PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Government public relations
© 2000 & 2009 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Governments were among the first organizations to need, and to practice, public relations as a way of maintaining appropriate relationships with their citizens. They still need to maintain such relationships but, in the United States today, they rarely call it "public relations."

By definition, democratic governments should reflect public opinion and work best when the citizens are well-informed. Thus, public relations should have a natural and welcome role in U.S. government. And, for a number of years it did.

There were lots of examples of what we now call public relations undertaken by federal and local governments following the Civil War. Publicity, promotional, and informational campaigns were launched by various federal departments, as well as by cities and states. California, for instance, conducted extensive and expensive campaigns to attract new residents.

These government efforts paralleled what many businesses were doing at the time, and the government employees who performed these tasks had the same titles as their business counterparts. These titles included such terms as publicity agent, promoter, press agent, press secretary, and public relations specialist.

Government public relations had to change its name.

By 1913, several special interest groups and political activists were beginning to express public concerns about the appropriateness of government agencies being involved in public relations, and particularly their attempts to influence legislative decisions. So, they began lobbying Congress in an attempt to have strict limits placed on government spending for public relations.

Much of the impetus for this came from lumber-related big business interests that resented the public relations success of the U.S. Forest Service that had led to closing some federal land to logging activity. Additional pressure arose because of partisan political rivalries, and still more pressure came from political activists who promoted vague and general fears that a government public relations activity could could be perverted into a propaganda machine that would manipulate public opinion.

As a result, what's now known as the Gillett Amendment was added to the statute that created the Interstate Commerce Commission. This modest-seeming amendment turned out to be one of those quirky but not uncommon acts of Congress that ultimately end up having much more power and influence than their language originally suggests.

Although it's now often described as a ban on government public relations, that's not what the Gillett Amendment started out to be. It didn't prohibit government public relations; it simply said: "Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose."

Then World War I came along, and with it came the extensive use of propaganda by all of the warring nations. Ironically, when the war was over and the success of those propaganda efforts led people like Edward Bernays and countless businesses to increase their public relations efforts, there was a huge backlash against government propaganda and a rising fear of government manipulation.

As a result, the federal government which had already taken its first step with the passage of the Gillett Amendment, began backing even further away from public relations.

More accurately, the federal government backed away from the term "public relations." It didn't necessarily stop practicing public relations; it simply gave these activities new and less-offensive and more public-spirited labels. The most often-used and wide-spread euphemism for public relations was "public information."

Within a matter of a few years, and even moreso today, a search of the job titles used in almost every federal government agency will reveal absolutely no public relations positions but multitudes of

A now decades-old study by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget found over 5,000 federal employees officially designated as "information specialists" and estimated that the total number of federal employees doing work that would be considered public relations in the private sector would be at least five to seven times that number.

And, as is true of so many other aspects of government in the United States, the public relations patterns set by the federal government were interpreted as virtual mandates by state and local governments.

Government communicators link government and the people.

It may sound overly dramatic, but government communicators can and do make life or death differences in people's lives. Consider, for instance,

Not all government communication is so meaningful or so dramatic. There's lots of dull, boring, and routine communication too. The explanation of how to fill out new tax forms, the announcements about new hours at the drivers' license bureau, this year's hunting seasons, or the new fees for obtaining birth certificates, and the publicity about the appointment of new members to various commissions and boards are just a few examples.

Whether it's dull and boring or dramatically life-changing, the information, issues, and policies that government communicators deal with do directly and often significantly affect the everyday lives of their publics.

Working in government is different than working in business.

Regardless of a government employees' duties -- whether they involve communication, accounting, or janitorial services -- and regardless of the level or agency of government for which they work, there are four characteristics that make working for government very different than working for a profit-motivated business or even a private, non-profit organization. These differences affect government communicators at least as much as, if not more than, they affect other government employees.

The unique characteristics of government employment which are more fully discussed on another linked page include:

Considering a job or a career in government communication?

At the entry level, and at least part way into middle-level communication management positions, government salaries are at least comparable to those in the private sector, and benefits such as health care and retirement programs are often much better than the private sector's. An entry-level public information officer going to work for most state agencies or mid-sized to large cities in 2009 should expect to earn a starting salary somewhere in the $30,000 to $35,000 range.

There are also predictable and reliable salary increases defined by the civil service or merit employment system. A public information specialist who simply does his or her job and avoids unsatisfactory ratings during annual reviews is essentially guaranteed a set raise every year.

This kind of security and automatic salary increases is very attractive to some people, but the idea of a set raise can be a disincentive to others. While the raise is essentially guaranteed, it's also rigidly limited. No matter how hard you work and how much you excel, your raise will be no more than co-workers who do only the minimum necessary to avoid an unsatisfactory rating.

At higher levels, as you move away from being a public relations technician -- e.g., a writer, editor, special events coordinator, video producer, etc. -- and become more of a public relations and communication manager, government salaries quickly fall behind those in the private sector.

But, there's much more involved in job satisfaction than money. Many high level government communicators claim that their most meaningful "compensation" comes from being personally involved in decision-making that affects people's lives. Many of them also admit that they enjoy the ego gratification that comes from rubbing elbows with big-city mayors, governors, or even the President of the United States.

It's certainly not for everyone, but being a government communicator can be a very satisfying long-term career for some public relations professionals or a short-term experience-builder for others.


Online Readings in PR
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For your consideration:
Is the Pentagon's PR inappropriate?
Further reading on
Characteristics of government employment
Practicing Public Relations
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8 Oct. 2009