Monday, April 29, 2013

Seeking a Job in Government Communications? - Advice for Students

Posted By: Britt Ehrhardt, Technical Writer/Editor, April 29, 2013
Photo of Britt Ehrhardt

So you're a student with graduation headed your way and no job in sight. You're this close to a degree in communications, marketing, journalism, English, web design, or something similar, but the job market is tough.

Have you considered government communications?

Graduation 2011 -  Oath
Photo courtesy of Flickr user um.dentistry, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The U.S. federal government employs many people to write materials and maintain websites for the public. Federal communicators also work with the media and specialized audiences, like scientists, people trying to pay their taxes, businesses, and others.

A background in journalism or communications can be helpful when trying to snag one of these positions, but it's not required. You'll find people with degrees in public policy, science, and many other areas in government communications.

How to start your search for a federal communications job

1. Look at the Pathways Program

The U.S. federal government recently reorganized its hiring programs for students and recent graduates. The program is now called Pathways, and it includes the Presidential Management Fellowship for graduate students and a range of other opportunities for current college students and recent graduates less than two years out from graduation. Some of these programs have long application processes with many steps. For those, you'll need to plan in advance and follow the instructions exactly. For other programs, it's helpful to find a government office that wants your help first. The office can then use one of the Pathways hiring mechanisms, many of which are quite flexible, to hire you.

But as a first step, get searching! See what's already posted in internships and jobs for recent grads.

2. Get in touch with a federal communicator

The best way to find out what a job in government communications is like is to talk to someone who does it. That's also the best way to find opportunities for students, many of which may not be posted on the internet. Seriously, you must get offline and speak to actual people.

Most federal communicators I know are willing to do brief (that means 15 minutes) telephone informational interviews with students--all you have to do is make a polite request to a specific individual. Look on agency website for the names of people in the communications or public affairs office. FCN maintains a list of federal communicators active on Twitter (Federal Communicators Network list of federal communicators on Twitter), and you can identify people that way too. You can also find these people on LinkedIn. If you don't have a good LinkedIn profile, read our LinkedIn advice and fix that too. We all know how to Google, so make sure you don't look like an idiot online.

3. Don't be turned off by jargon or long waits for response

084/365: Alphabet Soup
Photo courtesy of Flickr user bmhkim, CC BY-NC 2.0

Unfortunately, the government sometimes uses unfamiliar words and phrases to describe its hiring and application process. For example, someone might say "we want to bring you onboard" instead of "we want to hire you." Someone might also use series and grade alphanumeric codes to describe the exact kind of job they are advertising. It might look like an alphabet soup!

Try looking up the answers to your questions online first. But if you don't understand something and can't find the answer, it is OK to call the phone number in the job ad and ask questions. The person on the other end of the line usually doesn't make the hiring decisions, and they won't penalize you for asking a "dumb question."

You should also know that government hiring processes sometimes take time. Delays can happen for a wide variety of reasons, not worth describing here. The government does want and need talented people. A long wait does not necessarily mean bad news.

What other strategies have you used when looking for a federal communications job? Tell us about them in the comments below.

This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network.

Monday, April 15, 2013

You Tell Me: What Is Publishing, and How Seriously Should We Take It?

Our latest installment of "You Tell Me" is up at GovLoop — head on over and tell us what you think it means for the government to publish these days.

BONUS: If you're passionate about weening government from its paper addiction, consider attending an April 16 webinar on thinking paperless being hosted by FedInsider and Adobe and moderated by the Federal Communicators Network.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Getting Personal with Government Communications

By: Jessica Robertson, Public Affairs Specialist, April 9, 2013
Photo of Jessica Robertson

Let’s bring federal communicators and audiences to life. Getting personal can be an effective approach to consider as you browse through your communications toolbox.

Federal Communicator's Toolbox for Personalization

Adding a touch of personalization can be done a variety of ways. You can bring a voice to press releases by including quotes and photos. One of the many benefits of social media is the ability for people to ask questions and engage in an interactive dialogue. Podcasts add value and perspective, or you can even go a step further and include video to your list of possibilities.

All of these tools serve to make communicators “real people.” They enable a deeper connection and understanding, for both the communicator and the audience.

Adding a Face to Government through Video

I want to put the spotlight on video products for a moment. A video can be the perfect vehicle for helping the public to put a face to the federal government.

As an example, we have had great success at the USGS with a recent video series, USGS Climate Connections. These videos take an “on the street” interview approach, gathering questions from the general public about climate change and having scientists provide answers. Audiences therefore see our scientists as real people. This approach is especially valuable for discussing sensitive and complicated topics like climate change.

Don’t Just Talk, Give Audiences a Voice

Photo of USGS staff at media event at a middle school. A woman speaks in front of a large crowd of attentive students in an auditorium. One person in the audience holds up a voice recorder towards the woman speaking.
USGS staff lead a media event and emergency drill at a middle school. Photo courtesy of the author.
From our side — the communicator’s side — interactive tools allow us to discover what matters to people instead of assuming what is relevant. We are able to get at the heart of the issue. We should not just tell the public what we want to tell them; we should ask what they want to know.

For the audience, these tools let them engage in the conversation. They give people a voice. Going back to our video series, people want to understand climate change, but it is a complex topic with many surrounding questions. These videos feature questions submitted from cities across the nation, addressing concerns and issues from a diversity of locations.

Aside from video, social media such as Twitter and Facebook enable audiences to talk and ask questions with real people, ultimately feeling as if their opinions are heard. In-person events such as press conferences are extremely valuable, allowing audiences to meet experts in person and have one-on-one conversations. Online forums such as Google Hangouts or Skype can be used to connect with people at great distances and at low cost. These are great alternatives when in-person events aren’t feasible.

Liven Up Government Press Conferences and Events

A traditional press conference has many advantages, including the refreshing component of getting outside the office. However, having officials stand at a podium followed by 10 minutes of questions can be monotonous and boring. Why not go a step further? Have some fun by throwing in activities and adding sparkle to your event.

At the USGS, we recently promoted awareness of East Coast earthquakes and highlighting what to do when an earthquake strikes. As part of that effort, we held a unique and creative media event at a local middle school.
Photo of students participating in emergency drill, sheltering under their school desks.
Students participate in the USGS event. Photo courtesy of the author

Students in three classrooms practiced the “drop, cover and hold on” safety drill, along with officials from the USGS and FEMA. Yes, government employees got under the students’ desks too!

Involving students adds an emotional connection and helps heighten interest in the story overall, as children’s safety is always a priority. 

The event attracted interest from and was attended by local, national, and international media, successfully providing earthquake education worldwide. The media took photos and conducted interviews with students and officials to incorporate a variety of perspectives into their coverage.

Visuals and Motivating Behavior

Social scientists have found that one way to motivate behavior is to show people taking a recommended action. The earthquake drill is a good example of this, as we created a visual lesson that everybody could see on TV news and made it personable by involving the local community.

The Climate Connections series allows people to see their neighbors and others across the country asking questions that they might have themselves. This helps them connect with the content and hopefully enhances message pull-through. A few of our episodes were filmed in grade schools, with children posing climate change questions to our scientists. This can be useful for teachers, as their students will identify with the other kids in the video, hopefully resulting in an effective classroom tool.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All for Federal Communications

Not all outreach techniques apply to every scenario. Getting personal can be beneficial, but always start your communication plan by identifying your audience and their needs. But don’t be afraid to come out from behind the text.

This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Training Government Communicators - How Do You Grow A Professional Workforce?

By: Larry Orluskie, April 3, 2013

I’d like to start a dialogue to discuss agency best practices on training, career progression, and identifying the things that constitute a communications professional.

How do individuals get into government communications?

My communications background comes from 24 years of active duty military service with communications experience, training, and education. I have another 12 years of civil service communication work on top of my military career. The military grows their specialists and leaders and has a lot of time and money invested in the process. On the flip side: civil service. What I’ve generally seen is that civil service hires the expertise they need. Often, it’s up to the employee to get the training they can get and job shop for the next promotion.
The author as a GI in Bosnia, being interviewed by a reporter with two cameras.
If I were on the outside looking in, I say there isn’t a standard communication specialist skill set in the federal government. I’ve been on USAJOBS and I’ve seen communication jobs listed in every sort of job series with all sorts of position descriptions – not just varying duties.

So, here are my questions about building a professional workforce of government communicators:

  • Does your organization have a career path for entry level communications professionals?
    If so, how does it work?
  • Does your organization have a leadership development program for communications professionals?
    If so, how does it work?
  • Do you have in-house training and education programs for your communications professionals?
  • Do you have identified core competencies and basic skill sets/capabilities for communication professionals?
  • Do you have a standardized set of position descriptions and rules on when you can post a position outside of the communication job series?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Your Employee Survey Data Should Drive Internal Communication Strategy… But Be Careful

By: Jeff Brooke, Principal Consultant, Organizational Communication & Change Management, The MITRE Corp.*
Phoot of Jeff Brooke

If you’ve been in the government more than a few years you’ve probably seen the proportion of knowledge workers go up. “Knowledge work” is a catch-all for work that requires a lot of non-routine problem solving and creative thinking, and such workers are typically more interdependent. This begs the question, are leaders and communicators shifting priorities to support this change?


Commitment to peers, not organizations

Recent research by the CEB Communications Leadership Council indicates that “learning from” and “contributing to” peers are the top drivers of productivity in knowledge-based organizations. The report concludes that “Commitment to a peer network, not an organization, drives collaborative performance.” It adds that leaders who provide tools and resources for collaboration are far more appreciated than leaders who “inspire.”  (The CEB research is currently in progress, titled Adapting Leadership Communication to a Networked Environment).

The CEB suggests that limited communication resources should focus less on communicating “values” and making leaders seem inspiring, and more on “helping leaders activate employee networks.” Some activities they recommend include allowing employees to understand peer workflow, access to peers, and role modeling collaborative behaviors.


Don’t chase the lowest communication scores

Strong communication shops use several data sources to prioritize needs and develop strategies. Your agency’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data (the annual OPM-driven survey) should be a key source in this mix.
Screenshot of the 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey website
OPM 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey site
But the CEB findings point to the importance of looking at how your scores on the OPM survey relate to each other rather than just going after the lowest scores.

For example, the 2012 OPM survey question “Leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment” scored 43% positive government-wide, and “Employees in my work unit share job knowledge with each other” scored 72%. These two questions track nicely to the two items of the CEB study. Though counterintuitive, the study suggests putting more resources to support “sharing job knowledge” despite its nearly 30 point lead over “leaders motivate.”


What’s the special sauce for your agency? Explore your survey data

The statistical correlations that led to the CEB conclusions hold true for many organizations, but definitely not all. The relationships between questions on the survey vary by agency—sometime a lot.
Screenshot of Best Places to Work in the Federal Government website
The Partnership for Public Service Best Places to Work site
It underscores the need to connect with someone in your agency, OPM, or The Partnership for Public Service, who can generate and interpret the statistics behind your agency’s existing data and help you uncover the best place to invest your communication resources.

What are you doing? Are you positioning leaders to show support for collaborative communities? How? Have you connected with HR on statistical analysis of your agency’s survey data? What did you find, and did you come to different conclusions in your agency? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

You can also check out Jeff's previous presentations for FCN over at the Federal Communicators Network on SlideShare.

* MITRE is a not-for-profit organization that operates research and development centers for sponsoring federal agencies. Jeff is also a Senior Lecturer in Organizational Communication at Northeastern University.