Subtopic: Government - Other,  Public Information Officer

In an age when people consume government news around the clock, the need for highly-skilled public information officers at all levels of government has taken on greater urgency. Being a public information officer (PIO) for a government agency can often be demanding, as well as tremendously rewarding.

Professionals in this position must be comfortable dealing with often challenging media questions. They must think fast on their feet at press conferences, and be able to deal comfortably with all different kinds of personalities. When providing information to the media or constituents, they must strive to give accurate, tactful answers. This is especially important during times of crisis or when a controversial issue arises that affects their government department and/or the official they represent.

They must do all this while trying to create a favorable public image for the elected official, government department, or political organization they represent. This is why the PIO needs superb communication skills, a strong sense of ethics. Successful PIOs exhibit leadership qualities that earn the trust of the public. In addition, they have the ability to establish good working relations with the media.

This job entails writing press releases and preparing informational fact sheets for the media. The officer responds to media requests, holds press briefings, and monitors and responds to social media questions and concerns. It is their responsibility, working in partnership with the elected official or department head, to decide how much information is appropriate to release to the public when it comes to issues that can have legal ramifications. Information management is a key component of this role’s responsibilities.

Many of today’s most successful SIOs are skilled at photo editing and desktop publishing. They also know how to communicate well on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

SIOs that work for smaller state and municipal government agencies often attend public hearings, write speeches for local government officials, and make presentations to schools and civic organizations.

Key Role PIOs Play in Emergency Management Government Agencies

Excellent verbal communications skills are particularly vital for PIOs speaking on behalf of government agencies that handle emergency situations. When lives are on the line, the public needs to get clear information to know where they can get help in the case of a natural or manmade disaster, a terrorist or healthcare threat, or an extreme weather event.  

Whether the PIO works for an emergency management agency at the municipal, county, state or federal level, they must be prepared to deliver information quickly and accurately. PIOs provide information on warnings, shelter, evacuation orders, and the general progress of events. They remain in constant contact with the media during times of crisis.

To better educate the public as to how to best react to crises before they occur, the PIOs create outreach materials such as brochures, handbooks, flyers, ads and medial materials. In addition, they oversee the department’s blogs, website and social media outreach initiatives.

White House Press Secretary Remains Nation’s Most Influential PIO

When people think of government PIOs, the White House Press Secretary immediately comes to mind. He or she acts as the spokesperson for the executive branch of the United States government. The secretary deals with the White House press corps daily, and most administrations have had daily press briefings.

The position has grown in influence over the years. George E. Akerson was the country’s first press secretary under President Herbert Hoover. President Franklin Roosevelt expanded the office considerably during World War II, telling Press Secretary Stephen Early to adopt an “open-door policy with all correspondents.” By doing this, Early established an excellent rapport with the media. His efforts also helped to make it possible for Harry McAlpin of the National Negro Publishers Association to become the first African-American reporter to be part of the White House press corps in 1944.

President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, was the first to conduct news conferences on live television. His savviness with the media helped garner good press coverage for the President. Perhaps the best known of the White House press secretaries was James Brady, who was shot along with President Ronald Reagan on March 31, 1981. After his miraculous recovery, Brady fought for tighter gun control laws. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law, requiring a five-day wait and background check on purchases of handguns.

Job Prospects, Salaries, and Recommended Education

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most people in this field have a BA degree. Popular majors for professionals seeking to become a PIO include public relations, journalism, marketing, business, and communications.

As of May 2016, the BLS reports that public information specialists in government earn a median annual salary of $62,400. In addition, the BLS reported that there is strong competition in this field. It projected a 12% growth in this field from early in this decade through 2022. This reflects above average growth for fields overall.

According to Glassdoor.com, the average salary nationwide for PIOs is $60,893. Government PIOs making the highest salaries can be found in Washington, DC, where they make between $86,000 to $106,000 a year; at the United Nations, where they make between $99,000 and $108,000 a year; and in large cities such as San Francisco, where they make between $79,000 and $86,000 a year. Further salary information can be found at: https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/public-information-officer-salary-SRCH_KO0,26.htm

Payscale.com put the average wages of people in this field at $52,000 a year, with the median salary being $53,732 a year. This organization reported that people in this field often work extended hours, including weekends and evenings – especially during busy news times. Further information can be found at: https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Public_Information_Officer/Salary

The website www.wisegeek.com advises students striving to be a PIO for a large government agency to earn their MA in public administration.

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