The National Association of Government Communicators is running it's comms school in Louisville, KY May 10 - 12 and as official media partners for the event, we've had the great opportunity to hear from the speakers who will be delivering a selection of amazing sessions.
What is your session for NAGC called?
Career Planning for an Unpredictable Future
Without giving too much away about your session, what do you hope to cover that is of benefit to attendees of the NAGC comms school?
We may not know the future, but professional communicators can plan and prepare by focusing on themselves more than a specific career path. Asking themselves challenging questions can help ensure they will be ready whatever twists and turns that path takes.
Tell us a little about what you do and how you got there
I retired from the federal government at the end of 2018, after working 25 years in communications for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since then I have focused on establishing a consulting firm specializing in communications and professional development. Previously, I worked as a newspaper reporter and editor and a public affairs officer for an international airport. In addition to earning an undergraduate degree in journalism, I hold a law degree--but my career did not follow a conventional path that credential may suggest.
What do you love about your job?
I love breaking down complex challenges into manageable pieces to facilitate more strategic planning for the future. Often, I find that writing about a problem helps me to find a solution or become more comfortable with the ambiguities and uncertainty of the work world. My greatest satisfaction is seeing personal and professional growth in clients, colleagues and friends.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
The most difficult thing about my work is nudging distressed clients to a point where they can see career options they couldn't previously identify.
What are some of the more memorable events you’ve had to deal with in your role and what lessons did you learn?
A situation is rarely as bleak as it seems at the moment. By turning the prism and shining a different light, we can turn problems into opportunities. I recall more reporting staff being stunned and lethargic after our newspaper's publisher told us we'd be merged with the staff of our sister paper. I told the reporters, "I'm concerned about this, too, but we have a paper to put out in three hours. Let's get to work on that, do the best job we can leading up to the merger and give ourselves the best shot at getting the jobs we want going forward."
To their credit, the reporters jumped into action, and three months later they all were assigned to the positions they wanted on the restructured staff. Early in my career, I dreaded public speaking. I found that repetition and a determination not to be controlled by fear took me to a point where I became quite comfortable before audiences. By the time I had to serve as a media spokesperson for an aviation disaster I was well-prepared to deal with more than six hours of nonstop interviews. Late in my government career, I felt burned out and was ready to move into my next chapter.
A colleague asked me to present a career retrospective to VA public affairs officers nationwide. In the process, I rediscovered a number of successes I had simply forgotten. The lesson for me: Keep your eyes on where you're going, but don't lose sight of where you've been and what your work and camaraderie have meant to others.
Related to that last point, I'll add the lessons that comes from my father and grandfather--don't waste a lot of time and energy feeling sorry for yourself. Do your job, take care of your responsibilities, be kind to people and always try to be better today than you were yesterday. I keep the attached photo of my grandfather working in an iron mine on my desktop; it reminds me I didn't accomplish anything by myself. It's also a great reminder of how comparatively easy my job is compared to those of my ancestors.
What is it about communications, media or crisis comms that interests you so much?
I often find myself energized by writing and other aspects of communications that contribute to solving organizational challenges. Sometimes the need to respond to an emergency helps us to realize we have more knowledge and greater skill than we realized.
Can you give one piece of advice for those who want to start a career in Government communications?
Work hard, serve others, continuously develop new skills and keep your eyes open for new challenges and opportunities.
What are your favorite tools you use to do your job more effectively?
I'm a bit old-school. I still enjoy putting a nice pen to paper, at least in the initial phases of a project. That's how I organize my initial thoughts, and it helps me work more efficiently when I take to the computer. It's also a great way to crystalize response to difficult questions.
Are there any books, podcasts or any other resources you would recommend for the comms pro?
I still like some of the great books on writing, because they address a foundational skill that supports career development. Among the classics are On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Write to the Point: How to Communicate in Business With Style and Purpose by Salvatore Iacone, Painless Grammar by Rebecca Elliott, The Book on Writing by Paula LaRocque and Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark. Also, don't forget the AP Stylebook.
What would you say to anyone in a leadership role about having a PIO who might not have one?
I would use a coaching technique by presenting the leader with questions. Examples: Are you prepared to stand before television cameras and answer questions from the media? Are you satisfied with stakeholder awareness and appreciation of your organization's value and services? How can you increase them? I've found that leaders sometimes have not considered such questions, and their understanding a PIO's skills and value changes when they do so.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about, recommend or promote?
I'm especially looking forward to the NAGC conference. Meeting with government communicators feels like going home.