A recent editorial in the St. Thomas Source criticizing waste in government commented that public relations people in government were "superfluous."
On the contrary, I believe one of the reasons this governments image is falling apart is because it does not have an adequate public relations program, due in part to a misunderstanding of what "public relations" is.
Despite what some critics say, public relations is not a means of "spinning" information — playing fast and loose with the truth to make bad actors look good and make bad policies look good. Although there is no one accepted definition, one good one, adopted by the Institute of Public Relations, defines PR as "the planned and sustained effort to maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its public." In other words, public relations encompasses all the ways an organization interacts with its various constituencies.
In government, you use public relations to highlight accomplishments, explain public policy initiatives, and to build support for policies and decisions. This is done not just through telling your agencys story, but also through gauging the attitudes and concerns of various groups. Because everything that government does is subject to public scrutiny, public relations should be a vital part of its operation. That operation should be more than just writing cursory press releases and holding impromptu press conferences…it should be part of an overall communications strategy. That strategy should include providing media training seminars to all department heads and other staff members who have occasional contact with reporters. Like any other government initiative, a solid public relations program must be well organized, well managed, and, above all, driven by goals that are clearly defined.
Without any goals or objectives, a public relations program will fail, or at least will not achieve the results desired. Another element that almost guarantees failure is when the PR coordinator is not directly involved in the decision-making or policy-making process. While that structure works, it misses an important contribution a skilled PR professional can make to the governments overall strategic planning efforts. If a politician incorporates the ideas of a public relations perspective up front, it may help them to avoid decisions that will create PR problems for them later.
Many people think a government press secretary is identical to an agency public relations person. Yet there is one distinctive difference: a press secretary keeps constituents aware of their elected representatives accomplishments; a public information officer or specialist is concerned more with keeping the public informed about the activities of the agency or department. Too often, governments mix the two and communications suffer as a result.
In Congress and many state governments, the higher-ranked elected officials have press secretaries, who are more concerned with cultivating an image for their bosses than are public information officers. Since a press secretary deals more directly with the media than does a P.I.O., they are usually former reporters themselves. They know the rules and requirements of the media, and can write more effective press releases because they know what journalists are looking for. Their bosses seek out their opinion on how the media will react to their initiatives and public statements.
Commonly, press secretaries serve as policy advisories as well, and have the ear of their employer. The best press secretaries are up to speed on issues their bosses are dealing with, and have the authority to respond quickly to the media and guide reporters to the right source.
A politician and his press secretary who work under a mutual understanding of trust is the obviously the best situation. But when the politician holds a grudge against a particular reporter or publication, that puts the press secretary in an impossible situation.
For example, Lynnette Moten, an experienced press secretary who once worked for Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill) recalled the time she had to leave Sen. Braun. Braun had gotten very unhappy with an NBC affiliate in Chicago that had done negative stories about her trip to Africa. Evidently, her anger was such that, when NBC News wanted to talk to her about welfare following a presidential speech, she refused to do the interview.
Said Moten: "It got to be that we lost a lot of ground on good stuff because she just, and my phrase was, shed get hives if I said NBC. And you know, you lose, you absolutely lose if youve got somebody with that kind of mindset. At that point, I just said, I have got to go.
A politician who does not have a designated media spokesperson must be accessible on a daily basis to respond to reporters inquiries; or else negative publicity will inevitably result. Not returning a reporters phone calls or saying "no comment" will ensure that the article will be one-sided and probably put you in an unfavorable light. Reporters cant explain the governments position unless someone tells them what it is, and the public will think that your silence implies guilt or secretiveness.
Although reporters are loath to admit it, the relationship between a government and the press is actually a symbiotic one. Reporters need the access and the information their sources provide; the government needs reporters to convey their ideas and information to the public. The most effective media spokespersons in government or any other organization are able to strike a balance between meeting the reporters need for information and protecting and promoting the interests of their employer.
Building positive relationships with the public through the media, community forums, special events, and other functions is what public relations is all about. Experienced public relations professionals can help an organization improve its reputation, profitability, and even its continued existence. Their work keeps management aware of public attitudes and concerns of the many groups and organizations with which it must deal.
Editor's note: Michael C. Burton was the public information officer and press secretary for Lt. Gov. Gerard "Luz" James II. Burton resigned his post effective Nov. 4. Before working for the V.I. government, Burton was a reporter for the V.I. Independent.