Communication Currents

Professional Communicators Face Unique Challenges

April 1, 2010
Organizational Communication

As graduates search for jobs in communication and public relations this summer, many are likely applying for jobs in both government and for-profit organizations. Most are probably not considering how different the professional communicator's role would be in one sector as compared to the other. However, a recent survey has found that communicators who work in government experience different obstacles and opportunities in their day-to-day work than their counterparts working for private corporations.

A survey of 976 government and corporate communicators from across the United States revealed that while professional communicators share some similarities, there are far more differences. These differences, including greater political pressure and legal constraints, are significant enough to influence government communicators' daily tasks.

While both corporate and government communicators said their budgets were inadequate, the government communicators were the most dissatisfied with their funding for communication activities. This means that government communicators must be more diligent and creative in managing their allotted funds.

While all communicators might feel the effect of internal and external politics, the survey found that political pressure has a tangible effect on day-to-day government communication. Communicators who choose to work in government need to understand and navigate the political system in order to negotiate this unique complication.

In addition to political pressure, government communicators report more pressure for information from their publics, and they also reported more frequent communication with their publics. Given that the National Association of Government Communicators has identified public cynicism as one of the largest challenges government communicators face, meeting the publics' information needs can be a significant challenge in the government sector.

Communicators working in government interact more with outside groups, such as other government agencies, nonprofits, and private companies. This presents more challenges for government employees who must negotiate their own organizational obstacles first before working with partners who operate under their own rules and regulations.

Because media are the self-appointed watchdogs of government, it is not surprising that government entities reported receiving more media coverage (and negative coverage) than corporate organizations. However, the degree of difference was fairly small. This could suggest that both sectors are becoming equal opportunity targets for negative news stories.

The final key difference between communication in these two sectors lies in the impact of laws and administrative policies. Government communicators face more legal restrictions in their work and must develop a keen understanding of all policies that limit as well as compel public communication. While private sector communicators are also subject to rules and laws, government communicators felt the daily effects of legal restrictions such as the federal Freedom of Information Act and state sunshine laws. These laws and requirements for announcements of public meetings, passage of laws, and voting impact their communication activities.

While there were more differences than similarities, the survey showed that corporate and government communicators appear to rely on the same communication toolbox as their corporate counterparts. For example, both corporate and government communicators use media relations tools, such as press releases and media scanning. Both sets of practitioners developed strategic plans, contributed to and edited Web sites, and networked. Less likely used in either setting were video news releases, public service announcements, and blogs.

In both sectors, there is room for growth in educating management about the value of public relations and in including communicators at the management table. This is especially important given that recent research reveals that being part of top management is at the heart of excellent public relations leadership and effective external and internal communication.

These findings provide important insights for newcomers to the communication field, experienced practitioners who may be searching for new challenges and opportunities, and educators of communication students. The differences in communication practices in these two operating environments are significant and present barriers as well as opportunities for reaching publics with valuable information. Whether a new graduate or a seasoned pro, communicators' understanding of these differences will help with career choices and reveal opportunities that they may have never considered.

About the author (s)

J. Suzanne Horsley

The University of Alabama

Assistant Professor

Brooke F. Liu

University of Maryland, College Park

Associate Professor

Abbey B. Levenshus

Butler University

Assistant Professor

Abbey B. Levenshus