Wednesday, June 16, 2010

For a rookie public information officer: Advice from the crowd, and me

A young science communicator sent me a message wanting "advice for a rookie PIO (public information officer)." He's about to start his first job as a government public affairs representative. His writing is smart, crisp, and elegant; he listens well. After exploring varied options, he's found the right job in the right location. Decision made. Now what?

One of my favorite bits of advice for people at every career stage is to ask others for their advice, just as he did. (No one dislikes being asked their advice, so it's a sure-fire foot in the door.) Here's what my crowd on Facebook and Twitter shared as advice for a rookie communicator:

Dana Vickers Shelley gave a generous response:  "Always return reporter calls -- especially when the news/info is something you'd rather not discuss. You're not the reporter's only source and she'll respect you WAAAY more and rely on you down the road if you can have the difficult conversation. The PIO/public affairs person also has to let the leadership know that responsiveness is key to credibility. Also, keep writing. Even with social media, 140 characters, etc., you will be the ROCK STAR if you can be counted on when a well written statement or paragraph is needed. And one last thing, if you're a political appointee, remember to respect and value the experience and expertise of career staff. They know where everything is located and they'll be there after you leave! Good luck and enjoy yourself!"

Todd Bailey advised: "Don't forget how to talk - plainly. It is easy to pick up all the legal jargon and soon you might lose your ability to effectively communicate with everyone. 'Be all things to everyone'."

Steve Tally said, "Meet people. You won't be effective without good contacts."

Patric Lane agreed:  "1) Talk to folks; don't rely on email (2) Diplomatically ask good devil's advocate questions."

Now, my turn:
  • Government public affairs is unique. It's where "public information" takes its true meaning:  They pay for it and can hold you to account; you owe it to them. The timing, scope, details and pace can easily exceed those of any other kind of public information operation. Responsiveness, speed and utter attention to the facts are what's needed.  If you learn well there, you'll come out with a cast-iron stomach and excellent reflexes. It'll test you and, I hope, reward you, too.
  • Do for reporters what you wished someone in this post had done for you when you were reporting.  Ask reporters what they wish your office could do better, then see if you can make that happen. Think about what would've helped you when the shoe was on the other foot. This makes all the difference in a PIO.  (For example, in my EPA days, if a reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act request, we expedited it without making them go through the entire process.) 
  • Be credible, and use your critical thinking.  Patrick's advice about asking devil's advocate questions is excellent. Vet the information you're given; ask questions about it from all viewpoints. Know your background--you'll be asked about it, within and outside the agency. While senior officials can be intimidating, career government employees must, must, must advise them honestly and earnestly--even if you think they'll decide to do something else. Maybe even especially then. This makes the government smarter.
  • Dana's right about writing: It's the one true core skill.  Newspapering may go, tweets may come, but if you can write--and boy, can you ever write, my friend--more doors will open to you, and stay open.  Keep that skill sharp.
  • You'll go even further with good presenting and public speaking skills.  Down the line, it can mean the difference between a line job and a management opportunity, and it will open a wider network to you as well.  Even if your speaking remains only in meetings and conference calls, your ability to speak cogently and with ease will be appreciated. While you're at it, learn to write remarks for others.
  • Ask for--or go get--training and development on a regular basis.  Government agencies take this more seriously than many workplaces I've been in, so take advantage of it.  Research and suggest options, and ask what's available. Build a network among your fellow trainees, while you're at it.
  • Don't get sucked into the cubicle.  You won't be based in Washington, which helps. Make sure you keep your networks open, get out of the office and meet people, look for contacts who can add perspective to your work. Exercise. Take a walk at lunch and get outdoors. Figure out what helps you reduce stress and do it.
  • If you find out you've chosen wrong, don't hesitate to leave, right away. The longer you invest yourself in the wrong organization and vice versa, the more both of you will pay for it.  Saying "This isn't for me" may be the smartest move you'll ever make, if that's really the case.  You really do have options. Trust me on that.
  • Get some mentors and role models.  Check out this roundup about Gov 2.0 Hero Day to find some innovators in government social media circles, and keep asking mentors and others for advice.  Most importantly...
  • Be bold.  Trust yourself; if it feels wrong, stop and ask why, then act on your good instincts. Try things.  Take some risks and learn from them. You'll do better than you can ever imagine, if you let yourself.  If you don't try, you'll never find out.
I served as the Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications, Education and Public Affairs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and I still call my government service the "toughest job I'll ever love."  I hope your new job will make you feel the same. Was that what you wanted to know? If not, send more questions and keep us posted.  Readers with more advice are most welcome to leave it in the comments.

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