Press secretaries, political consultants, and other media relations professionals help politicians promote themselves and their issues among voters. They advise politicians on how to address the media. Sometimes called “spin doctors,” these professionals use the media to either change or strengthen public opinion. Press secretaries work for candidates and elected officials, while political consultants work with firms, contracting their services to politicians. The majority of press secretaries and political consultants work in Washington, D.C.; others work all across the country, involved with local and state government officials and candidates.
Press Secretary and Political Consultant Careers History
Using the media for political purposes is nearly as old as the U.S. government itself. The news media developed right alongside the political parties, and early newspapers served as a battleground for the Federalists and the Republicans. The first media moguls of the late 1800s often saw their newspapers as podiums from which to promote themselves. George Hearst bought the San Francisco Examiner in 1885 for the sole purpose of helping him campaign for Congress.
The latter half of the 20th century introduced whole other forms of media, which were quickly exploited by politicians seeking offices. Many historians mark the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 as the moment when television coverage first became a key factor in the election process. Those who read of the debate in the next day’s newspapers were under the impression that Nixon had easily won, but it was Kennedy’s composure and appeal on camera that made the most powerful impression. Negative campaigning first showed its powerful influence in 1964, when Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson ran ads featuring a girl picking a flower while a nuclear bomb exploded in the background, which commented on Republican candidate Barry Goldwater’s advocacy of strong military action in Vietnam.
Bill Clinton is just one president who benefited from the art of “spin,” as his press secretaries and political managers were actively involved in dealing with his scandals and keeping his approval ratings high among the public. James Carville and George Stephanopolis, working for Clinton’s 1992 campaign, had the task of playing up Clinton’s strengths as an intelligent, gifted politician, while down-playing his questionable moral background. Their efforts were portrayed in the documentary The War Room, and their success earned them national renown as “spin doctors.”
Press Secretary and Political Consultant Job Description
If you were to manage a political campaign, how would you go about publicizing the candidate to the largest number of voters? You’d use TV, of course. The need for TV and radio spots during a campaign is the reason it costs so much today to run for office. And it’s also the reason many politicians hire professionals with an understanding of media relations to help them get elected. Once elected, a politician continues to rely on media relations experts, such as press secretaries, political consultants, and political managers, to use the media to portray the politician in the best light. In recent years, such words as “spin,” “leak,” and “sound bite” have entered the daily vocabulary of news and politics to describe elements of political coverage in the media.
Political consultants usually work independently, or as members of consulting firms, and contract with individuals. Political consultants are involved in producing radio and TV ads, writing campaign plans, and developing themes for these campaigns. A theme may focus on a specific issue or on the differences between the client and the opponent. Their client may be new to the political arena or someone established looking to maintain an office. They conduct polls and surveys to gauge public opinion and to identify their client’s biggest competition. Political consultants advise their clients in the best ways to use the media. In addition to TV and radio, the Internet has proven important to politicians. Consultants launch campaign Web sites and also chase down rumors that spread across the Internet. A consultant may be hired for an entire campaign, or may be hired only to produce an ad, or to come up with a sound bite (or catchy quote) for the media.
Though voters across the country complain about negative campaigning, or “mud-slinging,” such campaigns have proven effective. In his 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush ran TV ads featuring the now notorious Willie Horton, a convict who was released from prison only to commit another crime. The ad was intended to draw attention to what Bush considered his opponent’s soft approach to crime. It proved very effective in undermining the campaign of Michael Dukakis and putting him on the defensive. Many consultants believe they must focus on a few specific issues in a campaign, emphasizing their client’s strengths as well as the opponent’s weaknesses.
Press secretaries serve on the congressional staffs of senators and representatives and on the staffs of governors and mayors. The president also has a press secretary. Press secretaries and their assistants write press releases and opinion pieces to publicize the efforts of the government officials for whom they work. They also help prepare speeches and prepare their employers for press conferences and interviews. They maintain Web sites, posting press releases and the results of press conferences.
Media relations experts are often called spin doctors because of their ability to manipulate the media, or put a good spin on a news story to best suit the purposes of their clients. Corporations also rely on spin for positive media coverage. Media relations experts are often called upon during a political scandal, or after corporate blunders, for damage control. Using the newspapers and radio and TV broadcasts, spin doctors attempt to downplay public relations disasters, helping politicians and corporations save face. In highly sensitive situations, they must answer questions selectively and carefully, and they may even be involved in secretly releasing, or leaking, information to the press. Because of these manipulations, media relations professionals are often disrespected. They’re sometimes viewed as people who conceal facts and present lies, prey on the emotions of voters, or even represent companies responsible for illegal practices. However, many political consultants and media representatives are responsible for bringing public attention to important issues and good political candidates. They also help organizations and nonprofit groups advocate for legislative issues and help develop support for school funding, environmental concerns, and other community needs.
Press Secretary and Political Consultant Career Requirements
English composition, drama, and speech classes will help you develop good communication skills, while government, history, and civics classes will teach you about the structure of local, state, and federal government. Take math, economics, and accounting courses to prepare for poll-taking and for analyzing statistics and demographics.
While in high school, work with your school newspaper, radio station, or TV station. This will help you recognize how important reporters, editors, and producers are in putting together newspapers and shaping news segments. You should also consider joining your school’s speech and debate team to gain experience in research and in persuasive argument.
Most people in media relations have bachelor’s degrees, and some also hold master’s degrees, doctorates, and law degrees. As an undergraduate, you should enroll in a four-year college and pursue a well-rounded education. Press secretaries and political consultants need a good understanding of the history and culture of the United States and foreign countries. Some of the majors you should consider as an undergraduate are journalism, political science, English, marketing, and economics. You should take courses in government, psychology, statistics, history of western civilization, and a foreign language. You might then choose to pursue a graduate degree in journalism, political science, public administration, or international relations.
Seek a college with a good internship program. You might also pursue internships with local and state officials and your congressional members in the Senate and House of Representatives. Journalism internships will involve you with local and national publications, or the news departments of radio and TV stations.
In this career, you need to be very organized and capable of juggling many different tasks, from quickly writing ads and press releases to developing budgets and expense accounts. You need good problem-solving skills and some imagination when putting a positive spin on negative issues. Good people skills are important so that you can develop contacts within government and the media. You should feel comfortable with public speaking, leading press conferences, and speaking on behalf of your employers and clients. You should also enjoy competition. You can’t be intimidated by people in power or by journalists questioning the issues addressed in your campaigns.
Exploring Press Secretary and Political Consultant Careers
Get involved with your school government as well as with committees and clubs that have officers and elections. You can also become involved in local, state, and federal elections by volunteering for campaigns; though you may just be making phone calls and putting up signs, you may also have the opportunity to write press releases and schedule press conferences and interviews, and you will see first-hand how a campaign operates.
Working for your school newspaper will help you learn about conducting research, interviews, and opinion polls, which all play a part in managing media relations. You may be able to get a part-time job or an internship with your city’s newspaper or broadcast news station, where you will gain experience with election coverage and political advertising. Visit the Web sites of U.S. Congress members. Many sites feature lists of recent press releases, which will give you a sense of how a press office publicizes the efforts and actions of Congress members. Read some of the many books examining recent political campaigns and scandals, and read magazines like Harper’s (http://harpers.org/), The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/), and the online magazine Salon.com (http://www.salon.com/) for political commentary.
Though a majority of press secretaries and political consultants work in Washington, D.C., others work in state capitals and major cities all across the country. Press secretaries work for local, state, and federal government officials. They also find work with public relations agencies, and the press offices of large corporations. Celebrities, and others in the public eye also hire press agents to help them control rumors and publicity.
Political consultants are generally self-employed, or work for consulting firms that specialize in media relations. They contract with politicians, corporations, nonprofit groups, and trade and professional associations. They participate in the campaigns of mayors, governors, and Congress members as well as in the political campaigns of other countries.
Media relations jobs are not advertised, and there is no predetermined path to success. It is recommended that you make connections with people in both politics and the media. Volunteer for political campaigns, and also advocate for public policy issues of interest to you. You can make good connections, and gain valuable experience, working or interning in the offices of your state capital. You might also try for an internship with one of your state’s members of Congress; contact their offices in Washington, D.C,. for internship applications. If you’re more interested in the writing and producing aspects of the career, work for local newspapers or the broadcast news media; or work as a producer for a television production crew or for an ad agency that specializes in political campaigns. A political consulting firm may hire assistants for writing and for commercial production. Whereas some people pursue the career directly by working in the press offices of political candidates, others find their way into political consulting after having worked as lawyers, lobbyists, or journalists.
A press secretary who has worked closely with a successful government official may advance into a higher staff position, like chief of staff or legislative director. Political consultants, after winning many elections and establishing credentials, will begin to take on more prominent clients and major campaigns. Network TV, cable, and radio news departments also hire successful media relations experts to serve as political analysts on the air. Some consultants also write columns for newspapers and syndicates and publish books about their insights into politics.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, public relations specialists (which includes press secretaries) had median annual earnings of $45,020 in 2005, with salaries ranging from less than $26,870 to more than $84,300. In 2005, median earnings for those who worked in local government were $48,460; state government, $64,198; and federal government, $72,600.
The incomes of political consultants vary greatly. Someone contracting with local candidates, or with state organizations and associations, may make around $40,000 a year; someone consulting with high-profile candidates may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Representing politicians can be thankless work. Press secretaries may have to speak to the press about sensitive, volatile issues and deal directly with the frustrations of journalists unable to get the answers they want. When working for prominent politicians, they may become the subject of personal attacks.
Despite these potential conflicts, the work can be exciting and fast-paced. Press secretaries and political consultants see the results of their efforts in the newspapers and on television, and they have the satisfaction of influencing voters and public opinion. If working on a campaign as a consultant, their hours will be long and stressful. In some cases, they will have to scrap unproductive media ads and start from scratch with only hours to write, produce, and place new commercials. They will also have to be available to their clients around the clock.
Press Secretary and Political Consultant Careers Outlook
Employment for public relations specialists, which includes press secretaries and political consultants, is expected to grow faster than the average through 2014. Consultants and media representatives will become increasingly important to candidates and elected officials. Television ads and Internet campaigns have become almost necessary to reach the public. The work of press secretaries will expand as more news networks and news magazines closely follow the decisions and actions of government officials.
The Pew Research Center, which surveys public opinion on political issues, has found that most Americans are concerned about negative campaigning, while most political consultants see nothing wrong with using negative tactics in advertising. Despite how the general public may feel about negative campaigning, it remains a very effective tool for consultants. In some local elections, candidates may mutually agree to avoid the mudslinging, but the use of negative ads in general is likely to increase.
This negative campaigning may be affected somewhat by developing technology. Voters are now able to access more information about candidates and issues via the Internet. Also, the increase in the number of channels available to cable TV viewers makes it more difficult for candidates to advertise to a general audience. However, the greater number of outlets for media products will create an increased demand for writers, TV producers, and Web designers to help candidates reach potential voters.
For more information:
- American Association of Political Consultants
- National Association of Broadcasters
- United States Senate
- U.S. House of Representatives
- The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press