Government Job Profile: Public Information Officer

Jay Carney Briefs The Press At The White House
••• Pete Marovich / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Public information officers are government employees with the primary responsibility of facilitating communication between the government organization and both the news media and general public.

Public information officers work in all levels of government. They tend to work in the upper levels of the organization where broad policy direction is set. They may be supervised by federal or state agency executive directors, county judges, city managers or school superintendents.

Divisions within government organizations such as police and fire departments may have their own public information officers distinct from those that serve the rest of the organization.

Public information officers ensure that any information coming out of the organization aligns with executive direction. A great example of this is the White House Press Secretary. Every response to a question in a White House briefing must be perfectly in line with the President’s previous statements.

Federal, state and local government agencies have critical information that they need to get to the general public. They disseminate the information through a variety of strategies. Most communication plans include using news media. By informing the press, public information officers take advantage of the media outlets’ distribution networks. This is why government organizations hold press conferences. The news media appear at an appointed time to hear the message from the public information officer, another high-level official or a group of officials, and the media members transmit that message to the public.

A career as a public information officer is often stressful, but with the stress comes excitement. Public information officers are in the thick of the action during a crisis. Because they frequently work with reporters, public information officers sometimes feel the stress of the reporters’ deadlines.

The Selection Process

Hiring managers seek public information officer candidates who have strong interpersonal, organizational, problem-solving, research, speaking and writing skills. Public information officers are selected through the normal government hiring process. In addition to the position’s direct manager, an interview panel may include executives because the person selected to fill the position will work with executives under stressful circumstances.

For organizations that have their public information staff in front of television cameras on a regular basis, those organizations might include some sort of on-camera simulation. This is designed to see how candidates handle the pressure of answering questions with the knowledge that there are no second chances at any of them.

The Education and Experience You'll Need

A bachelor’s degree is required for public information officer jobs. Public information officers typically have degrees in journalism, communications, public relations, English or business. For positions that supervise a group of public information officers, several years of experience is also required.

What You'll Do

Public information officers plan communication strategies to inform the public about an organization’s services and to guide the public in response to disaster or crisis situations.

The public information officer is often the face of the organization in the absence of an elected leader taking the stage. Even when an elected official is out front, the public information officer is working behind the scenes writing speeches, gathering information and planning what the organization will do next.

Public information officers spend much of their time working with the media. They write press releases hoping that media outlets will publish them as-is or use them as a jumping off point for researching a story. Public information officers often take phone calls and emails from reporters asking them to clarify or expand on the contents of a press release.

Reporters and concerned citizens may ask government organizations for information that the public has a right to access under open records laws.

Government organizations rely on public information officers to control how the media portrays the organization. Public information officers can control perception only to an extent. They make sure that reporters have accurate information and that any numerical data provided can be easily interpreted correctly.

What You'll Earn

According to 2014 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, public relations professionals in all sectors earn a median salary of $55,680 per year. About seven percent of public relations professionals are public information officers in government not including public education and hospitals.