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Is Public Affairs (Relations) Essential?
By: Patrick Foughty, APR
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As with all news lately, everything seems centered on the government shutdown. The fight between the Tea Party, the GOP, the Senate, and the White House; the healthcare debate; the utter gridlock between the right and left; it goes on. Caught in the middle are the federal workers, a popular pawn in the political game of chicken, many of whom have been furloughed after being deemed "non-essential personnel."
This week the Department of Defense decided to interpret the Pay Our Military Act somewhat loosely and brought 90% of its civilian workforce off furlough. At the edges of that 90% were the public affairs specialists — or the government’s public relations people; those brought back were done under the guise of performing "internal communications" to the troops and their families only, while many other civilian PA specialists were left on furlough, their jobs doing so-called external communication not covered under the law. One particular organization within the Navy brought every civilian back except the public affairs person.
This has left the PA professionals in a bit of an existential crisis on two fronts. We have been left to wonder, why, in this budgetary crisis, when communicating to an array of audiences is most vital, are we considered non-essential? And, how can one do only internal communication in an environment where so many of your audiences seem to run together? Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and their families are thirstier for information now more than ever, and ensuring both they and the American taxpayer get it is part and parcel of the PA specialist’s job.
The decision to bring back some PAs and not others was done on an organizational basis. That means in many cases commanders and managers decided their PR people were not deemed important enough to bring back (even though there is a good chance everyone will be getting back pay). This may be because the mission of the organization doesn’t have an internal focus, but that shouldn’t matter; leaders and managers should want their PR people nearby. If the lawyers are called back, the PR people should be, too. The good PR professional is a constant liaison within the staff, not just someone who does media and press releases; they listen, advise, and contribute to the life and decision cycle of the organization. Lesson learned: Always be one of the top people your boss wants back or doesn’t want to chop. If you are one of those not brought in, perhaps you need to reconsider the role you play. Find ways to be relevant, not just in PR, but as an advisor and a key player in the organization. Your presence, or lack of it, should be sorely missed.
Second, there may have been a time when internal and external communications were truly separate. And there are many organizations, inside the government and out, that hire specialists to focus on one or the other. But to say they can be separate, or that one can function while the other goes dark, is nonsense. In this high-tech digital world, what you say to one group is easily replicated, morphed, and passed around to the other. Audiences are connected and are often part of other audiences and publics. Therefore any information you communicate to your internal or external audiences must be thought through and evaluated knowing that the others will see it.

Additionally, in any large organization, but especially in one as big as the government, PR people who are not able or allowed to conduct outreach or respond to external forces are playing a losing battle. The DoD, and many other organizations, constantly have media queries and a duty to communicate with external audiences ranging from CNN, to local communities outside bases, to ports where ships make calls, or even to Congress. To bring back just the internal communicators or PA specialists charged with only internal communications is an exercise in futility. Bottom line: Recognize that what you do and say as a PR person, whether to the Washington Post or in your internal newsletter, can and will be seen by audiences it was not intended for.
With this in mind, all PR communicators should consider how and why they are relevant to their command, and never forget how connected and interactive their audiences are. Once they and their bosses understand that, attitudes will begin to change on just how essential PR is.

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About the Author
Patrick Foughty is a former helicopter pilot turned PR lover. He pays bills by playing the role of Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. where he manages media operations and digital media for his organization. When he's not thinking about PR he's working on his first novel or studying medieval history.
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