The Public Affairs and Government (PAG) Section of PRSA provides training and resources relevant to communicators in all levels of government and branches of the military, as well as those at counseling firms, corporations and associations who are responsible for communicating with various audiences on public policy or public safety issues.
This Sections Series article was compiled by Gary Bridgens (G), the PRSSA 2015-2016 vice president of Chapter development, following an interview with PRSA Public Affairs and Government Section Chair Lauri-Ellen Smith (LES), APR.
G: What kind of work do professionals in your section typically do?
LES: This section includes public relations professionals working in military, public affairs, government and environmental organizations. At the end of the day, we’re all practicing public relations, public affairs and government relations and focus on how the government impacts our “businesses” and “customers” and vice versa. Whether you’re actually working in government, or for a business regulated by the government, we have that commonality. I believe we are trust builders and keepers of the promise of transparency and continuous improvement.
G: What can students expect when pursuing an entry-level position in the industry?
LES: Great question. Entry-level doesn’t really have to be entry-level anymore because of the opportunities you’re provided through PRSSA and the opportunities you can create by going out and doing something on your own. I like seeing students who are engaged in their community at a very young age. I’m looking for commitment and I’m looking for passion — and ethical conduct. I can teach the skills. I believe employers are looking for critical thinkers. That’s what it takes to succeed at communicating and being credible as a strategist and resource for reporters.
Everyone has to find his or her balance in an entry-level position. I think work-life balance is personal and we shouldn’t judge the choices people make. Start the climb, get involved, get engaged, get into organizations and exploit the career opportunities you have. You can then decide whether to take that year off and travel the world, have that baby or hang out a shingle. You can’t do these things until you have money in the bank, have met your obligations or gained some work experience. For some of us, balance is just not missing yoga practice, or scheduling one less business lunch and going to the gym instead. Or going on vacation and really turning off your cell phone. That’s a place you get to. You have to have a job or two you don’t like to really know what it is you do like. That’s okay, as long as you’re a loyal employee ready to get up every day and accomplish something for the client or boss. Loyalty has its own rewards.
G: What advice do you have for students looking to enter your sector of public relations?
LES: Go get involved in the community. Get involved in any kind of campaign or cause. Show me your passion and that you’re an effective communicator. That creates a perfect mix for launching a career in public affairs. I was 14 years old when I worked on my first political campaign. As public relations practitioners, our life’s work is to understand people; it’s a form of social psychology. What moves them? What motivates them? When you understand people you can create messages that touch their minds and hearts. You can influence their behavior and create trust. Life is a campaign.
G: What essential skills do students need to do well in the industry?
LES: The same essential skills you need to excel in life — communication skills. You need to be great with the written word and the spoken word. You need to be hungry for credible information. Being on Facebook doesn’t count. Some of the smartest people in our world are not on Facebook and we have to remind ourselves of this now and then. You’ve got to be a life-long learner. You have to be a gatherer and consumer of credible information, while working on your writing skills and your presentation skills. You should be writing something every day — a press release, something for your website or blog — every day. Get on camera if you don’t like being on camera. Do something that broadens your ability. (Side note: I once got a job interview from a congratulatory note to a CEO. I got the job! Don’t underestimate the value of good manners and business etiquette.)
G: What has surprised you most throughout the course of your career?
LES: I had to learn some hard lessons about people. You need to bring a servant leadership mentality to everything you do, regardless of how other people behave and treat people. Bring the heart and mind of a servant leader to your job, especially in government. Even in the corporate world, people should behave as though they’re grateful to be there. The people who move ahead in life are the people who recognize problems and deal with them. It surprises me when people don’t show up and engage 100 percent or they have an attitude that prevents them from being viewed as someone who can “help get us to the win.” Be generous with others. Say “thank you” and “well done” or “here’s an idea that worked for me.” Stay open to constructive criticism and suggestions, especially in your older years. It keeps you relevant. I had to learn that really good ideas can come from someone who gets to wear jeans to work every day and has had five jobs in three years. Heck, that’s a future CEO in today’s world.
Lauri-Ellen Smith, APR, is the senior public affairs/public relations executive for the Jacksonville, Fla., Sherriff’s Office and serves as the PRSA Public Affairs and Government Section chair. Born in Virginia, but raised in Jacksonville, Smith graduated from the University of Florida in 1981 with a Bachelor of Science in public relations. She was an early member of the University of Florida PRSSA Alpha Chapter and was active in campus politics. Years later she would serve on the UF College of Journalism and Communications Advisory Council and teach as an adjunct public relations writing professor at the University of North Florida. Engage with Lauri-Ellen by following her on Twitter @ufgirl81 or connecting with her on LinkedIn. Learn more about the PRSA Public Affairs and Government Section by following @PRSAPubAffairs on Twitter.