PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Additional perspective on doing government public relations:
Unique characteristics of government employment
© 2000; 2018 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Whether you do public relations or some other type of work and regardless of the level of government at which you work, there are four special characteristics of being a government employee that make doing your job very different than performing the same types of duties for a profit-motivated business or a private, non-profit organization.

Governments have major impacts on their constituents.

One of the stereotypical concerns of public relations practitioners is insuring that their stories make the news. Indeed, some public relations people -- at least those specializing in publicity -- are driven by a need to get their employer or clients' name and story reported by the news media. They often judge their success by the number of story placements they complete or by the total column-inches or seconds of air-time devoted to telling their client's stories.

These public relations practitioners often use the phrase "making the news" to imply that media decisions about running stories are influenced by the public relations people's creativity, persuasive efforts, and personal contacts that generate interest in stories that would otherwise go unreported. But, commenting on the newsworthiness of government activity, Iowa Human Services Commissioner Michael V. Reagen has observed: "We don't have to make news. We are news!"

Indeed, the decisions government agencies make -- e.g., to raise or lower taxes, to set more stringent clean air standards for automobiles, to change the income requirements for receiving food stamps, to lower speed limits in urban areas, to re-zone a residential area to permit commercial usage, or to send troops to invade a foreign nation -- directly and powerfully impact people within its jurisdiction. Governments affect virtually every aspect of our lives and, because of that, the media are eager to report government decisions and actions. They don't need to be persuaded to do so by government public relations people.

The challenge for government communicators isn't getting stories in the news, it's getting them reported clearly, fully, and accurately so citizens know exactly how and when they're going to be affected by government.

Government communicators are a vital link between the people and the government and, by doing so, they frequently make people aware of life-changing information.

Of course, not all government communications are this dramatic. Many of them are actually rather dull, boring, and routine. But, nonetheless, almost all of them directly affect the lives of some citizens.

Government employees are accountable to many bosses.

Titles vary a bit from state to state, city to city, and even agency to agency, but a typical government communicator works in an organizational unit called a bureau or an office and reports to a supervisor with the rank or title of bureau chief.

This much of the reporting/accountability hierarchy for government communicators isn't much different than the reporting relations imposed on public relations professionals working in large companies or non-profit organizations. Any employee in a large organization is accountable upwards to his/her boss, to that boss' boss, and so on, ultimately up to the president or owner of the business.

All of these restrictions and many more affect the work of government communicators. For instance, if a state government communicator wants to have a brochure printed, it may have to be printed in a print shop run by inmates at the state prison instead of being printed by a local printer. Or, if a city government communicator wants to produce a videotape, it may have to be done by a production house located within the city limits even though a better product and lower price could be obtained from other companies in other nearby locations.

The vast majority of government employees in the United States are subject to work rules established by a civil service or merit employment commission, a completely separate government department than the one for whom they work. Such civil service systems were originally created to reduce corruption and bring greater stability to the jobs of non-elected government employees.

Thus, a government communicator who wants to hold a special event outside of regular work hours or away from the office --e.g., a public information officer for a county fish and game department who wants to set up a booth to pass out information at a weekend county fair -- can't simply convince his/her immediate boss of the value of the idea and then go ahead and do it. He/she would very likely also have to get civil service approval for government employees to count this activity as part of their work and be paid for it.

Similarly, a government employee who has a complaint about the way her/his boss has treated her/him, doesn't just go to that boss's boss. She/he files a grievance with the civil service commission.

Furthermore, because American government is based on a system of checks and balances, the legislative and judicial branches of government can also look into and intervene in the operations of the executive branch agencies. Judicial intervention is rare unless someone sues the government, but legislative intervention --at least, legislative oversight-- is common.

In addition, many governments have an ombudsperson authorized to intervene anywhere in the government in response to citizen or employee complaints, questions, or requests for help.

The mass media also do much the same thing in their role as self-appointed watchdogs of government. They are constantly alert for government wrong-doing or questionable activities that can be pointed out to the public and to other officials who will demand a full accounting.

Working in government is like being in a fish bowl.

The extensive accountability alone could give government employees the feeling everyone was looking over their shoulders. But, if they ever had any doubts, the so-called sunshine laws passed during the 1960s and `70s would have put them to rest. The combination of laws that give citizens access to government records and documents and those that require that all policy-making decisions be done in open, public meetings have subjected all levels to government to intense public scrutiny.

For government communicators, open records laws legally reduce their opportunity to say "no comment" to questions and virtually eliminate their ability to refuse to release information that is requested by the media or the public.

When the legal mandates, the broad and multi-tiered accountability, and the general philosophy of democracy are taken together, it's no exaggeration to say that government communicators must be constantly prepared to explain their own actions and those of their agency to anyone asks about them. Legally, they cannot not respond. And, it invokes both personal and professional peril if they ever say "no comment." Like it or not, they are considered public servants and they are held accountable to the public.

Spending government money isn't easy.

Government spending is a particularly sensitive subject for taxpayers who tend to get very upset when governments collect more tax money than is absolutely necessary to provide needed services. Consequently, governments have developed elaborate systems of fiscal constraints.

Government agencies don't simply send someone to the store to buy what they need, nor do they pay list prices. They have bidding processes in which they announce what they wish to buy and invite all interested vendors to submit bids. Then, unless there are extenuating circumstances such as poor past performance, excessively long delays before delivery would be made, or evidence that an inferior product is being offered, the bidder offering the lowest price on the specified items is the one from whom the items are purchased.

Despite occasional and well-publicized abuses --e.g., $600 toilet seats and $1200 coffee-makers, purchased by the Pentagon -- these practices usually result in substantially reduced purchase prices. They also eliminate impulse buying and encourage advance planning. For routine matters this is fine and highly desirable, but it can be a problem in some of the fast-breaking situations involved in public relations.

There are also certain expenditures that many government agencies simply will not permit.

These spending restrictions can pose problems for employees who are trying to work to the best of their abilities.

Considering government employment?

Working in government does have inherent limitations and a fair share of hassles, but what job doesn't? It's certainly not for everyone. But government work, especially government communication work, can be very satisfying and reasonably rewarding, especially for someone who is primarily motivated by a desire to serve the public.

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11 Jan 2018