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

The political appointee assesses potential damage to the administration, seeks White House other higher administration guidance. Meanwhile, the government civilian PA begins to research the issue and crafts response plan. Note – these two branches of effort will almost always be done in their own vacuum and the full nature and scope of the issue may or may not be revealed to the civilian PA officer by the administration.

First response: Satisfying the people who hold the purse strings

The administration’s legislative affairs office will respond to Congressional queries. This is the first priority as Congressional notification always trumps the public’s need to know. Meanwhile, the civilian PA officer (whose plan and message has been massaged by the political appointee in keeping with administration guidance) is awaiting permission to release information to the media/public only after key members of Congress have been notified.

The key takeaway here is that the focus is toward informing the Congressional appropriations and oversight staffs – NOT We the People.

 Follow-up: If it won’t cost us in the election, it’s not important

The political appointee will determine whether the organization continues to address the issue through the media or simply weather the storm as media attention in Washington is usually short-lived as another scandal is right around the corner. Unless it is an important issue in an election year where seats in Congress are at stake, odds are it will be allowed to dissipate with little to no effort devoted to follow-up. Generally speaking, most public outcry does not penetrate the Beltway.

Civilian PA officers and media often find themselves in frustrating positions at this point. One has a story to tell, the other wants to tell it. Facts are often hard to find and get permission to release. The civilian PA appears to be stonewalling but is often directed to wind down the discussions by their political appointee supervisor. Reporters know this and except for the truly sensational stories, let those issues go when their sources dry up.

More follow-up: Cracks in the dam will lead to leaks

Some issues transcend the traditional stiff-arm approach. The media won’t let it go or it becomes election material. The current issues surrounding the IRS and NSA are great examples. This is when the political appointees/administration are compromised by civilians in the system who know better. While some may have an axe to grind, many often leak information that counters the administration’s line out of a sense of duty. (I have known a few and consider them people of high character.)

While I’m not a fan of leaking – particularly anonymous ones – I do appreciate the check and balance it brings. While the political appointee has tremendous power in controlling the message, the age of Internet journalism has made it far easier for others to expose more than just select facts.

At this point – with potentially multiple versions of the “facts” coming to the surface – the process of sorting through the hairball for all involved begins as credibility and integrity are publicly questioned. Now Congress must at least feign interest in the issue in a very public way lest they appear to be too out of touch to their constituencies or worse, foolish or naive to the government organization who created the mess in the first place.

All of this makes for an interesting ride if you are looking to work as a civilian PA officer. Challenges and tongue-in-cheek cynicism aside, I truly enjoyed my time in the government and served with some of the most exceptional talent you could find anywhere. It is a worthy calling for those willing to accept it.

Paul Swiergosz is a retired Army officer with over 15 years of government public affairs experience. He holds an M.A in Public Relations from Marshall University and a B.S. in Public Relations from Bowling Green State University.