When building a career in public relations, most recent graduates think of working for a big corporation or agency. In PR classes, students learn about the industry’s top agencies, study the strategies and tactics that are most effective when communicating to a company’s audience and dream of creating and implementing a successful campaign for a new product. However, there’s one giant career choice that seems to be overlooked by new PR practitioners: public affairs.
Public affairs is the field of public relations that deals with governmental issues that affect the public as well as building relationships between the public and governmental organizations. To most young PR aspirants, a job in public affairs seems boring and not as appealing as working for a corporate company such as Nike. According to Dr.Suzanne Horsley, assistant professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Alabama and former public affairs specialist, “young people with new ideas” are exactly what the government needs.
The main reason graduates don’t consider public affairs when choosing a career is because they are unsure of what the job title entails. The only real difference between public relations and public affairs is the client’s goal, said Horsley. In the corporate setting, the goal is to sell a product. In the government setting, the goal is to serve the public good. Even though the goals may be different, the communication tactics used are the same.
“The easiest way to describe the difference is that public affairs teams generally work policy and regulatory issues directly with politicians, regulators and other official/semi-official groups whilst public relations teams position the organization and communicate with the broader range of stakeholders via a range of media, promotions and events,” saidMalcolm Wells, director at Malwell Corporate Projects in the United Kingdom.
Another difference between public relations and public affairs is the communication budget. When we see an ad for Microsoft, it tends to be eye-catching with flashy colors and expensive detail. If a government agency created such an ad, it would be accused of not taking care of its public.
“When it comes to public affairs, they [PR practitioners] don’t get huge budgets,” Horsley said. “There are laws that prohibit money spent on advertising.”
When it comes to communicating with their audience, PR practitioners working in government relations have to think outside the box. The public does not want to see government money spent on flashy promotional materials; they want to know their money is going toward the public good. The key is to produce an effective message while not wasting money.
“They [the government] need young people with new ideas who know social media and can reach the target audience,” Horsley said. “If you know social media and know how to apply it logistically and strategically, you can really engage your audience.”
In today’s slow economy, job opportunities are few and far between. PR corporations and agencies are looking for people with at least three to five years of experience, a qualification that is nearly impossible for recent graduates. How do young PR practitioners get the job they need? According to Dr. Horsley, a job in public affairs is the answer.
“With agency and corporate work, it’s all about networking,” Horsley said. “With public affairs, you don’t have to know someone to get in because it’s public. I feel like in the hiring process everyone has an equal chance.”
Entry-level jobs are very common to find in government relations, and the government is required to advertise all job opportunities. Job seekers don’t need to know somebody who knows somebody in order to hear about a job opening. Most public affairs jobs can be found on websites such as www.usajobs.gov.
Another benefit of working in government relations is the stability it provides. Mark Amtower, a marketing consultant and social media strategist in Washington, D.C., said he likes public affairs because of the regular paycheck.
“In the topsy-turvy economic environment we find ourselves in, working for the government provides a stable work environment,” Amtower said.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 35 percent of Americans prefer working for the government. It is possible that jobs in government are more preferred, especially in recessionary times, because of their “perceived ‘safeness’ and generous benefits.”
In addition to retirement and health benefits, working in government relations offers excellent mobility, especially for young workers who are eager to build their careers.
“Many professionals inside government find career tracks by moving from agency to agency, while still working for the government,” Amtower said. “If you find yourself in an office with a relatively young supervisor who is not likely to move on any time soon, your option for the ‘next step’ is to look at other agencies, or other offices within your agency for your next career step.”
Despite the benefits and stability of public affairs positions, many young PR professionals are still under the impression that working in government relations is “boring”; however, the government has challenges of its own. With constantly changing legislators and new policies, professionals in public affairs must keep themselves updated on the issues.
“Once upon a time, public affairs professionals were simply lobbyists,” said Connie Jorgensen, director of community relations at Building Goodness Foundation in Virginia. “Today, it isn’t enough to know legislators; one needs to organize a more sophisticated public relations effort, educating the public and encouraging citizen lobbying. It’s fast-moving, full of interesting people and fascinating issues. One couldn’t find better work.”
The same basic PR skills apply when working in government relations: writing news releases, creating media kits, planning special events, etc. Professionals must work to maintain relationships between the government and the public. Although the government may not be launching cool, new products, public affairs professionals have one important “product” to take care of: the public good.
“You’re selling a product and enforcing the law,” Horsley said. “We are affecting people, and that’s cool.”