The Public and Private in Public Relations

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of a Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) meeting or conference session with the topic of comparing public sector with private sector public relations before last night. Last night, our Chapter Professional Adviser, John Mitchell, APR, spoke on his experience working both for a corporate hospital and for government agencies. His anecdotes were quite humorous and shed light on aspects of public relations jobs that I think most students rarely consider. His main public relations jobs have been for the U.S. Forest Service, Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) and a hospital in Springfield, Ore.

He mentioned a couple of key differences between public and private sector public relations. The first is that in the private sector, it’s much faster to implement a public relations plan, especially one involving asking your supervisors for resources. He illustrated this point by explaining that he’s overseeing a new visitors center for EWEB and it’s taken three years to begin construction. The other key difference is he works shorter, more predictable hours at EWEB than he ever did at the hospital. He worked 60 to 80 hours a week at the hospital, whereas he’s almost always out of his office by 5 p.m. at EWEB.

It seemed that in John’s case the reason for extended hours is that hospital public relations involves crisis communications almost every day. Near the beginning of that particular job, Diane Downs showed up at his hospital with her three young children wounded by gunshots. Six months of her visiting the hospital and calling a press conference every day ensued, which concluded with her arrest and conviction for murder and attempted murder of the children. She then escaped from prison. Imagine dealing with this toward the beginning of your public relations career! This story is apparently so interesting that it inspired a novel and a movie based on the same novel titled “Small Sacrifices.” Sadly, John was not mentioned in either.

My observations of internship supervisors doesn’t necessarily reflect John’s view on work and life balance between public and private sector. This could be because I’ve only interned for one corporation and as he highlighted, public relations is such a diverse field. I got the impression that Weber Shandwick‘s Washington, D.C. office’s director worked long hours; I occasionally received e-mails from her after 11 p.m., once on Sunday. However, my supervisor at the City of Eugene City Manager’s Office attended all City Council meetings, which sometimes went late into the evening. I’ve observed that the workload was about the same for public relations and marketing managers in both the publicly and privately owned arts centers I’ve interned at; however, The Hult Center for the Performing Arts, a city-owned organization, has a visibly more conservative work culture than either Seattle Theatre Group or the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts.

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3 Comments on “The Public and Private in Public Relations”

  1. […] post by Beth Evans Share These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web […]

  2. Another interesting aspect is that work-life balance can vary between regions. I have seen one branch of a firm consistently work late hours while the Florida branch had the culture of clocking out at 6 every day. Thank you for opening this discussion, Beth.

  3. […] our very own PR Ninja, Beth Evans, compares public and private sector public relations, based on a talk with our PRSSA […]

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