In the summer of 2018, I walked into my first public affairs work experience without even having completed my undergraduate degree. Reality is definitely different from the “West Wing” or “House of Cards” but I loved it. I found the work so interesting that I decided to pursue a career in public affairs. I still got to participate in interesting debates during that first work experience but of course, I did not have the same knowledge or expertise as those who had been doing it for years. It made me wonder, is public affairs for me?
What I had not thought about at that moment is that real public affairs work was not supposed to be a TV series. My CV and academic achievements may have gotten me this first work experience but they would not guarantee me a job in public affairs. I would need to prove myself through my abilities, experiences, and networking.
First of all, let’s get out of the way what Public Affairs really is though. Public Affairs is the interface between an organisation and the public. It is a broad field that can cover everything from media relations to government relations, event management, and even policy research.
A career in public affairs requires you to have excellent communication skills as well as be able to work under pressure and juggle multiple tasks at once. Whether you’re working in-house for a company, as an advisor at a political consultancy, or in government relations you’re doing much more than just writing press releases. You have to learn to develop and leverage relationships to your advantage with various stakeholders like the media, lawmakers, government agencies, and trade organisations. You do that to be able to achieve the objectives of the organisation you represent.
My first week in the internship was bad. It involved a lot of running around, and generally not knowing what was going on. I also had to sit in on a lot of conference calls where people talked in acronyms that I did not understand. Despite the fact that I felt overwhelmed, I learned to enjoy it and found the work interesting. I still remember the word of advice one of my mentors gave me when I started and felt panicked: “You do not have to know everything, just be willing to learn and be proactive.” This meant that I had to try and set my insecurities aside because there was no better way to learn than by just doing the work.
Public affairs are the best way to be in the middle of everything without being bogged down by too much paperwork. It is a perfect way to learn about different industries, and the work is always interesting. If you are the type of person who wants to be in the know and have a good nose for what is happening around you, then a career in public affairs is definitely for you.
If you’re considering a career in the field of public affairs, here are a few things you should find useful when thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of choosing this field.
You do not need to have studied anything specific.
A broad range of disciplines will give you the skills you need to be successful. Yes, it is usually an advantage to have studied politics or law so you can understand how the organisations you’re trying to influence work, but as long as you have good communication skills, are well-organised, willing to learn what is happening around you, and can handle the pressure you will do just fine.
I still remember the first time I had to present in front of my supervisors and officials from a foreign Civil Service. The endeavour ended in failure because I had not done my research properly and thus could not answer their questions in the depth they wanted. My supervisor stepped in and saved me from what would have been a disastrous presentation but it was a lesson I never forgot. He listened to their questions and concerns and managed to give them the answers they were looking for. It was his experience that saved me the Mission’s reputation, and his calm manner of explaining things. From that day on, I made sure to always be prepared and do my research before any meeting or presentation.
I knew, from then on, that public affairs is not just about understanding the organisation you represent but also the people you are trying to influence.
Reality is different from TV or Netflix.
I’ve met a lot of people who thought becoming a public affairs professional would be like working at the United Nations (UN) or being a diplomat. That is not the case. Most of the time, you are not going to be working in some grandiose office overlooking the East River or the Eiffel Tower. The work can be demanding and often thankless, but it is also interesting and you get to meet a lot of different people from all walks of life. Sometimes, of course, you’re lucky and get to interact with Ambassadors or the UN Secretary-General. For the most part, though, you’ll be working long hours with regular people who are just trying to do their jobs.
Also, no matter how much you want to make a difference, you have to remember that you’re working for an organisation and your primary goal is to further their objectives – not necessarily change the world. That being said, if you’re the type of person who is looking to make a difference, then a career in public affairs might be perfect for you.
You will have to spend most of your day trying to think about ideas and then quickly discarding them because they are not feasible.A lot of the work in public affairs is trying to think of creative ways to solve problems or get your message across. This can be anything from coming up with a social media campaign to organising an event. It is important to be able to think outside the box and to not be discouraged by failure. Failure will happen often but that does not mean you’re a bad professional or not ready to shine. You have to keep learning, working, and believing in your abilities.
In my first internship, I can’t remember talking in meetings with clients at all. I would sit in the back of the room and take notes while my supervisor did all the talking. It was very frustrating because I felt like I had a lot to offer but I did not want to speak up and risk making a mistake. After a few months, though, I started to get more comfortable and began to contribute more. By the end of my internship, I was allowed to present ideas to clients. It was a huge confidence boost and I realised that public affairs is a field where you can really make a difference.
You need to develop your people skills.
I was once told by my supervisor that the most important skill for a public affairs professional is to be able to talk to anyone about anything. This is because, as a public affairs professional, you will often be meeting new people and trying to influence them. You need to be able to build rapport quickly and make them see you as someone they can trust. Even if you come up with a great day, if you can not get your supervisor to agree to it then it does not matter. This is why it is important to be able to sell your ideas and convince people to support you.
You also need to develop your reputation. Your reputation is everything in public affairs. If you make a serious mistake, it will be hard to forget and it will follow you for a long time. This is why it is so important to be professional and to always do your best by being honest with your clients and yourself about what you can achieve. In the end, a good reputation will help you get the most interesting and rewarding clients to work for. It is also important to build relationships with the media. If the media likes you, they are more likely to report on your work in a positive light.
It does not matter if you’re shy.
You do not need to be an extrovert to succeed. If you do your work well and practice speaking to others, then your results will do most of the talking for you. A good team needs both extroverts and introverts. The important thing is that you are comfortable in your own skin and that you believe in your abilities. Other people, yes may be better at small talk than you but you have other skills that they do not. A team always needs someone who can listen attentively and be thoughtful about their responses.
A career in public affairs can be very rewarding. If you are looking to make a difference, then a career in public affairs might be perfect for you. You need to be able to think outside the box, be comfortable talking to new people, and to be able to maintain a good reputation. Remember, even if you’re shy, you can still succeed. Just do your work well and practice speaking to others.
In the beginning, you won’t be able to complete your work well but I’ve learnt that it is important to ask for help when you need it to get the results your organisation desires.
So, should you become a Public Affairs professional?
The answer to this question is, ultimately, up to you. Public Affairs can be a very interesting field, but it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to succeed. If you’re willing to work for it, I’d say go for it! Thanks for reading!
Minoas graduated with a Merit upon studying the full-time MPA Public Administration – International Development degree (MPA-ID) at the University of York. He is currently working as a freelance EU affairs consultant in Belgium.
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