The field of public relations has changed tremendously and so have the skill sets of its practitioners. PR professionals now have a wide range of abilities in order to satisfy as many of their clients’ needs in-house. These skills can include writing, video editing, photography and social media management. One skill that is often not considered is political savviness.
There will come a time when the PR pro will have to understand how decisions made at the local, state and federal levels could affect his client. The practitioner must also effectively communicate the client’s position and needs to political representatives, in addition to the general public.
A client’s need for political involvement will differ depending on the line of work. The medical field is one area that comes with a high amount of political involvement due to funding and government regulation.
Brad Fisher is responsible for advertising and public relations for the DCH Health System in Tuscaloosa, Ala. According to Fisher, DCH has a communication department that consists of himself and three other coordinators. DCH also employs Director of Community Relations Sammy Watson, who deals with government affairs and community activities like the Chamber of Commerce and other public initiatives.
Fisher said that the hospital is heavily affected by federal and state decisions because this area of government controls about half of the hospital’s income. “We are facing cuts due to sequestration,” Fisher said. “Meanwhile, the Medicaid program, which is controlled by the state, is a mess. Government reimbursement accounts for about half of our income — as it is with most hospitals — so funding of Medicare and Medicaid is very important to DCH.”
Fisher said that a supportive relationship exists between DCH and the local government.
“The Tuscaloosa City Council, the Tuscaloosa County Commission and the Northport City Council appoint the majority of our board, and we receive 10 percent of two cents of the county sales tax,” Fisher noted. “For these reasons, we keep in close contact with local officials to keep them informed of our activities. Our local governments are very supportive because we provide a community benefit and because we are a major employer.”
The role of information distributor is constantly growing for PR pros. This need is well understood by Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. Mayor Maddox once held a public relations and personnel director position with the city school system. Following the April 27 tornadoes that devastated the city of Tuscaloosa, Mayor Maddox added a PR staff position to his office. This new position was created to effectively communicate the city’s disaster communication plan and to keep the city, media and other publics informed across multiple platforms.
Maddox understands the importance of practitioners in keeping elected officials better informed on the needs and opinions of clients. “Government is complicated,” Maddox said. “There are many varying interests, wanting various things. So to be able to task and align a message is very important, especially in today’s society where information is very quick. I think their role will continue to expand in the years to come.”
Not all PR positions will be as politically involved as others, and not all practitioners are going to be political scientists, but it is important for all practitioners to increase their political knowledge. Few know this point as well as Tilden Katz, managing director of APCO Worldwide’s Chicago office.
APCO is a large, independent public affairs and strategic communications firm with 30 offices worldwide. Katz has a diverse background of political and communication experience, ranging from law school to representing Joe Biden during his first presidential campaign in 1987. Katz said that his background gave him a good grounding in politics, public affairs and how companies compete for political attention.
According to Katz, communication positions that will end up being the most politically active are those that have a prominent place in the community, like hospitals. “I also think industries that are heavily regulated like the financial industry and health care in general [require political savviness],” Katz said. “You are going to have to be aware of how public opinion is moving.”
Katz said that it is not always only government officials with whom communication representatives have to work, but the activists around that line of work, too.
“You could be working for Kraft or another food company, and you could become a real focus of public attention,” Katz said. “So I think it is something you have to be aware of no matter who your client is. You could be working for a large company or a regulated company, and there is going to be public attention focused on that entity.”
Katz said that there are ways for communication professionals to be more politically active and savvy without studying political science. “These classes can be good, but they can also be very dry,” Katz said.
“All politics is, is the discussion of issues and deciding of issues that most people are going to be interested in anyway,” Katz said. “It’s the quality of schools and the quality of law enforcement and how high taxes should be. Those are issues that I think are worthwhile issues to think about. These issues can be found from reading the newspapers both in print and online. You can listen to political commentators and talk to people and see the issues they care about.”
“So I think there are all sorts of outlets for people who want to understand public affairs and public life without taking a class, which may be interesting to some people, but is more focused on voting patterns of a certain group over 40 years or something that is not really relevant today to what they are trying to understand in their own community,” Katz said.
With the job market becoming increasingly competitive, PR practitioners need to bring many job skills to the table for potential clients. Having political smarts is possibly a skill that could distinguish one practitioner from another. Being able to communicate politics opens up new publics to communicate with for a PR pro’s client. Like Mayor Walt Maddox explains, “In many ways, it’s not the work we do, but how we communicate the work we do.”