Every day of the week in every news source in the world, there are stories about what is happening in Washington, D.C. When those stories focus on what is happening on Capitol Hill, such as the introduction of a new bill or the findings of a congressional hearing, they often are the result of work being done by the communications directors, press secretaries, and publicists who manage public relations and media relations for US Senators and Congressmen.
Serving as a communications director or press secretary on Capitol Hill is not a job for the faint of heart. The environment in which they work is among the most stressful in the world. The pace of government requires them to be quick thinkers, excellent multitaskers, and tireless networkers. They must be creative, innovative, and not easily intimidated. Succeeding on Capitol Hill is a good indicator that you can succeed anywhere.
While working on Capitol Hill undoubtedly presents unique challenges in the area of press relations, the lessons learned by the communications professionals who work there have clear applications in the world of public relations.
The best publicists know the value of loyalty
When an organization or influencer hires a PR company, the publicists that work with that client become a part of the client’s team. When they speak to the press, they speak on behalf of the client. To do their job well, publicists must be loyal to the clients that they represent.
Josh Wilson is a publicist with Otter PR, one of the top PR firms in the US. Prior to joining Otter, Josh worked as a communications director in the US House of Representatives, serving during the early days of the global crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. While working on Capitol Hill, Josh experienced first hand how important it is to stay loyal to clients.
“Loyalty is absolutely one of the most important traits a congressional staffer needs to have,” says Josh. “Understanding that everything you do can impact the image of the official you serve means that you conduct yourself with the utmost professionalism.”
Josh has found that speaking on behalf of a congressperson is very similar to speaking on behalf of his PR clients.
“When pitching our clients and speaking on their behalf to journalists, we are an extension of our client and their brand,” says Josh. “The client should know that we are loyal and will be positive ambassadors for them.”
Good PR is a mix of proactive and reactive
While good PR most often includes helping clients to craft their stories and get those stories into the right publications, publicists may also be called upon to help their clients to manage a crisis. As Josh learned on Capitol Hill, the best PR work is a mix of being proactive and reactive.
“A common misconception is that communication directors in Washington are just always putting out fires,” says Josh. “The reality is they do a ton of positive media outreach as well. Members of Congress attend and host a number of events in their districts, attend non-profit fundraisers, and travel on special Congressional Delegation trips and tours. Some of the best stories to tell are from those events.”
The same is true for all public relations work; the best stories are the positive stories. Still, Josh learned that to serve clients well, publicists need to be alert to news about their clients that they do not generate and that may need to be addressed.
“While working in Congress, I was glued to my phones — yes, I had multiple phones to monitor,” says Josh. “I had my personal device and a government device and was constantly on Twitter and media publications tracking the news as it happened minute by minute. Media topics come and go quickly in Washington, so making sure to not miss something was key.”
Josh brings the skills that he developed during the COVID crisis to the crisis management team at Otter, a select group of experienced professionals that serves clients by helping to create and execute a crisis action plan.
The best publicists serve with humility
While serving on Capitol Hill, Josh had a front row seat to the crisis prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My colleagues and I had the unique and important job of helping our bosses communicate the latest news about the pandemic with their constituents and the press,” says Josh. “The challenge was what we were talking about had never happened in our lifetimes. It was a scary time.”
A key lesson that Josh learned about public relations from working through the pandemic was the value of humility.
“It really reinforced for me the importance of being humble and never thinking you know it all,” says Josh. “With COVID, there wasn’t really a blueprint to follow, so we had to learn as we went. A big part of PR work is learning your client’s business and goals. When new clients come onboard at Otter, they are the experts on their product or service. I know how to communicate with the press but I need to be educated on their topic in order to do it effectively.”
The best publicists follow up
Any publicist knows that sending out pitches is not the challenging part of the job. Getting reporters to respond is the real work.
On Capitol Hill, the work that communications directors must do to stay connected with the press is easier than it is for most publicists. The directors and reporters walk the same halls and see each other daily. While the work of finding the right outlet for the story is more challenging for Josh in the work that he does now, there is one lesson that he learned in Washington that has improved his success rate: constantly follow up.
“If you don’t hear back from a reporter don’t assume they are ignoring you,” says Josh. “Chances are their email box is overflowing, so make sure to follow up and make sure that they got your pitch. It’s not a ‘no’ until they actually tell you ‘no.’ That’s a lesson I was taught by a reporter on Capitol Hill that I’ll never forget.”