Technically I am a “public affairs specialist” working for an agency in the federal government (all opinions my own of course). This is the default.
But I really, really, really think we need a more accurate and meaningful job title for this area of specialization.
For one thing it’s not intuitive what “public affairs” means.
I try to say to myself that “public affairs” is supposed to distinguish things that have something to do with the public. Versus things that don’t have anything to do with the public. But when it comes to government, exactly what would be outside the public sphere?
So then we get to the concept that “public affairs” is like the government term for “public relations.” I think we use a different term because
1) we’re not supposed to have PR people, because PR has a bad reputation as your hired gun-liar, and appropriated funds cannot be used for propaganda to domestic audiences
2) we in the government like to think that everything we do is incredibly unique to government and could not possibly be compared to what goes on in the private sphere.
Al-righty then. So how come we’re not all “public information officers?”
The answer to that one is that while some of us do indeed provide information – answering questions like “does this law or rule apply to me?” and “how can I complain about the way I was treated?” not all of us do that.
Many of us, if not most, connect people inside the agency to the media. These professionals generally have the term “press officer” or “media relations” attached to their title. They’re not exactly pure information providers because often they have to explain the “why” of an agency action, program or policy.
Once you get into the “why,” you have left the realm of fact and entered the realm of public relations. Which is where we didn’t want to be, if you recall. Or, where we think we don’t want to be.
Some government communicators are titled with a term like “public engagement.” As in, “we engage the public with our mission.” That’s not bad. We get people interested, excited, motivated about who we are and what we do. That helps us build a relationship with them so that they obey the law. So that they know where to turn for information. See “public information officers.”
Still others work in the realm of “outreach.” Which is another way of saying “marketing.” Except we don’t like to say marketing because again, that sounds like we’re propagandistically selling something. Like soap or soda. Except we’re not. We’re trying to sell people, usually, on a socially desirable behavior like washing your hands frequently so that you don’t get sick. Or we’re trying to convince them that complying with a new really won’t be all that bad. Like public engagement except it’s narrower and focused on a specific campaign.
There are “web content managers” among us as well. Which makes it sound like they have no say over the content. They usually don’t. They should have more.
“New media lead” isn’t that bad. That title is about finding and implementing emerging communication technologies to help us get the word out better, faster, cheaper. And using social media. Which is critical and still very underused (to put it mildly).
And of course there are always writers. Or as we like to call them, “writer-editors,” as if we have to add the term “editor” to the job description just in case the writer refuses to edit on the grounds they weren’t hired to do that.
My title right now is a little jumbled. “Marketing Consultant (Internal) and New Media Marketing Lead.” Or something like that.
I truly, truly dislike titles. I don’t think that one does me justice.
What I really am, in this job, is marketing strategy and outreach specialist. That doesn’t sound too bad.
But the vast majority of government communicators are, in my opinion, either public information officers (pure information) or public relations specialists (representing the why of agency actions, programs, or policies). PR isn’t lying – that’s just the stigma that’s been slapped on it over the years.
You know what? If you really think about it…you could actually boil down everything to public relations. PR people provide pure information, explain the “why,” build relationships, engage the public and employees, use new technologies, market socially responsible campaigns, and write their heads off.
You may think this is unimportant but I think it’s critical. An accurate description of your work also demonstrates your value.
I think we are PR people.
What do you think?
What should a government communicator’s default title be?