

Michael Fanning, head of corporate communications at Michelin North America, welcomed the students to the Organization for International Investment. He used the venue to explain how associations become the collective voices for their corporate and individual members. “There are good jobs in these associations,” he noted. “It may take a little digging on your part, but there are literally hundreds of jobs for young professionals interested in a communications career.”

None of the speakers disguised the challenges inherent in seeking jobs in Washington. They noted their own beginnings as unpaid volunteers or interns in political campaigns. They acknowledged that entry-level jobs will not be lucrative. In their words, Washington is both about how much you know and who you know. For students and young professionals who have an interest in public affairs and public service, the city can provide an amazing opportunity for learning both.

Tom Martin is an executive-in-residence, Department of Communication, the College of Charleston. He serves as a senior counselor for PulsePoint Group. He can be reached at martintr@cofc.edu.

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