Another Day, Another Crisis: A Primer for a Career in Government Public Affairs

Paul Swiergosz

I worked in government public affairs for close to 15 years and have discussed that work in previous posts. Recently, several of my friends in the PR industry have asked me why the government has had this sudden run of troubling issues which has both shaken the public’s trust in Washington and left many scratching their heads wondering how these cases could have been so badly mishandled.

Having dealt with similar issues first-hand, I’d like to offer some insights into the how and why blow-ups like those currently in the news continue to happen.

First, one has to understand a crucial difference between private sector organizations (PSO) and the government:

– Private sector organizations rely on selling goods/services to their consumer base to generate a profit to sustain their business. When a PSO fails their consumers, they risk profitability. Lose enough profit and you go out of business. It is that simple.

– Government entities rely on public tax dollars in the form of appropriations from Congress in order to survive. There is no instant quid pro quo of services rendered as with a PSO service exchange. Our tax dollars are collected and we are left with only expectation that the services we are paying for will live up to our satisfaction.  If it isn’t, well, you can complain all you want, but your taxes will still be collected and the government entity that made you unhappy will continue to operate. The reality is, that the true “customer” for government entities is Congress.

Next, one needs to understand the different players involved in the PR decision-making process. Most of the heavy lifting in Washington is done by political appointees, government civilians and in some cases uniformed military. Some are very, very competent. Others are not.

– Political appointees are always in positions of authority over government civilians. They serve at the pleasure of the President and are beholden to the administration currently in power. Their decisions are based on what impact the issue will have on their party, which may or may not coincide with the public good.

– Government civilians are the backbone of continuity in Washington. They weather the political changes by getting along and going along. Their jobs are largely secure. While they are considered public servants, for them, there is little incentive to rock the boat, take risks or be innovative. Seniority does not always equal competence and outdated supervisors often fear being overshadowed by rising young talent.

Now let’s examine how these factors come together:

Pre-crisis: Lack of a game plan 

In successful PSOs, the PR team has earned a seat at the management table. As the honest broker, they “what-if” company decisions and help develop risk mitigation strategies in case all goes wrong.  As most PR pros know, action in the first golden hours of a crisis often sets the stage for all that follows.  Initial decisions made quickly – based on existing contingency plans – can help settle a crisis before it explodes. When the life of the company is at stake, everyone understands his or her role.

In government, the civilian PA officer may or may not be given a voice at the management table. Almost always brought into the discussion too late, their role is largely damage control versus risk analysis and mitigation planning. An unfortunate truth that compounds the problem is that nothing happens fast in Washington. Decisions which need to be made quickly in a crisis are near impossible without numerous PowerPoint briefings and staff meetings where self-preservation often trumps the good of the organization.

Issue surfaces: Lack of unity of purpose and effort

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